US envoy Tom Perriello on preventing civil war in the Congo

By Michael Igoe 23 December 2016

Tom Perriello, U.S. special envoy for the Great Lakes region of Africa. Photo by: Center for American Progress Action Fund / CC BY-ND

The political crisis unfolding in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has been a long time in the making — but so has the diplomatic effort to push President Joseph Kabila to relinquish his hold on the presidency.

Devex spoke with Tom Perriello, U.S. special envoy for the Great Lakes region of Africa, about the prospects for fostering a peaceful, democratic transfer of power — the first in the country’s history — and the challenging work of tipping probabilities in favor of a better outcome.

This week saw renewed conflict when government security forces continued their violent repression of opposition groups. Hundreds of protesters and political opponents to Kabila have been detained, and Human Rights Watch confirmed at least 26 deaths as a result of the crackdown.

Kabila’s term expired Monday, but he has postponed elections until April 2018 citing concerns about voter registration most observers view as a false, self-serving justification that has cast the country into constitutional crisis. Congo’s Catholic bishops this month convened a renewed transition effort, with competing parties present at the table. But it remains to be seen whether those efforts will prevent the situation from deteriorating further — or even produce a, “New Year’s miracle” for a country in search of its first free election.

Here is an excerpt from our conversation with Perriello, lightly edited for clarity and length.

In August everyone was already predicting that this constitutional crisis would happen, and this week we’ve seen conflict break out over the disputed presidential transition. What’s happened in the intervening time, and are there lessons here about what could be done differently to prevent foreseen events like this one from reaching the point that this one has?

The situation in the Great Lakes right now and particularly in the DRC is a good — and I might add, rare — example of doing extensive preventative diplomacy, but that doesn’t guarantee success. It just increases the probabilities of success. In the DRC what we’ve seen first of all is significant deterrence of the most violent repression. Obviously we’ve had tragic death tolls, both in September and already in December, but we have also seen very concrete ways in which the intelligence and security forces have looked to reduce some of the lethal strategies that they’ve had in the past.

Second of course, the goal is not just to deter violence but to forge and foster a deal that gets us on a peaceful path to alternance, to the first peaceful democratic transition of power. We have seen multiple efforts to try to reach that deal through not just our efforts, but the [United Nations] and the [European Union] and [International Conference of the Great Lakes Region]. The efforts in September failed largely because President Kabila was unwilling to concede even small measures that would have made the talks more inclusive. But we have created in the last month or so a much more promising process under the Catholic bishops that has actually managed to engage every credible political party and key civil society group in the country. It’s really been quite impressive. It’s just been too late. But they have quite boldly restarted the process.

Our hope is that all of the groundwork laid over the last year and a half will both deter some of the worst violence and create greater space for a deal. In that sense the fact that we were out ahead of this was helpful. The fact that we privately messaged sanction threats, then made those public threats, then actually delivered on those individual sanctions relatively early in the process and showed a willingness to expand and escalate those, we know has had some positive effect, but we aren’t yet to the conclusion we want.

Is it frustrating to hear this crisis described in headlines in the typical terms of a failed transition process, when in fact it sounds like: a) things could have been much worse; and b) there has been this significant effort to hold things together and create space for a resolution?

No, I think the headlines are fair. What we wanted was to see elections last month. We should be celebrating this week one of the great historic achievements in the DRC, which would be the first peaceful democratic transfer of power. When you think about what that would have meant for Congo, for the Great Lakes region, it is tragic to think about the fact that instead of celebrating this massive step forward that turns the page away from the tragic civil wars of the past and towards this bright and prosperous future, it was was largely and unfortunately blocked by the political will of one man, the most powerful man in the country. And he was willing to risk the stability and progress of 80 million people in order to make a dangerous play to extend his stay in power. So of course it’s a bad situation and one we would have wanted to prevent. What I’m adding to that is simply to say, that doesn’t mean we’re at civil war yet. There’s still space for this to be resolved, and I think the various efforts that have been done to date, while not successful in reaching our goals, have created the space where we could still find a way to foster that deal.

Do you have a sense of the development implications already? Have you seen costs, not just in the immediate context of recent political violence, but in terms of Congo’s overall development trajectory?

DRC’s economic situation initially started to take a tumble because of global commodity prices, but they’ve greatly exacerbated their economic and development fragility by what we see as systematic robbery of the public coffers for, not just the usual kleptocracy, but trying to use bribes to solve the political crisis.

What we’ve heard across the board from development professionals, both within Africa and globally, and private sector investors in the country, the region and beyond — they have all said, “We’re just waiting. We’re waiting until this political crisis passes before we’re going to make any sort of serious investments,” and those are the very investments that DRC desperately needs. This is one of the reasons why we have been pretty persistent on the need for the elections to be held in 2017. Basically, the economy is going to be right on the brink until we get through this process, and therefore extending that a year and a half — and everybody believes that President Kabila and his allies in the electoral commission will use that to extend quite a bit further — is subjecting a very, very poor country to terrible economic and development results for multiple years, again, for this farce of extending the power, unconstitutionally, of the current government. There’s clearly a direct correlation.

This is part of why President Obama gave the speech in Addis Ababa about the importance of respecting term limits. We actually did the data on this in the State Department, and it showed that when incumbents try to change the rules to stay in power, those countries are four and a half times more likely to face an economic or security crisis — and unfortunately Burundi has proven that’s true. On the flip side, African countries that have allowed a peaceful transfer of power, over 90 percent of them have never subsequently faced a crisis based on elections and transfer of power. This is so clearly a turning point for countries, and unfortunately for President Kabila and others in the region, they’ve been willing to take that risk with their people.

What’s your assessment of the alignment between those two tracks of work? Do you think the development donors and organizations involved in a long-term relationship with Congo have done enough to find opportunities to influence this political transition and to support a democratic opportunity in this country?

I’ve been very impressed with the development professionals I’ve met with, both Congolese and expat. Sometimes in countries you’ll find a tradeoff of those saying, “hey, let’s focus less on the politics and more on development.” But in the case of DRC, the issues of kleptocracy, and of failed governance, and of lack of infrastructure, and presence of armed groups are so clearly the barriers to broader economic development and inclusive growth that nobody really sees a separation.

The president and his team have tried to suggest at various points that people are much more interested in seeing economic development than caring about elections, but we just haven’t seen that from the Congolese people. First of all they see the two things as inherently linked. They feel like they have given President Kabila 15 years to show results, and outside the mining and extractive sector they’ve seen very few. So for them, that ability to choose their next leader, whether from the opposition or the presidential majority, they see as clearly connected to their development hopes.

Your role is to represent and advocate a case for a peaceful, free transition of power from one president to the next. Have the people in DRC who you’re talking to and who might resist that message used the contentious election that we’ve had in the United States over the past year as a way to undermine the legitimacy of that message?

I think you saw more chatter last summer about this notion that maybe President Kabila just needed to outlast President Obama, but that quieted down pretty quickly, because the Republicans on the Hill, both in the House and Senate, were so outspoken — frankly even more forward looking than the State Department — on the situation in DRC and the desire for sanctions and looking specifically at the assets of the Kabila family.

I tend to think that both the President and the opposition have spent way too much on D.C. lobbying firms, but one thing they’ve probably managed to explain to the Congolese leadership is the fact that Capital Hill controls the budget here, and so they have a huge amount of influence. So the fact that there has been a bipartisan consensus in the United States on supporting atrocity prevention and constitutional rule of law across the Great Lakes is something that you’re going to see a lot more continuity than not.

There were points at which people thought this was just personally me driving this train, and those efforts fell apart when they realized this was a united front directed from the president down. That’s what made our policy effective in terms of being able to hold the line strongly on the importance of protecting open political space and deterring repression and violence.

What’s next for you at this point, in terms of how you’re pushing for a resolution?

One of the great things about representing my country is that the policy is one that’s not based on me as an individual. So as I rotate out of this position, based on our political cycles, the fact of the matter is the policy and strategy will continue. Our top two priorities are to deter violence and repression, and to do everything we can to support an inclusive deal that moves the country towards alternance. We think both of those things remain absolutely possible if the political will exists, particularly with the most powerful man in the country, to let that happen. Even at this late hour there is time for a Christmas miracle or a New Year's miracle.

Frankly, compared to other foreign policy problems I’ve worked on around the world, this is one of the least complicated I’ve ever seen. If President Kabila gave the green light to allow the kind of guarantees to a path to alternance that any objective observer would consider important, then this thing could be solved, I think, in less than 24 hours. But without that political will, we are very scared that we will continue to see a slow deterioration of a few deaths here and there, ratcheting up of repression and pressure, that generating more negative reactions from the street, and seeing the kind of deterioration that the people of Congo deserve never to suffer again.

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About the author

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Michael Igoe@AlterIgoe

Michael Igoe is a senior correspondent for Devex. Based in Washington, D.C., he covers U.S. foreign aid and emerging trends in international development and humanitarian policy. Michael draws on his experience as both a journalist and international development practitioner in Central Asia to develop stories from an insider's perspective.

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