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Seizing a Historic Opportunity: the U.S.-DRC Privileged Partnership for Peace and Prosperity


In preparing for my assignment in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), I spoke to six of my predecessors who served there; each cautioned that Congo is unpredictable. This warning proved absolutely on the mark. As I began my mission in October 2018, then-DRC President Joseph Kabila was fully entrenched; and the Congolese body politic, as well as the international community, worried that he would not proceed with elections as scheduled in December, and that even if elections were held, his anointed successor Emmanuel Shadary would be declared the inevitable winner. No one anticipated that a leader of the opposition, Felix Tshisekedi, son of “father of Congolese democracy” Etienne Tshisekedi, would become the next president.

The DRC’s historic, first-ever peaceful transition of power provided an opportunity for improved relations with the United States and for Congo to embark on a better path. The overarching U.S. policy goal for this country, which is the size of Europe, is to help empower the 80+ million Congolese so that DRC can achieve its vast potential. Considering DRC’s estimated $24 trillion in mineral reserves (including 60% of the world’s cobalt reserves), the mighty Congo River that could generate enough electricity to power southern Africa and plentiful rich, arable land that can feed the continent, plus nine neighbors, it is evident that a peaceful DRC can bring greater stability to central Africa. Dare to imagine a Congo that taps its own natural resources to rise exponentially from being one of the world’s five poorest countries, ends the United Nation’s third-largest peacekeeping mission and sheds its dependence on $2 billion in annual humanitarian assistance—of which the United States is by far the largest donor. This possible future is why sustained and active U.S. engagement in the DRC matters.

Setting the Foundation: Launching a U.S.-DRC Privileged Partnership

President Tshisekedi made his first trip outside of the African continent to Washington, D.C., in April 2019 as a clear signal that he wanted a strong relationship with the United States. As a result of that visit, the U.S. and the DRC launched the “Privileged Partnership for Peace and Prosperity,” an effort aimed at putting Congo on a positive trajectory for the first time in its history and delivering results for the Congolese people. The Privileged Partnership began with four priority pillars focused on:

  • Strengthening democratic institutions, improving human rights, fighting corruption and ending impunity

  • Promoting peace and security, particularly in conflict-ridden Eastern DRC

  • Cooperating on health and combating diseases such as Ebola, malaria, yellow fever, cholera, measles and HIV/AIDS—and, more recently, the COVID-19 pandemic and

  • Creating economic opportunity through increased U.S. trade and investment

Then, with U.S. President Joseph Biden’s Administration prioritizing combatting climate change and recognizing the importance of protecting the Congo Basin rainforest (the world’s “second lung”), we added a fifth pillar:

  • Preserving the environment and promoting sustainable development

Tshisekedi Breaks Free of Kabila

Following his inauguration in January 2019, President Tshisekedi moved quickly to break with the Kabila regime’s repressive policies. That spring, he freed scores of political prisoners, allowed exiled politicians such as Moise Katumbi to return and on World Press Freedom Day declared that the years of abuse against the population were over. Yet further progress was slow as the Kabila loyalist parties in the initial governing coalition effectively blocked reforms. Growing tired of this intransigence, Tshisekedi boldly set out to form a new government coalition without Kabila and spectacularly succeeded with the creation of the majority Union Sacree—the Sacred Union—in April 2021. Representative of the westward orientation of this new government, eight members of the cabinet are alumni of State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs flagship International Visitors Leadership Program.  

Under a new government, we launched our first U.S.-DRC bilateral Human Rights Dialogue, focused on securing commitments for an on-time election in 2023 that is free and fair and an improvement over the last one, strengthening freedom of the press, pursuing accountability for human rights abuses and stepping up the fight against trafficking in persons (TIP). Tshisekedi demonstrated his commitment to combatting TIP by establishing an anti-human trafficking agency that is delivering results and enabled DRC to be upgraded to TIP Tier 2 Watchlist. Furthermore, human rights progress, including putting an end to the use of child soldiers, led to the DRC being reinstated into the African Growth and

Opportunity Act after an 11-year absence. Acting Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Assistant Secretary Lisa Peterson concluded after the Human Rights Dialogue, “I served in Kinshasa in the 1990s, and during this visit I was impressed with the palpable change that is taking place, with a clear opening of political space and a serious commitment by the government to improving human rights.”

The Key to Unlocking DRC’s Potential: Kill Corruption

From the beginning of his tenure, President Tshisekedi embarked on an anti-corruption campaign, and in doing so, he made it a shared priority for the United States. Tshisekedi appropriately acknowledged that Congo “is not a poor country, but rather a country that has suffered from poor governance.” Dismantling a kleptocracy, however, is a gargantuan task.

Working with the Congolese government, the U.S. set out to promote transparency, end impunity and improve the business climate using all available diplomatic and foreign assistance tools. In one of my first meetings with President Tshisekedi, we discussed the need for DRC to return to an International Monetary Fund (IMF) program, and he made sure it did! The recently reached IMF agreement prioritizes transparency, reforming fiscal management, improving tax collection and fighting corruption. We also co-led an effort with the Dutch, joined by 16 other like-minded missions, to present the DRC government with ideas on how best to improve the business climate, which led the creation of a business climate cell at the presidency and several key reforms.

Furthermore, our Embassy Kinshasa team has championed the inclusion of international experts’ best practices in the creation of the new Congolese Agency for the Prevention and Fight Against Corruption.

Through support from the State Department’s International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs Bureau, we have partnered with elite American and international organizations to build the agency’s capacity to identify and prosecute high-level public corruption. Our cooperation also includes expanded information sharing and criminal enforcement actions with the FBI and Department of Justice, making it more difficult for corrupt actors to use the U.S. financial system or shield their illicit activities. Meanwhile, the U.S. Treasury Department is providing training to counter terrorist financing and money laundering.

When necessary, to reinforce accountability, we employ targeted financial and travel sanctions to those responsible for human rights abuses, for undermining the democratic process and/or for misappropriating state assets. And the Tshisekedi Administration is doing its part by conducting investigations and prosecutions and securing unprecedented convictions of senior government officials for embezzlement. We also now have regular visits from the FBI and other law enforcement, and the message is clear: those who seek personal enrichment over the good of all have been served notice. INL Deputy Assistant Secretary Tobin Bradley commented after his late July 2021 visit, “From President Tshisekedi to committed police leaders who want change, I heard a steadfast determination to tackle corruption, which President Tshisekedi rightfully called ‘the gangrene that is everywhere.’”

Revitalizing A Defense Relationship

Under Kabila, the DRC limited its military-to-military relationship with the United States, choosing instead to focus on no-strings-attached defense links with China. But Tshisekedi presents a different vision that recognizes the deficiencies of the Congolese army (FARDC) and the desperate need to professionalize it—with assistance from the United States and traditional European allies. Tshisekedi became the first Congolese president to publicly call out the FARDC, denouncing its “mafia style and scheming” that has become its “modus vivendi.” After all, when this force complained it was not receiving its salaries, then-Zairian Field Marshall Mobutu Sese Seko reportedly said “that is why you have guns”— signaling to his military that it should meet its needs by plundering its own population.

To help with changing the FARDC’s predatory mentality, on October 28, 2020, the United States and the DRC officially reset their defense relationship with the signing of a military security cooperation Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), with the overriding goal of increasing the professionalization of the Congolese armed forces. The MOU contains four capacity-building pillars: 1) engineering support for the FARDC to be able to construct barracks for its troops and their families; 2) strategic communications training, with a focus on greater transparency and accountability; 3) reinforcing civil-military operations to

increase positive engagements and build the relationship to the citizens and 4) English language training to enable rising officers to participate in U.S. International Military Education Training programs, which Kabila had essentially blocked the past decade. However, further expansion of the mil-to-mil relationship is tied to progress in the FARDC’s anti-corruption efforts and improvements in its human rights record, including the removal of U.S.-sanctioned generals from the FARDC.

A more professional and capable Congolese military is needed to bring peace to conflict-ridden Eastern DRC—a region that is roughly the size of New Mexico. Considering the dozens of armed groups, as well as the foreign terrorist organization ISIS-DRC (also known as the Allied Democratic Forces) operating in this mountainous jungle terrain, cross-border cooperation with Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi is also needed. Meanwhile, the United Nations continues its more than two-decades-long peacekeeping deployment. But protecting civilians has proven a nearly impossible mission, particularly given the increasing brutality of these groups, including most recently the use of improvised explosive devices by ISIS-DRC. Unlike his predecessors, President Tshisekedi has vowed to bring peace to Eastern DRC, understanding that to do so he needs to tackle the rampant corruption and illegal exploitation of resources that fuel most of the violence. In addition, any military effort will need to be combined with an effective Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) program that provides an alternative for militants. In fact, Tshisekedi has taken the important step of setting up a new DDR-Community and Stabilization program that eschews the missteps of previous failed efforts—in particular, by abolishing impunity for serious crimes and ruling out direct integration of former combatants into the military, which adds a community component that should better enable reintegration of those demobilized.

Health Diplomacy: Fighting Potential Pandemics on the Front Lines

The United States has been engaged in health diplomacy in Congo long before COVID-19, providing significant assistance to combat malaria, yellow fever, cholera, smallpox, measles and HIV/AIDS. Then there is Ebola, a terrifyingly, deadly disease discovered in Congo in 1976 by Dr. Jean Jacques Muyembe, who over the past two years has led the fight against the last three outbreaks with great success. U.S. national security policy dictates that we

attack potential pandemics at their source in order to protect the homeland—and in the case of repeated Ebola outbreaks during my tenure, we have! As I was getting confirmed in the summer of 2018, DRC declared victory over the ninth Ebola outbreak in the western

province of Equateur just as the tenth was beginning—an outbreak in conflict-ridden Eastern DRC that lasted nearly two years and became the second-largest ever with 3,470 infections resulting in 2,287 deaths. The challenging tenth outbreak was contained to a limited geographic region, thanks to international cooperation and the tremendous effort of our Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) experts, USAID’s Disaster Assistance Response Team and Embassy Kinshasa. In fact, the relationships built over decades between the CDC, the National Institutes of Health and Congolese Institute National de Recherche Biomedicale (INRB) built the capacity and expertise that led to these important wins over Ebola, including by their joint development of therapeutics that dramatically lowered the mortality rate of those contracting the disease if treated early. Today, experts are confident that future Ebola outbreaks can be contained, and lives saved, with effective vaccines and treatment. Ebola no longer represents the terrifying threat it once did, and it is a shining example of how cooperation in the field abroad can safeguard Americans back home.

Our health successes go beyond Ebola. Through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) program, the United States has invested more than $806 million in programming in DRC since 2003, leading to a 57 % reduction in AIDS-related deaths in the past decade. We have saved lives and increased the capacity of the Ministry of Health to provide health care for its citizens. A reduced HIV burden also has important economic and social benefits, as a reduction in AIDS-related deaths means fewer orphans and vulnerable children, allowing their parents to remain productive members of society. As marginalized groups such as the LGBTQI+ community are also at high risk of HIV, preventing and treating their infection can reduce stigma and discrimination against them, an important part of the U.S. government’s human rights agenda. Plus, we continue our health diplomacy by responding to the global COVID-19 pandemic, providing to date over $55 million to support Congolese efforts, including vaccines through COVID-19 Vaccines Global Axis (COVAX), as well as personal protective equipment, diagnostics supplies and medical treatments.

Privileged Partnership Expands to include Combatting Climate Change

At the beginning of the Biden Administration, President Tshisekedi applauded the United States’ return to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and expressed an interest in deepening our privileged partnership to include a fifth “P”: Preservation of the environment and combatting climate change, specifically by safeguarding the Congo Basin Rainforest. Larger than Alaska, the Congo Basin stretches across six countries in Central Africa, 60% of which lies in the DRC. The Congo Basin is home to the largest tropical peatland complex on the planet, containing 30 billion metric tons of carbon, or three years of current global emissions. Unfortunately, these forests are in danger. Ongoing harvesting of charcoal as well as small-scale slash-and-burn agriculture, combined with the illegal exploitation of timber and other raw materials. threatens the “second lung” of the world. Protecting the Congo Basin is not only important to combat climate change, but also to gain state control over a very large swath of ungoverned space where there is substantial illegal economic activity that fuels the ongoing violence in Eastern DRC. Recognizing the environment is a top priority, Tshisekedi elevated the environment minister to the level of a Vice Prime Minister for the first time. However, to succeed, the DRC will ultimately need international public and private support in terms of resources and capacity building.

The DRC Can Rise

The Congolese people have endured a tragic history, first at the hands of a colonial power and, since gaining independence, from its own homegrown rulers. A country with ample supplies of strategic minerals and natural resources has become dependent on considerable international humanitarian assistance and peacekeeping support to avoid a further calamity. Yet out of an imperfect electoral transition in 2019, the Democratic Republic of the Congo can break with the past and achieve substantial progress.

Despite Congo’s unpredictability and legendary challenges, one constant has been clear throughout my time in Kinshasa: there is presently an opportunity for real change. One can envision how sustained good governance that channels resources toward development could rapidly transform this struggling nation. If President Tshisekedi can embody the vision he has ambitiously laid out, it is possible to achieve a rapid transformation of this struggling nation. But DRC cannot do it alone. Since the U.S. is a committed, reliable and long-term partner of the Congolese people and their government, it is incumbent on us to step up and make a difference. Still, given the enormity of the task at hand, U.S. interagency efforts in support of the DRC must be sustained over time even if there are setbacks and if progress is painfully slow. This is an investment well worth making!


AMBASSADOR MICHAEL (MIKE) A. HAMMER was confirmed as the U.S. ambassador to the Democratic Republic of the Congo on September 6, 2018. He previously served as Ambassador to Chile from 2014 to 2016 and as Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs from March 2011 to September 2013. He was also the Deputy Commandant and International Affairs Advisor of National Defense University’s Eisenhower School.

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