A new level of assertiveness by the United Nations has produced a swift and fortuitous victory over the worst of the marauding militias that have terrorized eastern Democratic Republic of Congo in recent years.
Remarkably, unlike in past offensives, there have been no reports of mass rapes, pillaging, mutiny or other displays of rampant lawlessness by the Congolese military (the Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo), which has long and deservedly been known as one of the world’s most undisciplined armed forces.
The Congolese government, led by President Joseph Kabila, has vowed not to become giddy from the defeat of the militia, the Rwandan-backed force known as M23, earlier this month.
It says it will now work to eliminate the complex patchwork of armies that continue to hold sway over broad swaths of this vast country’s east. A recent government memo appropriately identified one of these armies — the Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda — as a priority. This militia consists of remnants of the Interahamwe, original perpetrators of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Neutralizing it would further delegitimize Rwanda’s nearly constant meddling on its much larger neighbor’s territory.
How did this all come about, and what lessons should be derived?
For too long, the international community accepted high levels of violence and mayhem in the Congo, so long as it did not rebound against neighboring Rwanda, where prevention of instability after the genocide became an obvious priority.
After decades of misrule, war and predation by its neighbors — and a 1996 invasion of what was then Zaire by Rwanda, which brought down the three-decade-long dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko — some observers had given up on Congo and its population, by 2012, of 65 million. They even argued that the country, once a possession of King Leopold II of Belgium, no longer meaningfully exists as a state and that the international community should stop pretending that it does.
The recent military developments show the emptiness of this throw-up-your-hands approach. They also show that keeping a Band-Aid on the festering wounds of the Congo costs more, in lives, not just money, than taking resolute action.
The passive, old approach involved nearly 20,000 peacekeepers who never managed to keep a lid on things, much less really keep any peace. When the M23 sacked Goma, the biggest city in the east, last year, the Congolese Army ran away and peacekeepers passively stood by.
Shock and embarrassment over this performance — in effect, a dismal return on the international community’s investment — prompted a turnaround. Earlier this year, the United Nations brought in a tough-minded general from Brazil, Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz, to lead the peacekeepers. Their mandate changed to encourage engagement: That is, actually going after the bad guys. Meanwhile, motivated and disciplined combat units from South Africa and Tanzania were pushed to the fore.
“Seeing professional troops doing the right thing day after day has had a really important effect,” Laura E. Seay, an assistant professor of government at Colby College who specializes in the Congo, told me. “If you think of the history of the Congolese military, the opportunities for this sort of role modeling have been very rare.”
It is worth considering why, aside from the moral imperative of protecting human life, such efforts are worthwhile. Africa still suffers mightily from its balkanization at the hands of Europe’s imperial powers in the 19th century. The continent’s 54 countries are mostly weak and poor. They have little leverage in their dealings with powerful outside actors, whether banks, investors and mining and oil interests, Western-dominated institutions like the World Bank, or big new players like China. Nor does any have enough middle-class consumers to create a major economic market.
At a conference in Morocco recently, a top executive for one of the Big Three American automobile companies told me that even Africa’s richest country, South Africa, barely figured in the company’s plans. “Now, if they could somehow make a single market out of South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and, say, Namibia, that would get our attention,” he said.
A final consideration is geography: access to the ocean. A third of Africa’s countries are landlocked, a feature that silently imposes huge handicaps on their development. Breaking up the Congo, which has only a tiny outlet to the Atlantic Ocean, would merely create more landlocked countries, making it harder to build a viable economy.
The international community should build on Congo’s success in defeating the M23 militia by helping it meet the first condition of statehood: a government monopoly over the legitimate use of force. (Mr. Kabila deserves credit for overhauling his military command structure in the east, resulting in much more professional behavior by his soldiers — and more effective support for the United Nations peacekeepers.)
Building on this will require more security improvements: A coherent national army, which Congo has never had, and pressure on neighbors like Rwanda and Uganda to respect Congolese sovereignty.
Of course, the ultimate step toward a coherent Congolese state is the provision of services and the collection of taxes. Congo has scant experience with either. Its population subsists in large part on foreign aid and the delivery of services by a huge patchwork of foreign charities. However well intentioned, they have become part of the problem: Under this system, Congolese governments have little incentive to actually govern.
This pattern can only be broken if the West begins to demand performance from the corrupt and atrophied Congolese state itself. This will require as much discipline from donors as it does from the recipients. Money must gradually be moved away from annual dollops of life support to longer-term plans for real development, with binding expectations and benchmarks.
Only then can the ghosts of Leopold and Mobutu finally be banished.
Howard W. French, an associate professor of journalism at Columbia University and a former New York Times correspondent, is the author of the forthcoming book China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa.