The Devil’s Dialogue

As reported by Aaron Ross, the international community is presently divided over the question of whether to impose targeted sanctions on DRC in response to the President’s ongoing administrative coup. Ross argues that Democratic Senator Markay and US Special Envoy Perriello continue to push for sanctions while European powers remain sceptical; particularly Spain owing to a pending construction contract in DRC. Europe, it would seem, is blocking American attempts to salvage democracy in Congo.

While certainly there is some truth to this narrative, the supposed Euro-American divide masks a much deeper foreign policy consensus. In the Great Lakes region, the US, EU, UN and increasingly the AU, have displayed a marked historical preference for political dialogue and power-sharing over popular democracy (or for that matter Libyan-style humanitarian intervention). Whether we are talking Rwanda or Burundi in the 90s, DRC from 2000 to 2006, Kenya in 2007, or present day Burundi, elite-focused political negotiations have been the international community’s ‘standard operating procedure’. Indeed, what the international community appears to have learned from the Rwandan Genocide and resulting Congo Wars is that ‘Africans’ can neither be left to languish under the iron first of dictators, nor empowered to overthrow them, both options having produced regional instability. Instead, it would seem, the only viable option for making ‘failed’ African states ‘work’ is a proverbial ‘council of elders’ (or rather ‘big men’).

It is in this light that we need to consider the present debate over sanctions in DRC. US sanctions, as we shall see, are by no means a progressive attempt to bring down a dictator in solidarity with the Congolese people. Nor for that matter have the well-intentioned efforts of US policy makers been thwarted by greedy European politicians intent on preserving their share of the African power pie. Rather, proposed US sanctions are the ‘stick’ to the EU’s ‘carrot-like’ calls for political dialogue. They are but one small part of a larger foreign policy strategy in the Great Lakes region; a strategy which has long favoured stability over democracy.

On June 6th, the EU, AU, UN and Francophonie (IOF) issued a second joint statement on the political impasse in DRC. The first statement, released in mid-February, urged ‘all Congolese political actors to spare no effort, within the framework of the country’s Constitution, to ensure the successful holding of elections’, adding that the four organizations ‘underscore the importance of dialogue and the search for agreement between political actors’. The second letter, by contrast, inverts the above remarks, stressing, ‘the crucial importance of holding a successful political dialogue with all Congolese stakeholders leading to a consensus that would allow for free, fair, transparent and credible elections’. While this difference may seem superficial, the second statement clearly communicates a shift in policy: for the EU, AU, UN and IOF, it is now necessary to negotiate a new political consensus, for the Constitution no longer seems up to the task.

Just as important as the content of this second statement was its timing. The joint statement was released to the press just days before the opening of an opposition conclave in Belgium, the intent of which was to launch a united front against President Kabila’s ongoing ‘administrative coup’. The international community’s message to the Congolese opposition could not have been more clear: put aside your political differences and get ready for negotiations. Almost as if to emphasize the point, Henri Mova Sakani, Secretary General of Kabila’s PPRD party, warned that if the opposition proved unwilling to negotiate the government would simply organize a referendum to change the Constitution (and by ‘organize’ he clearly meant ‘rig’).

The opposition, for its part, would appear to have gotten the message, announcing at the end of their two day conclave an ‘unprecedented’ historical alliance and a willingness to partake in inclusive dialogue. In fact, much of the discussion at the conclave seemed dedicated to clarifying the conditions under which the different opposition parties would partake in negotiations with the President (and probably also what they wanted in return). To this end, conference organizer Etienne Tshisekedi stated that the opposition would consider negotiations if the following conditions were met: ‘respect for the constitution, release of political prisoners and oversight by the international community’ (the same conditions named by the EU, AU, UN and IOF in their joint statement).

The UK’s response to the present political impasse falls halfway between that of the Americans and their European counterparts. In March, the UK government attempted to take the high road, telling Kinshasa that if it commenced preparations for elections it would release 17 million worth of electoral aid. As of April 11th little progress had been made and British Parliament expressed concern that the window of opportunity for organizing a November election was quickly closing. Finally, on May 13th, during a visit to Kinshasa, Special Envoy to the Great Lakes region Danae Dholakia publically reminded the government of DRC that in Burundi ‘the actions of the government led to sanctions against a number of senior figures in government and the security services’. She also, however, called for dialogue, noting that ‘the Congolese political classes must come together in some form to decide on a date for the Presidential elections’, while imploring both sides to show ‘flexibility’.

Across the pond, the Americans have taken the hardest line against the Kabila regime.  Like in the case of the UK, the Americans started with the ‘carrot’ before brandishing the ‘stick’. In May 2014, Secretary of State John Kerry promised $30 million in aid for stabilization and democracy if President Kabila agreed to step down at the end of his term. Then, in late January 2015, following a wave of election-related violence, the State Department changed its tune, stressing the importance of ‘protecting political space’. By February 2016, things had reached a head.  Democratic Senator Edward Markay wrote an open letter to John Kerry calling for sanctions to be imposed if President Kabila ‘fails to meet clear benchmarks required to hold a free and fair national election this year’. Since this time, three separate sanctions-related resolutions have been introduced into Congress (S. RES. 479; H. RES. 780; S. RES 485); the most forceful of (H. RES. 780) calls for both sanctions and a review of present US assistance to DRC.

US officials, however, have also encouraged dialogue. In late February, for instance, US Special Envoy Perriello held a press conference in Kinshasa where he emphasized the need for negotiations dedicated to ‘resolving any of the questions that remain on the table’. He also applauded the opposition’s decision to switch tactics from ‘mass mobilization to a ville-morte’, which he took to be a ‘de-escalation’ and a move in the direction of ‘political resolution’. Subsequent to this, on May 20th, the State Department cautioned that the President cannot call for negotiations while simultaneously arresting his political opponents, once again urging all sides to participate ‘credible’ negotiations. Most recently, Senate Resolution 485, while ostensibly about sanctions, calls for ‘credible, independently monitored, and technical dialogue’.

It is important to bear in mind that the US has known about Kabila’s planned administrative coup since at least September 2013, when the President attempted to turn the previous national dialogue into a constitutional convention. Since this time, the US has had ample opportunity to approve or at least consider sanctions in response to human rights violations. Instead, the US and EU have both played the waiting game, while the AU took the lead first calling for dialogue back in January 2015.

In short, the recently reported Euro-American divide on the question of sanctions, masks a much deeper international consensus on the ‘path forward’ in DRC. The EU, AU, UN and US all remain committed to a negotiated solution in DRC. This they believe to be the lesser of two evils.

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