May 6, 2011 — Jason Stearns, a former Coordinator of the UN Group of Experts on the Congo, joined us for a discussion on the roots of the DRC conflict and an assessment of the current situation. Stearns is the author of Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa (2011). He has worked in the Democratic Republic of Congo for the past ten years – as a journalist, a human rights advocate, a policy analyst, and with the UN peacekeeping mission.
Stearns opened by discussing his book and explaining his personal motivation and interest in writing on the topic. During his 10-plus years in the Congo, he noticed many holes in the reporting of the conflict and wanted to shed light on the true aspects of the roots of the violence by writing through the eyes of those he interviewed. The severe complexity of the crisis has contributed to inaccurate and irregular reporting.
Stearns then discussed the history of state failure and erosion that, in his opinion, greatly contributed to the conflict. Beginning with President Mobutu’s reign in 1965 following independence from Belgium, the Congo was categorized by a legacy of slavery accompanied by continual interference from external actors. Recently, one of the most prominent external actors has been Rwanda, which invaded the Congo twice – in 1996 and 1998 – with the stated intention of rooting out Hutu militias. During his research, Stearns found that many Congolese were critical of the international community, blaming it for disruption within the country. Stearns pointed out that many Congolese citizens believed the Rwandan genocide stunted democratic reforms taking root within the Congo. They sometimes contest that this is not their war, but instead a war involving others that is being fought on their turf.
The conversation then shifted towards a question and answer session where Stearns addressed the impact of the Kabila presidency. Following the assassination of his father Laurent in 2001, a young Joseph Kabila was selected as the new president due to his perceived weakness. Those fighting for power believed he could be easily manipulated due to his quiet and introverted nature. However, Joseph proved to be a confident figure as he liberalized the economy, initiated the peace process and welcomed a UN presence. Stearns also commented on a 2006 Congressional bill that proposed a special US envoy to the Congo. It is his opinion that a special envoy would be a beneficial first step in establishing a greater political vision for the nearly $1 billion in aid the US offers to the country.
When it comes to US interests in the Congo, Stearns believes humanitarian concerns alone are enough to warrant US engagement, although the country is rich in minerals and other resources. He continued by explaining how efforts to improve the current situation in Congo should be handled from a multilateral basis. The international community should provide the Congolese with the tools that would ensure the existence of an accountable government. Ultimately, though, it is the Congolese who are responsible for running and developing their own country.
Stearns concluded by commenting on upcoming elections, the role of women in Congolese society, the challenges of preventing gender based violence and the status of Bosco Ntaganda, the leader of the armed militia group CNDP who is wanted by the ICC for war crimes and the recruitment of child soldiers.
Security for a New Century is a nonpartisan discussion group for Congress. We meet regularly with U.S. and international policy professionals to discuss the post-Cold War and post-9/11 security environment. All discussions are OFF-THE-RECORD. It is not an advocacy venue. For more information please contact Mark Yarnell at [email protected] or (202) 224-7560.