The Democratic Republic of the Congo, a nation of 93 million people, is still struggling with the greatest humanitarian crisis since the end of World War II—and the rest of the world is still ignoring it. Since 1998, violence in the eastern Congo has killed at least 6 million people and displaced another 5.6 million. Today, the number of internal refugees is the highest in the nation’s history.
Those raw statistics are too abstract. So here’s Kambale Musavuli, an analyst at the Center for Research on the Congo, who is originally from eastern DRC. He recently told me: “My grandfather died after he carried out a hunger strike to protest the violence. My uncle, a Catholic priest, was beheaded by one of the armed groups.”
The crisis in the DRC has again worsened. Rwanda, which borders the country to the east, helped revive a vicious armed group called the M23, which had been largely dormant since carrying out a campaign of regional terror a decade ago. Human Rights Watch reports a new wave of killings, which has forced another 200,000 Congolese to flee their homes.
But the United States may be providing some hope. Rwanda has long been an American favorite, in part because Washington felt guilty for looking the other way during the 1994 genocide there. But now there are signs that the Biden administration is warning the Rwandan president, Paul Kagame, to stop supporting the rebel group. What’s more, Senator Robert Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat who heads the powerful foreign relations committee, has reportedly put a hold on next year’s American aid to Rwanda. (US assistance was $147 million in 2021.) A July letter from Menendez to Secretary of State Antony Blinken leaked, and it shows that Menendez charged Rwanda with supporting the M23 and said that continuing US aid would send “a troubling signal that the US tacitly approves of such actions.” (Just how much and what type of aid is being held is unclear, and Menendez’s office did not respond to several attempts at clarification.)
Some well-placed sources with contacts in the US diplomatic world told me that the American warnings are getting Kagame’s attention. In the next few weeks, there will be evidence on the ground from eastern DRC as to whether Rwanda chooses to rein in the M23. Human rights experts say that Rwanda effectively controls M23, and could end their murderous marauding.
Thomas Fessy, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, visited the region in July and August to do interviews. He told me about one incident: “Four witnesses described killings in Ruseke village. Small farmers had fled the fighting, but were forced to return to their fields, at least during the day, so they could gather food. On July 1, M23 fighters lured a group of them into a house, promising to protect them—and then opened fire. One survivor said, ‘I was lying under the bed but others next to me were killed.’”
The US pressure on Kagame should be even stronger, but the experts contrast it favorably with the silence from Europe and Britain. Rwanda touts itself as an economic success story, but foreign aid still provides 20 percent of the government’s budget, which should give the donors leverage. Jason Stearns, who has studied the DRC for 20 years and written two well-received books, points out that Britain’s plan to deport refugees to Rwanda, which critics say violates international law, requires the Rwandan government to cooperate, and so London is not likely to put pressure on Kagame over M23.
The United States, Britain, and the European Union have conducted a decades-long romance with Kagame and Rwanda, but why it persists is hard to explain. Michela Wrong is a distinguished British writer who has reported from the region for nearly three decades. Her latest book, Do Not Disturb, is a persuasive chronicle of how the Kagame regime represses dissent at home and assassinates opponents who have gone into exile. She reports that in 2011 recordings emerged of senior Rwandan officials ordering the murders of dissidents who lived in other countries. But the US and Europe ignored the evidence. She writes, “No major donor moved to sever aid or impose sanctions, or considered exposing [Rwanda’s] plots to public view. It was a decidedly limp response, given that Western allies were being presented with evidence of an African government—one they had generously subsidized for years—blithely exporting an ambitious political assassination program.”
Wrong adds that others also contribute to whitewashing Rwanda’s lethal reputation. In 2019, she attended an inquest in South Africa into the 2013 killing in Johannesburg of Patrick Karegeya, an exiled high-ranking official and the central figure in her book. She noted at the hearing the “telling absence of any academic, policy analyst or researcher who had built their professional reputation on an in-depth knowledge of Rwanda.” A news editor later explained to her, “If you make the slightest criticism of Rwanda, you can rest assured that Kigali [the Rwandan capital] will see it, [and] make a note of it.”
Kagame’s positive reputation still rests in part on his sympathetic portrayal in the popular 1998 book by Philip Gourevitch, We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. Gourevitch, who has an influential perch at The New Yorker, ignored Kagame’s human rights record in his articles on the subject, the last of which appeared in 2014, even as evidence mounted of Rwanda’s crimes, in eastern Congo and elsewhere. Since then, Gourevitch has gone silent on Rwanda, but he could still report on Rwanda’s crimes in the DRC, using his reputation to start telling some hard truths.
Still, even if Rwanda does stop backing the M23 group, no one expects that peace will break out in the eastern Congo. By one estimate, there are 150 other armed groups in the region. (Fessy does point out, though, that the M23, thanks to its Rwandan support, does have “firepower” equal to the Congolese army, which is widely regarded as corrupt and inept.) Further complicating the picture is that the Congolese have lost faith in the United Nations military force that is supposed to be keeping the peace in the east. The force, known as MONUSCO from its French initials, spends $1 billion a year and deploys 12,835 soldiers from nations like India and Morocco, but Congolese denounce it as ineffective, saying the UN forces hide on their military bases rather than fight the armed groups. In fact, in late July angry Congolese residents clashed with MONUSCO, and 17 died, including three UN soldiers.
On September 26 and 27, Congolese organizations, including Lucha (Fight for Change), a nonviolent grassroots group, paralyzed the biggest city in the east, Goma, with a peaceful two-day ville morte, essentially a general strike. Lucha and others demanded that MONUSCO leave the Congo and that the Congolese army stop doing nothing and start pushing the Rwandan-backed M23 out of the nearby occupied border town of Bunagana.
Stearns, who is the founder of and strategic adviser to the Congo Research Group at New York University, says the even more fundamental problem is that the Congolese government is weak and underfunded—unable to organize a professionalized army or even provide the routine public services that might strengthen the allegiance of the Congolese people. In his most recent book, The War That Doesn’t Say Its Name, he points to an astonishing fact: The DRC’s annual budget since 2011 “has hovered around $5 to $6 billion—smaller than that of New York University.”
Stearns does not blame the Congolese people for this shortfall. Instead, he points out that the rich world imposed an economic model on the DRC that handed over control of its vast mineral resources to foreign companies, a move that made sure that little of that wealth stayed in the country. His indictment is harsh: “The World Bank designed and drafted a Mining Code that was intended to attract international capital. U.S. and other multinational companies signed contracts that are not beneficial to the Congo, and have extracted enormous amounts of resources. The Congo is the largest producer of copper in Africa. It’s the largest producer of cobalt in the entire world. But some of those profits end up in international tax havens.”
What’s more, Stearns continued, the rich world has looked the other way when the Congolese ruling elite stole elections. Most recently, in December 2018, businessman Martin Fayulu won the presidency after a rousing campaign. The Catholic Church had stationed 40,000 observers at polling places; they verified Fayulu’s victory, which was then further confirmed by a Financial Times investigation. The ruling circle realized that its candidate had finished a hopeless third, so it then made a deal with the second-place candidate, Felix Tshisekedi. The government falsified the returns massively, claiming that Tshisekedi had actually won. The US State Department accepted the fraud. The next election is in 2023, and the Congolese people have no reason to believe that their votes will not be stolen from them yet again.
Stearns did say there was one promising sign: In 2018, the US Treasury Department blacklisted the Israeli businessman Dan Gertler for what it called “hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of opaque and corrupt mining deals in the Democratic Republic of Congo.” The Treasury measure was a form of “targeted sanctions” that has also been imposed on leading Congolese human rights violators in the security forces and the political class.
But the United States shouldn’t stop there. It should apply the same focused pressure on Kagame and other high Rwandan officials in hopes of slowing the killing in eastern Congo. Targeted sanctions are aimed at those responsible, instead of punishing entire nations. The DRC’s people have suffered enough.