Commentary: Congo election shows flaws in Trump’s Africa strategy

There are good reasons that Joseph Conrad called Congo “The Heart of Darkness” in his vast and utterly disturbing novel of Africa. And most of his reasons have been much on display in the run-up to the country’s long-delayed national elections, set for Dec. 23 and now postponed again for another week.

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Violence in the streets, demonstrations, police shootings of opposition demonstrators and chaos throughout the nation have marred the campaign. Ten days ahead of the scheduled ballot, the national electoral commission announced that 8,000 of the country’s 10,368 voting machines were burned in a warehouse fire of mysterious origin in the capital of Kinshasa. On Thursday, the commission president summoned candidates to a meeting in parliament and said the shortage of ballot papers after the fire made it necessary to hold off on voting until Dec. 30.

There is much at stake in this election, but its outcome seems in little doubt. The Democratic Republic of Congo, a Belgian colony until 1960, has been ruled by the Kabila family for almost 20 years – first by Laurent, who came to power in a coup, and then by his son Joseph. The younger Kabila, elected twice since 2006, is not running again. His power and influence, however, look likely to remain intact.

For decades, Washington has paid little real attention to this nation so critical to Africa’s future. The new U.S. ambassador, Michael Hammer, who arrived in October, is not an Africa expert and his resumé does not mention any service on the continent.

This should hardly be surprising. On Dec. 13, U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton unveiled the Trump administration’s new Africa strategy, without a single word about Congo. It was all about the United States, focusing largely on the bitter competition with China and Russia for hegemony and how to take them on and win.

The deeper problem of the Trump-Bolton doctrine, however, is its fundamental premise that what’s good for America is good for Africa – in short, what Washington wants, not what Africa needs. “Every decision we make, every policy we pursue, and every dollar of aid we spend will further U.S. priorities,” Bolton began. “All U.S. aid on the continent will advance U.S. interests,” he said. “In Africa, we are already seeing the disturbing effects of China’s quest to obtain more political, economic, and military power.”

Congo, together with its vast problems but even vaster resources, is already a focus of the new East-West war – one that the United States is losing. By its position in the geographic center, Congo is a key beachhead for any assault on Africa. Bordered by nine other nations, its territory – nearly the size of Western Europe – stretches across the continent, spanning two time zones. Its lavish natural resources are the prime reason for major power competition. Indeed, the value of Congo is all but incalculable, and apparently barely appreciated by the United States. Not so for China.

Estimates of Congo’s mineral wealth run to $24 trillion. It sits on nearly half of the world’s reserves of cobalt and vast quantities of high-grade copper ore. A consortium of 35 Chinese companies have joined to begin mining both minerals in multi-billion deals. Yet the country remains one of the poorest in the world.

So, it was hardly surprising that the government welcomed China’s agreement, in return for access to its mineral resources, to build $3 billion worth of roads, hospitals and universities. This money is the root of a problem that’s unlikely to be resolved at Sunday’s polls.

Today’s Congolese politics are a direct outgrowth of the Cold War, when the brutal, corrupt, Mobutu Sese Seko government was supported by the United States as a bulwark against Marxist insurgents led by Laurent Kabila, father of the incumbent. Mobutu was overthrown in 1997; Laurent was assassinated by a teenage bodyguard four years later and Joseph came to power at 29. That was 17 years ago. The nation has barely known a real moment of peace or government honesty since.

Kabila has done little to stop that. With close backing from the military, as Jason Stearns of the non-profit research project Congo Research Group describes it, there’s little incentive for Kabila to end these wars. Under the military’s pay structure, wartime bonuses are the only viable way to earn a living – often a lavish one – in the army. With Kabila and his entourage getting rich, it would be hard to persuade him to relinquish power. Still, to appease outsiders and many of his people, he agreed – after two years of delays – to hold an election.

Moreover, Kabila has agreed to hew at least to the letter of the constitution, with its ban on more than two consecutive terms. But, perhaps taking a leaf from Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who selected his proxy Dmitri Medvedev for a single term, then returned to power, Kabila has tapped the former interior minister, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, under sanction by the European Union for alleged human rights abuses, to fill his shoes. That means Kabila can rule from the shadows of his vast estate and private safari park.

At least three major opposition candidates are on the ballot – Martin Fayulu, leader of a coalition of Kabila opponents, Vital Kamerhe, and Felix Tshisekedi, a career politician. An October cell phone poll of 1,179 people in all 26 provinces by a consortium including Stearns’ Congo Research Group shows Shadary trailing the last two. Still, Stearns says he and other observers still expect Shadary to win the single-round, first-past-the-post race.

In the end, the biggest question and the greatest challenge for America and the West is how to bring Congo into the Western sphere of values. Yet, the real poison to the entire system will remain the vast sums of money sloshing through the economy.

Finding a way to gradually channel such resources productively, rather than stumbling blindly into the midst of a superpower battle for supremacy, will be a far better way to advance America’s interests in Congo or Africa as a whole. Otherwise, Washington will certainly be perceived as no better than China, Russia – or, for that matter, Kabila.

(Editor’s note: This column has been updated to include the news of the one-week delay in the election.)

About the Author

David A. Andelman, a former foreign correspondent for the New York Times and CBS News, is visiting scholar at the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School and author of "A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today." @DavidAndelman

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.