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Going past Ghana: What Obama can do in Congo

The U.S. must look beyond stable, democratic Africa to the nations torn by poverty, war and corruption. In Congo, that means a special envoy, more aid and help with a deal with China.

July 29, 2009|Helen Winternitz | Helen Winternitz is an expert on central Africa and the author of "East Along the Equator."

Now that President Obama has made his visit to Ghana, which represents stable, democratic Africa, attention also must be paid to the rest of the story: the countries gripped in misery, suffering from the results of foreign misuse and national bungling.

While Ghana, having transformed into a democracy after decades of turmoil, symbolizes the hope springing up in quite a few countries of sub-Saharan Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo in the heart of the continent is the perfect example of that other Africa.

The eastern region of Congo has been beset by civil wars for a decade, a horrifying symptom of breakdown through the entire government. About 5 million people have died from the violence and its side effects of malnutrition and disease, while more than 1 million have been made refugees.

The undisciplined Congolese army and the various militias combating it use rape as a weapon of war. As many as 200,000 women and girls have been violated, some mutilated to the point of death, in what is described as the world's worst episode of sexual violence.

As perturbing as this brutality is the world's failure to make Congo a priority. But as a longtime observer of central Africa, I am not surprised. Historically, Congo has been overlooked except by those seeking to exploit it, epitomized in recent times by the United States.

When Congo emerged from the vicious colonial rule of Belgium, the United States empowered and, as a Cold War tactic, supported Mobutu Sese Seko. Utilizing the dictator was considered a legitimate tool by American policymakers who did not worry about the long-term consequences. Mobutu fathered the corrupt and dysfunctional mode of governing that now plagues the country.

Obama, who took an interest in Congo when he was in the Senate, has inherited the moral responsibility to make amends and help the Congolese build a government that actually works on their behalf.

To start with, the administration should dispatch a special envoy to Congo to boost awareness of the central African crisis and grapple with questions of how to proceed -- as it has done for places deemed more immediately important, such as the Middle East and Sudan. An envoy also could highlight efforts to bring the country's combatants and neighboring nations together to look for ways to reconcile.

Congo has fantastic mineral wealth that includes cobalt, used in the manufacture of jet engines and hybrid automobile batteries; tantalum, used in cellphones and other electronic devices; as well as uranium, diamonds, copper, tin and manganese. But most of its people scratch out penurious livings as subsistence farmers, fishermen, laborers or small-scale entrepreneurs. One in five children dies from poverty and lack of healthcare. Life expectancy is 46 years.

Political leaders and high-placed bureaucrats squander the country's natural endowment and divert millions of dollars in mining and other revenues to their own pockets. Like Congo's civil servants, soldiers are poorly trained and underpaid, or not paid at all.

Congo achieved a rare high point in 2006 when, with a major nationwide effort bolstered by international assistance, it managed to hold a reasonably fair election. But President Joseph Kabila doesn't have the personal stature or governmental resources to deal with the monumental task of turning the nation around.

The country's infrastructure has collapsed. The big government riverboats, on which I once traveled and saw how they provided an economic lifeline from Kinshasa eastward through the rain forest, are now defunct. In a country as large as the United States east of the Mississippi River, only several hundred miles of paved roads still exist, and dirt highways frequently are made impassable by mud. On one typical road, I was bogged down for days and learned firsthand why the national highway department deserves its nickname, "The Office of Holes."

This year, the U.S. sent less than $300 million in direct aid to the Congolese government. The Obama administration should ramp up conventional aid but also track it, measuring the outcome of every project to ensure against embezzlement. Aid can go to anti-corruption measures, building a competent parliament and judiciary, creating a functioning army and police force, and bolstering systems to monitor mining.

If Congo does not get on a new track toward hope, with assistance and through its own devices, its instability will affect the entire continent. At its most intense, the conflict in eastern Congo involved eight other African nations in what became known as Africa's World War.

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