Obama may be non-interventionist in the Middle East, but he’s acting increasingly like a neo-con in Africa.
President Barack Obama has repeatedly said that he is against “boots on the ground” in Iraq, robustly ruled out airstrikes, and reluctantly dispatched some 300 advisers into that war-torn land. As Iraq crisis worsens, the president demands a primarily political solution—even as Islamist forces surge to the Baghdad suburbs.
In Africa, that same president is, fortunately, far more active. Elite U.S. Army units are killing and capturing terrorists in North Africa (including the so-called Butcher of Benghazi). Hundreds of other counter-terrorism trainers are helping African nations (Libya, Niger, Mauritania, and Mali) to field commando teams to combat Islamist forces in Africa, which have Islamist ideologies nearly indistinguishable from the predators devouring Iraq. These new native units are vital for beating back the Islamist threat to the region. Hundreds of U.S. Special Forces have been sent to hunt the Lord’s Resistance Army, a murderous band of militants, in the wilds of Uganda. Djibouti, on Africa’s Red Sea coast, remains an active U.S. military base and America’s spies and soldiers help fight Islamists in Somalia and Kenya. Drones are roaming Nigeria, searching for missing schoolgirls. And, of course, the Obama administration’s longest war was fought in North Africa, in the skies and streets of Libya.
When military might matters, Obama seems to have one rule for Africa and another for Asia (especially Iraq).
Perhaps the most dramatic case of the Obama Administration’s efforts in Africa is in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The onetime Belgian colony (known in the 1970s and 1980s as Zaire) is a failed state, riddled with strategic minerals, riven by ethnic factions, and ravaged by a civil war that killed, United Nations and human-rights advocates estimate, somewhere between 900,000 to 5.4 million Congolese since 1997. Causality estimates vary because international observers fear to go into the field. Most of the death toll stems from starvation and disease caused by driving millions of families from their homes into the malarial rainforests. Many others were slain by foreigners with ethnic, ideological or monetary motives. (Neighboring nations covet Congo’s vast mineral wealth, estimated as high as $24 trillion in diamonds, cobalt, copper and gold.) Still more Congolese have been murdered by locals, often hired by outsiders to commit atrocities. Congo is also the rape capital of the world.
Yet in Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Obama Administration talks mainly about restoring democracy—something it rarely mentions outside Africa. The DRC is ruled by a man, Joseph Kabila, who is hinting that he won’t leave office when his final constitutional term ends in 2016.
Kabila is a one-man summary of what ails Africa. He inherited the presidency following the assassination of his father, who himself had seized power with blood and chaos. Joseph Kabila recently gave himself another five-year term “in elections that were criticized by everyone from the European Union to the country’s Roman Catholic bishops,” notes J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council.
Like Africa’s worst, Kabila seems to have stolen aid money—meant for some of the poorest people on Earth—on a gargantuan scale. He seems to have amassed some $15 billion over the past decade in offshore banks in the British Virgin Islands and elsewhere, according to accounts in French and German-language media outlets. By contrast, Mobutu Sese Seko, a dictator who ruled Congo for 32 years, piled up $5 billion. (A European court recently let Mobutu’s heirs keep their nest egg, finding that the statute of limitations of colossal theft had run out.) Kabila controls lucrative offshore drilling and fishing concessions and access to some of richest onshore mineral claims in the world.
Like his predecessor, Kabila has turned kleptocracy into a family affair, according to Western expatriates and African experts. His brother, Soulemane Kabila, is believed to have diverted some $300 million from the DRC’s treasury. Meanwhile, exporters, who are legally entitled to a rebate on the value-added tax, say that they have been denied millions in refunds—discouraging foreign investors.
Meanwhile, Kabila’s brother and sister, both of whom are members of that nation’s parliament, apparently own a firm that has been awarded a monopoly contract to print all government documents. Congo’s recent switch to a high-tech biometric passport makes this government printing monopoly even more lucrative. After all, requiring every Congolese with enough money to travel to replace their passport certainly adds to the bottom line for the only outfit that can print those new passports.
Now Kabila seems to want to defy the Congo constitution’s term limits and stay in power beyond 2016. President for life. Just like the bloodstained men that have ruled Congo since its independence from Belgium in 1960.
America’s response has been unambiguous. The president’s envoy, former U.S. Senator Russ Feingold, said: “Africa doesn’t need strong men, it needs strong institutions.” He is right.
Feingold is equally direct in calling for military strikes against rebel groups that fail to immediately disarm. “If this drags on through the summer, there’s no excuse not to take strong action,” he told the New York Times. “People involved in genocide, who are included in this group, are not entitled to dialogue.” While Feingold is talking about military strikes carried out by a multi-national military force organized under the United Nations, which has been in the DRC for years, it is clear that there is steel in his words.
Clearly, Kabila should leave office when his term expires. The greatest gift he can bestow on his country is the start of a tradition of peaceful and constitutional transfers of power. A new history can begin with him.
If not, the U.S. and European Union should target his assets. Kabila’s ill-gotten gains should not be shielded in his offshore accounts, but seized for the people of his ravaged and weary nation—if he fails to leave office when his term expires. Bribing would-be dictators, with their own money, to leave office would be a refreshing change.
And the Obama Administration could make a fresh start as well. Upholding American ideals of law and order, multi-party democracy and social tolerance—and backing those ideals with international and military action—is a policy that could be extended far beyond the Congo.
If not, the Obama doctrine dissolves into a contradictory cacophony that knows only what it is against, not what it is for. The Middle East needs an American policy as clear and consistent as the one designed for the Congo.