The U.S. Ally That Brings Violence to the Congo and Gets Away With It

A UN report seems to confirm Rwanda's role in the destabilizing M23 rebellion, so why isn't Obama following through on his 2006 law threatening to cut U.S. aid?



Midway through Barack Obama's Senate term, the man who would later take charge of U.S. foreign policy turned his attention to a country that few Americans knew or cared about. The Obama-sponsored -- and Hilary Clinton co-sponsored -- Democratic Republic of the Congo Relief, Security, and Democracy Promotion Act of 2006 was meant to commit U.S. policy to fostering peace and stability in central Africa as the region emerged from a decade of upheaval and war. Outside of its requirement that the president appoint a special envoy to the region, the bill is an exercise in the kind of open-ended, bureaucratic language that characterizes official policy pronouncements. But it included potential consequences for any country meddling in the Democratic Republic of Congo: "The Secretary of State is authorized to withhold assistance made available under the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 (22 U.S.C. 2151 et seq.), other than humanitarian, peacekeeping, and counterterrorism assistance, for a foreign country if the Secretary determines that the government of the foreign country is taking actions to destabilize the Democratic Republic of the Congo." It was a warning to the DRC's sometimes-intrusive and aid-dependent neighbors: make things worse in Congo, and there could be tangible consequences.

Six years later, Obama is president and an American ally is blatantly destabilizing the DRC. The Rwandan government is supporting something called the M23 rebellion, a military uprising that began in the eastern DRC in April. This could theoretically trigger the kind of repercussions that Obama's 2006 legislation allows for. But, so far, it looks like it won't, and it's not because of any particular hypocrisy on Obama's part. In practice, U.S. policy in Central Africa is split between conflicting objectives human rights and regional stability on the one hand, and strategic and humanitarian commitments on the other.

The M23 rebellion gets its name from the date March 23, 2009, when a peace deal between the DRC and Rwanda incorporated a Rwanda-backed insurgent group called the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP) into the Congolese army. Both before and after the deal, the CNDP essentially served as Rwanda's proxy, a means of projecting hard power in a dysfunctional yet resource-rich region, and a way for president Paul Kagame's Tutsi-dominated government to counterbalance armed Hutu groups on the other side of the Congolese border. In April, members of the CNDP defected from the military, partly in response to rumors that the Congolese government planned on handing CNDP leader-turned-general Bosco Ntaganda over to the International Criminal Court.

The Rwanda-allied defectors called themselves M23, and in the past three months they've shattered the uneasy status quo in eastern Congo. Over the past two weeks, the suddenly re-armed and re-energized movement, which includes somewhere between 600 and 2000 militants and ex-army officers, has swept across North Kivu, a province bordering Rwanda. Experts doubt that M23 would risk sparking an all-out international crisis by marching on the regional capital of Goma, but UN peacekeepers are still taking the possibility seriously.

Why would elements in the Rwandan government choose this particular moment to spur conflict in eastern Congo? Central Africa-watchers have a few theories. Twitter activist Rwanda Nkunda believes Rwanda wants to protect its man in eastern Congo, Ntaganda from ICC prosecution at any cost. Scholar Kris Berwouts hypothesizes a split between older, U.S.-trained Rwandan military officials and a younger, more nationalistic wing of the officer corps. Whatever the reason, an addendum to a UN Group of Experts report published in late June made it clear that high-ranking figures in the Rwandan government are providing weapons and coordination to M23, it found. Most damning of all, former CNDP leader Laurent Nkunda, who is guilty of some of the worst atrocities committed in the DRC during the tumultuous mid-2000s, appears to have orchestrated the rebellion from Rwanda, where he's been under a very loose form of house arrest as part of the 2009 agreement.

Aaron Hall of the Washington-based Enough Project argues that it's time for Obama to use the 2006 law and consider withholding some of the $196 million in U.S. aid that Rwanda receives each year. The U.S. government "has been super-hesitant to acknowledge the law as a viable option at any point in recent years," Hall tells me.

Yet the law is, by design, largely toothless. It authorizes the Secretary of State to pull funding from any country that "destabilizes" the DRC without actually requiring the U.S. to do anything. Even then, the State Department is only authorized to withhold funds that aren't related to peacekeeping or humanitarianism. Rwanda is a contributor to UN Peacekeeping missions and has a reputation for relative openness and competence on humanitarian spending, so that doesn't leave much to withhold. "Rwanda has been an ally, and has invested very well all the money that U.S. government has given it, unlike many other governments," says Federico Borello, a former UN official in the DRC, now with Humanity United. "It has cut down poverty and developed in several indicators." The structuring of the U.S.'s aid package to Rwanda, and the Kagame government's reputation as a clean and responsible aid recipient, all inform against drawing down American assistance.

There's also a lingering sense in U.S. policy circles that Rwanda, a broker of the 2009 agreement and a regional military power, is a lynchpin of stability in Central Africa. Borello says that inertia is likely carrying official U.S. thinking on Rwanda. "There's an automatic tendency to do what looks like the easiest thing, and the one that requires less attention or less political capital," he says. Rwanda benefitted from its cooperative and Western-friendly government, even after its support for the CNDP (and for the likes of Ntaganda and Nkunda) was well-established. In 2011, the U.S. senate ratified a Bilateral Investment Treaty with Rwanda, the first of its kind in sub-Saharan Africa since 1998. Several American companies, including Starbucks and Google, are investing in the country.

There are signs that official attitudes could be shifting.The State Department has stepped up, and says it's "deeply concerned about the [UN] report's findings that Rwanda is implicated in the provision of support to Congolese rebel groups." The U.S. has applied some diplomatic pressure as well, and U.S. special advisor Barrie Walkley told the AP that he "passed on a forceful message" to Rwandan officials during a visit to the region last week. At the same time, U.S. aid to Rwanda is scheduled to increase by nearly $5 million next year. The tensions in Obama's 2006 law are asserting themselves during his presidency. The U.S. is concerned about a regional ally's assault on stability and human rights in the eastern DRC -- just not concerned enough to do much about it.