AMBASSADOR MICHAEL A. HAMMER
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.