By Sean Haydo
Estimated Reading Time: 6 minutes
The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is a fragile state susceptible to outsiders desiring to capitalize on its soft power vacuum, geographic position, and natural resources. China is asserting its power in the republic and may soon envelope the DRC in its 21st century silk road initiative. Russia is also investing billions in the region to increase its influence. The time for stabilization is now; however, hollow lip-service policy will garner limited results. Concerted action sponsored by the African Union must transpire or Africa will cede more land grabs to China and surrender more power to an increasingly aggressive Russia. The West can no longer neglect the importance of Sub-Saharan Africa and must formulate a comprehensive strategy that counterpoises China and Russia’s assertion advancements.
The DRC’s fragility stems from active violent extremist organizations (VEO), rampant infectious diseases, political instability, and Western apathy towards Sub-Saharan Africa. Simply put—the DRC is a flashpoint of volatility. The Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) insurgency continues to rage while Ebola troubles exacerbate the DRC’s monumental virulent disease woes and massive civilian displacement issues. The unstable DRC, largely overlooked by the Western world, is ripe for foreign exploitation. China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative links U.S. interests in Europe and the Middle East via Africa; however, this correlation resides in a Western blind spot. Continued Chinese encroachment on Sub-Saharan nations eases its access to critical European thoroughfares by way of shared African and Middle Eastern trade passages. Chinese investment in a Zambian airport illustrates this encroachment.
An opportunistic Russia is also operating in nations on the DRC’s periphery. Russia seeks to inject its influence in the Central African Republic (CAR) and Angola through multibillion-dollar arms deals, construction contracts, and hydrocarbon exploitation. As Russia’s economy continues to recede, its foreign military sales (FMS) increase. Growing conflicts in Sub-Saharan Africa present opportunities for the Kremlin to rapidly boost its financial coffers. Even more insidious, however, is Russia’s satellite communication sales to Angola. By establishing a new telecommunications infrastructure in Africa, Russia creates a communications competitive advantage. Increased Russian FMS and communication investments in this region present substantial concerns for U.S. national interests in both Africa and the Middle East. Russian investments in the DRC may occur sooner than later.
The great Congo war raged from 1998 to 2003 with casualty estimates ranging from one to five million. The Rwandan genocide of 1994 was the shock that sparked the Congolese war, due in part to the dislocation of millions of refugees to eastern Congo. Despite the end of major conflict in 2003, pockets of aggression are on the rise in the Congo. President Joseph Kabila, currently serving his seventh year of a five-year term, is failing to stabilize the DRC. Gross mismanagement of the nation offers little in the way of preventing another major war from igniting. Kabila’s soldiers and police forces, insufficiently paid or fed, rarely fight the growing insurgencies effectively. Today, the world’s largest United Nations peacekeeping force is attempting to suppress conflict in eastern DRC; however, peace is often difficult to grasp in this unstable region of the world.
Internal strife ill-managed by its government makes the DRC fertile breeding ground for Islamic insurgent groups such as the Allied Democratic Forces. The ADF has been active since the mid 1990’s. Originally from Uganda, the ADF eventually established a foothold in the neighboring DRC. The ADF takes advantage of the DRC’s weak political situation, enjoying relative freedom of movement not often experienced by Western-opposed insurgencies in other regions of the world. Atrocities committed by the ADF fall largely on deaf ears in the West. The Western world’s perceived indifference towards Africa seemingly mutes any concern. Even the killings of 15 United Nations (UN) peacekeepers by ADF insurgents fails to warrant adequate press coverage sufficient to provoke a relative response. Unchecked ADF aggressions matured into the indiscriminate killings of hundreds of women and children, many of which hacked to death with machetes in the night.
Domestic conflict within the DRC led to more civilian displacement than Syria and Iraq. This displacement, aggravated by political instability, is a humanitarian crisis on a scale the world cannot ignore. Together, the resurgence of Ebola and the supplanting of hundreds of thousands complicates disease containment efforts. Local populations susceptible to contracting Ebola are often difficult to evaluate medically due to their continual migration away from conflict zones and a general distrust for UN health workers. Ebola may surge and spread throughout Sub-Saharan Africa leading to the largest humanitarian crisis in history with the DRC serving as the new ground zero. Border controls are almost impossible for a country the size of the DRC. Its land area is roughly the size of the continental United States east of the Mississippi river and it borders nine separate countries. Fearful migrants vulnerable to infection scatter in every direction crossing porous invisible boundaries into neighboring nations. A containment strategy requiring global participation could be on the horizon.
The DRC’s government is incapable of preventing such crimes against humanity and is incapable of delivering national stability. President Kabila regularly fails to neutralize warring factions within his country. This vulnerability may go unnoticed in the Western world; however, China keenly observes power voids for future exploitative purposes. China has already taken advantage of the weak power system in the DRC through bold investment programs focused on exploiting natural resources and precious metals; yet, China’s “Go Out” policies are double-edged swords. Investing in fragile nations is risky. Resources-for-infrastructure agreements between China and the DRC are not producing the desired results. The waning DRC economy can experience even greater losses should China decide to divest failing DRC ventures. Similar Chinese investments in the region include the appropriation of the Kenneth Kaunda International airport in Zambia, a country sharing a border with southeastern DRC. Zambia, like Sri Lanka, fell prey to liberal Chinese lending practices ultimately creating debtor servitude on a national level.
Western indifference towards Sub-Saharan nations, particularly the DRC, may not be apathy after all. The Leahy Laws prohibit the United States from providing State Department or military assistance to nations guilty of violating human rights. The U.S. State Department website currently classifies the DRC as a Tier 3 nation—three being the highest—whose government fails to meet minimum Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) standards. Congolese women and children are vulnerable to sex trafficking, forced labor, debt bondage, and forced military service. The DRC’s attempts to investigate human rights violations within its borders were trivial at best. The DRC has laws preventing such crimes but falls short with regards to enforcement. China, also a Tier 3 nation, has no qualms investing in nations guilty of human rights violations. In fact, it has pumped money into Sudan and Congo for years. The ends—One Belt, One Road appears to justify the means of direct investment in nations with deplorable human rights records.
Massive refugee displacement primarily caused by insurgencies, Ebola’s resurgence, and political instability combine to make the DRC exceptionally vulnerable to external assertions from nations—particularly China and Russia—desiring to exploit geographic position and natural resources. The Western world can no longer sit idly by and watch China and Russia manufacture leverage over weaker nations all the while ignoring the internal issues such nations struggle to regulate on their own. The myriad of issues plaguing the DRC tied with its natural resources ripe for exploitation makes the country a plausible flash point of regional and global instability. International organizations—governmental and non-governmental—must prepare for a potential near-term crisis capable of enflaming Sub-Saharan Africa. Strategic preparation—not prediction—is critical to mitigating future international security concerns.
Maj Sean “Angry” Haydo is a student in the Multi-Domain Operational Strategist Concentration at the USAF’s Air Command and Staff College. He is an Air Battle Manager with multiple deployments to the US Central Command AOR and also operational experience as an Air Liaison Officer. Sean also holds masters degrees in International Relations and Leadership. He can be reached at Sean@haydo.com
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. Government.