Jeffrey Herbst and Greg Mills: There Is No Congo ... Why the only way to help Congo is to stop pretending it exists
[Jeffrey Herbst is provost of Miami University in Ohio. Greg Mills directs the Johannesburg-based Brenthurst Foundation.]
The international community needs to recognize a simple, albeit brutal fact: The Democratic Republic of the Congo does not exist. All of the peacekeeping missions, special envoys, interagency processes, and diplomatic initiatives that are predicated on the Congo myth -- the notion that one sovereign power is present in this vast country -- are doomed to fail. It is time to stop pretending otherwise.
Much of Congo's intractability stems from a vast territory that is sparsely populated but packed with natural resources. A mostly landlocked expanse at the heart of Africa, Congo comprises 67 million people from more than 200 ethnic groups. The country is bordered by nine others -- among them some of the continent's weakest states.
A local Kiswahili saying holds,"Congo is a big country -- you will eat it until you tire away!" And indeed, for centuries, this is precisely what Congo's colonial occupiers, its neighbors, and even some of its people have done: eaten away at Congo's vast mineral wealth with little concern for the coherency of the country left behind. Congo has none of the things that make a nation-state: interconnectedness, a government that is able to exert authority consistently in territory beyond the capital, a shared culture that promotes national unity, or a common language. Instead, Congo has become a collection of peoples, groups, interests, and pillagers who coexist at best.
Congo today is a product of its troubled history: a century of brutal colonialism, 30 years of Cold War meddling and misrule under U.S. ally Mobutu Sese Seko, and more than a decade of war following his ouster in 1997. That conflict, which embroiled much of southern Africa, brought rebel leader Laurent Kabila, a one-time revolutionary colleague of Che Guevara, to power. Kabila was assassinated just a few short years later, leaving his son, Joseph Kabila, in office in Kinshasa, Congo's ostensible capital.
The younger Kabila inherited a broken infrastructure and a tenuous
national identity shaped on repression and patronage rather than
governance and the supply of basic services. Despite winning
internationally sponsored elections in 2006, he still struggles to
rule over a territory one quarter of the size of the United States,
where a nebulous sense of Congolese identity -- based on French,
music, and a shared oppressive history -- has not translated into
allegiance to the Congolese state. Innumerable secessionist attempts,
including those instigated by his father, have turned Congo into
ungovernable fiefdoms tenuously linked to the center. Kabila has few
tools at his disposal. There is little in the way of a disciplined
army and police force; they are more used to living off than serving
the population. Like Mobutu before him, Kabila is dependent on
patronage to remain in power and on revenue from aid flows and mining
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