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How the West Can Help Congo

New York Times correspondent Jeffrey Gettleman has a good summary of Congo’s never-ending civil war, which recently heated up when Rwanda-backed rebels captured and briefly held Goma, a large town in the east. Gettleman writes:

Congo has become a never-ending nightmare, one of the bloodiest conflicts since World War II, with more than five million dead. It seems incomprehensible that the biggest country in sub-Saharan Africa and on paper one of the richest, teeming with copper, diamonds and gold, vast farmlands of spectacular fertility and enough hydropower to light up the continent, is now one of the poorest, most hopeless nations on earth. Unfortunately, there are no promising solutions within grasp, or even within sight.

The problem, obviously, is that Congo has been plagued by egregious misgovernment and pervasive lack of security ever since winning independence. It goes without saying that colonial rule was awful in many respects–Congo was particularly savagely mistreated by Belgium’s King Leopold II in the late 19th century. Its condition only slightly improved when it went from being the king’s personal property to an official Belgian colony. But for all their sins (and there were many) the Belgians at least managed to keep the trains running more or less on time. Now those same trains are rotting away and the lack of transportation makes it impossible to get Congo’s rich agricultural bounty to market.

Unfortunately Joseph Kabila, Congo’s president since 2001, has appeared unwilling or unable to fix the terrible corruption and incompetence that plagues his government and especially his army, whose soldiers appear more interested in drink and plunder than in keeping law and order. In this respect he hasn’t been much of an improvement over his predecessor, Laurent Kabila, who in turn wasn’t much of an improvement over Congo’s longtime strongman, Mobutu Sese Seko (who preferred to called his country Zaire).

What is particularly shocking about the depths to which Congo has sunk is that the outside world has made attempts to alleviate its misery–but they have been utterly ineffectual. As Gettleman notes, there are 20,000 UN peacekeepers in Congo but they are doing precious little to keep the peace. Barring a sudden Western desire to intervene with high-quality troops (as unlikely a contingency as one can imagine) it is hard to imagine any salvation for Congo unless its government can somehow establish its authority with a semi-competent military force.

As I have argued before, the only realistic way to achieve that goal would be to hire foreign security companies to train Congo’s armed forces and, quite probably, to take part in combat themselves. Rather than sending their own troops, Western nations could foot the bills for a mercenary outfit that could draw on well-trained veterans of the South African, British, American, and other armies. (I note that very soon, thanks to cuts in the defense budget, a lot of veterans of America’s conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan will be out of work.) Mercenaries have proven effective in Sierra Leone but there is an opprobrium to their use which has kept that example from being emulated in Congo. So the world is instead consigning Congo to a continuing hell. Sure, mercenaries have their downsides–they have pillaged African states in the past. But Congo has already been pillaged and will continue to be pillaged unless some unorthodox thinking is applied to try to find a solution.


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