Happy birthday, Congo!

Fifty years after gaining independence, the Democratic Republic of Congo remains deeply unstable. The help of China and the EU is needed to limit the dangers. But one is more likely than the other to lend a hand.

Senior Policy Fellow
ECFR Alumni · Former Research Co-ordinater




The Democratic Republic of Congo
celebrates its 50th anniversary of independence from Belgium today. The
new country had a rough start. Within a week, the army had mutinied. Within a
month, the United Nations sent peacekeepers to keep order.

The country has suffered many more
crises since then. In the 1990s, it was the epicentre of a regional war. Over
the past decade, the UN has overseen another extended effort to put Congo on
the right track. The government has promoted the anniversary with a billboard
campaign declaring that the nation is “resolutely turned towards the future”.

The EU has invested a lot in that
future. It has sent soldiers, police and cash to help the UN. In 2008, the
European Commission announced that it had given Congo €300 million in aid in
the previous five years and would give a further €500m by 2013.

But the EU has not managed to use
its leverage to persuade Congo’s government to uproot endemic corruption or
rein in the notoriously brutal armed forces. The government says it wants to
shrink the army, but consistently inflates the costs involved.

Familiar
policy pattern

This is a pattern familiar to EU
policymakers from the Balkans and Afghanistan. You can get a government to sign
almost any reform, but that does not mean they believe in it.

Joseph
Kabila, Congo’s president, who is facing elections in 2011, wants to be free
from Western interference. Earlier this year, he called on the UN to pull its
20,000 peacekeepers out by 2012. Discreet diplomatic pressure has made him
temper his demands, at least for now.

Uncool Congo

Yet some cash-strapped EU governments are starting to ask whether it is
still worth ploughing funds into Congo. “Congo is not cool anymore,” says one
European diplomat. Other humanitarian crises, from Haiti to Sudan, have
priority.

Western officials also worry that, hefty as their investments in Congo have
been, they will ultimately lose a battle for economic influence there with
China, which needs the country’s copious minerals. In 2008, the Chinese
government struck a $9 billion (€7.3bn) bargain with Congo, promising huge
infrastructure investments in exchange for mining rights.

EU and World Bank officials feared that this deal would undercut their
leverage. Ironically, the global economic downturn played to their advantage.
In 2009, the Congolese economy almost collapsed (at one stage, government
reserves fell to just $33m, or €27m). The International Monetary Fund (IMF)
stepped in – buttressing Western influence.

But with Chinese demand rising again, Congo is looking east once more. As Catherine
Ashton remarked at a recent event in London, Congo is a place where “economics equals
politics”. There’s no point in being sanctimonious about China’s enterprise:
European and US firms want Congo’s resources too. So do the country’s
neighbours. Rwanda has de facto control over a big chunk of North Kivu, a
mineral-rich province in eastern Congo.

Risky pull-out

There is a risk that if the UN peacekeepers start to pull back, Congo will
be pulled apart by a warlords and profiteers. Nothing new there: in the
post-independence chaos in 1960, Belgian forces promoted secession in Katanga,
another eastern province with huge resources.

This year, a previously largely overlooked insurgency flared up in the north
of the country. Yet the clear risk of instability may create a diplomatic
opening: neither China, nor the EU nor other investors in Congo would benefit
from another widespread war.

EU leaders – possibly represented by Ashton, who could carve out a
leadership role on this ‘uncool’ but urgent issue – need to undertake pragmatic
talks with China about fostering stability in Congo. This requires
collaboration with the US, World Bank, IMF and African Union. But the path to
an orderly Congo may run through Beijing.

A version of this piece was published in European Voice

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

Authors

Senior Policy Fellow
ECFR Alumni · Former Research Co-ordinater