The Obama Law

3 Aug

Once upon a time in the Senate...

Obama proposed a new law strategizing US response to the political morass in the DR Congo.  The Democratic Republic of the Congo Relief, Security, and Democracy Promotion Act (PL 109-456), co-sponsored by Hillary Clinton and eleven others, began its life as official legislation in December of 2006.  That red carpet arrival to officialdom, I am sorry to say, was the most dynamic moment of its life so far; all of the law’s provisions enabling serious political engagement and diplomacy have lain, since then, mysteriously dormant.  I draw your attention to a summary of four sections which would demand relatively few resources and promise to make a positive impact:

Section 104 - …Expresses the sense that the Secretary should withhold assistance if the government of the DRC is not making sufficient progress towards accomplishing the policy objectives.

Section 105 - Authorizes the Secretary to withhold assistance under the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, other than humanitarian, peacekeeping, and counterterrorism assistance, for a foreign country determined by the Secretary to be acting to destabilize the DRC.

Section 106 - Directs the Comptroller General to report to Congress respecting progress made toward accomplishing the policy objectives, including an evaluation of related U.S. policies and foreign assistance programs.

Section 107 - States that the President should appoint a Special Envoy for the Great Lakes Region to help coordinate efforts to resolve the instability and insecurity in Eastern Congo.

As you can see, all of these items reflect not only the US government’s commitment to democratic intitatives, but due diligence--ensuring that US funding does not prop up political corruption and abuses of power.  This is precisely what is called for and I am far from alone in my dismay at the government’s disuse of these needed checks and balances.  Many, many people have lamented the inaction and called for the law to be fully implemented.  First, it was the author himself expressing impatience, when Obama urged the Bush administration in 2007 to “stop ignoring the call by Congress to appoint a special envoy to the DRC, and strengthen the U.N. peacekeeping force which is working to stabilize the eastern part of the Congo.”  Four years later such callouts to Obama get a resounding dial tone.  Nobody in Washington is talking about the refusal to send an envoy, despite a recent petition signed by 24,497 citizens, a letter from 16 members of Congress, and many other individual and institutional requests, like V-day's tireless advocacy.  Does this mean we need a different approach?  To us this suggests that the demand must grow even louder.  Eventually the silence must give from the pressure of American citizens demanding an answer.  We are doing this in several ways simultaneously.  In July Jeff approached our City Council member Bill Peduto about this issue and now Pittsburgh, too, has added its voice with a resolution adopted July 12th calling on Obama to fully implement the law and urging other cities to pass similar resolutions.  I am flinging my personal letter to Obama on top of the pile and sharing it with you here.  I hope our efforts will give you some useful language and argument as you develop your own voices on this issue.

Let me give you a better sense of why it’s important to raise our voices about this law and why now.  2011 is election year in Congo.  Last time, during the 2006 elections, 33 candidates tried to outpace each other in a "Race for Power" (as the Congolese painter Cheri-Cherin depicts above).  With the intense efforts of peacekeepers and much international aid, Joseph Kabila emerged marginally victorious without sparking off a 33-way war, though there was some violent resistance from Jean-Pierre Bemba in 2007.  Many expected all-0ut chaos at the time because it was the first multiparty election for DRC in 41 years, and the seat of power was still warm from Mobutu's long roost, despite his ouster a decade earlier.  There seems to be a powerful strain of longing for Mobutu's days both from would-be rulers and citizens alike.  Their reasons, of course, are different.  For the ordinary citizen, a casual conclusion can be drawn that "it was better then."  I had a very happy childhood in the eighties in Eastern Congo under Mobutu's rule.  In those days it was less generally violent, whereas, now, people’s standards of living expectation are so low that many express their greatest longing for “a good death.”  I’ll grant that “a good life” was something easier for Congolese to talk about in the eighties and that citizen deaths were, on the whole, less the direct result of violence in Mobutu’s days.  But, as I grew up watching my father's work as administrator and anesthetist in a rural Congolese hospital funded entirely by the West, I know from personal experience that many Congolese had their lives damaged or ended from the character of Mobutu's rule: prosperity for a few and neglect for the rest.  If some of the patients had been able to travel on passable roads, for instance, their stories would have ended better.  In short, before you're convinced that it really was better, remember that oppression can be mistaken for orderliness and such regimes’ effective control hides threatening dysfunction at the root of things.  

What looked like stability in Zaire was, behind the curtain, an iron boot on the neck of any presumed dissident and demands for devotion from everyone else.  It was laissez faire for the masses and no real provisions to make life easier. If you happily minded your own business, then things went well with you.  This was fairly easy to do wherever the president was just a photo in a local office or home, hung higher, by decree, than all others in the room, or when his disembodied head descended in the clouds like a demi-god preceding each new tv news bulletin.  He was an idea rather than a reality to most—a point of pride for many Congolese in the heady days following independence and a darling of the west in the seventies and early eighties; his propaganda and careful choice of allies ensured this remained the official order of things for nearly 32 years. 

The reasons why would-be leaders want more "Mobutu days" is simple and predictable: everyone saw what he gained from sitting in the seat of power as a happy kleptocrat, running a government he liked to call, by turns, “democratic” and “traditional,” but which amounted to a clever strategy of personal plunder.  Imagine you live in a country of 71 million people the size of Western Europe that has experienced thirty-two years of government neglect on top of a century of colonialism.  Imagine you realize how much of the nation’s wealth has been used for elites to live lavishly.  Imagine you know how much of the country’s resources are left to exploit.  The Scramble for Africa that began in 1881 with European powers has not lessened but gone viral in the modern context.  Violence in the east has been rampant for at least a decade over the issue of controlling mineral sources and the death toll for ordinary citizens clicks over as steadily as an odometer while tensions rise from the upcoming elections and politics heat up in the capital.

As campaigns get underway and slogans emerge, we see evidence that identity becomes a major tool for candidates to disavow opponents and gain a following; one needs only to think of Jean-Pierre Bemba's slogan in the 2006 elections, "One Hundred Percent Congolese," be reminded of how much of the individual's qualifications rest on questions of authenticity and opposition to "outsiders."  Unfortunately, election politics like these play directly into the kind of "cult of the personality" that continues to undergird despotism.  Many Congolese send out a cry for a "strong" leader, but the logic seems to suggest that someone powerful can restore order.  In my view, that's not possible.  While consolidating power into one person or a few may be  effective for a time, it carries an inherent vulnerability: it only works until someone more powerful comes along to replace it.  This model trends toward coups, as we know.  As I have argued briefly here, there is no system of order in DRC to simply “restore” unless you want more colonialism or oppression; a new system of rule must be built and developed painstakingly through institutionalization.  Ordinary people need good representation in government, which requires functional institutions to ensure due process, accurate reportage, and oversight.  Mobutu did little to develop institutions and infrastructure that would limit his power or hold him accountable; in fact, he strategically removed limitations the longer he ruled.  This January, similar signs of consolidating power emerged in Kabila’s administration, which pushed through a constitutional amendment giving the president an electoral edge as well as the power to arbitrarily dismiss officials elected by the people.  What has the US response been to the recent drama on DRC’s political stage?  Crickets.  Not cheering, not booing, just crickets.

Meanwhile, as recently as last week, Obama gave remarks on his meeting with African heads of state reconfirming the United States' role as "a stalwart partner with [African leaders] in this process of democratization and development.  Despite the impressive work of all these gentlemen, I’ve said before and I think they all agree, Africa does not need strong men; Africa needs strong institutions.  So we are working with them as partners to build effective judiciaries, strong civil societies, legislatures that are effective and inclusive, making sure that human rights are protected."  Yes.  A thousand times yes.  He devoted a whole law to articulate the need for curbing abuses of political power in DRC and to support such objectives.  So what does the silence on DRC mean?   It makes one wonder: is it strategic?  Lots of arguments have been proffered as to why the US is avoiding the provisions called for by PL-109-456.  Friends of Congo posted a 27 minute video on the “Crisis in the Congo” that gives their analysis and synthesizes a lot of expert opinion on the subject; I encourage you to watch it and begin educating yourself about the dimensions of this situation that never makes it into the mainstream media.

We're here to support your search for good information and bring you stories that both illustrate the problems in DRC as well as the imaginations of the Congolese in characterizing them;    stories can challenge us to stay flexible and receptive to new information, reminding us to put data in context and see the realities on the ground.  Too many narratives about DRC get used to create a singular effect: pity.  Tragedies are collected, interpreted and used as emotional leverage or a moral bludgeon without any serious and sustained inquiry into the root of the problems that caused them in the first place.  We value expressions by Congolese that can help us realize the need for action and support good questioning.  This is why  I included in my letter to Obama some drawings that children made at our friend Anita Paden’s New Hope Center for grieving children, like the one above.  You can find more in our flickr set grieving children’s art.  The photo’s text translates as follows:  "Explanation of death: Three military killed my father; me and my mother fled into the bush to hide and, after two weeks, the body of my father had deteriorated so that only the bones were left to bury."  We should feel not only sorrow but called to seek for context and detail: Why was the father killed—was he a special target?  Is this a broad pattern of violence or relatively isolated?  Who were these military persons?  Were they following orders?  What was their objective?  Who was responsible for their actions?  Why weren’t these citizens protected?  Is the government incapable of doing so or is the government complicit?  I have approached Obama with these photos to remind him of the need for good intelligence that would answer such questions and as well as the urgency of his administration's response:

The problems PL 109-456 set out to address are still acute many years later; they are perhaps worse.  Consider the attached drawings by children in an Eastern Congo grieving center which point to exactly the issues your law discusses: the DRC government’s treatment of its people and foreign governments’ destabilizing of the DRC.  Consider these children’s drawings troubling symptoms that are presenting themselves for more professional information-gathering and diagnosis.  According to PL 109-456, the Comptroller General is supposed to provide Congress with a detailed annual report regarding progress (or lack) towards achieving 15 U.S. policy goals, describing any impediment to those goals, and any destabilizing activities undertaken in the DRC by governments of neighboring countries.  The need for a careful, updated report is evident, but, even without one, the UN Mapping Exercise Report has clearly shown that Rwanda and Uganda have committed multiple human rights violations and destabilized the DRC, which, according to PL 109-456, gives grounds to the Secretary of State to withhold US funding.  Continuing to fund Rwanda and Uganda in the face of this information means we ignore our own law. 

I believe you saw the problem clearly in 2006, and that fully implementing PL 109-456 will significantly reduce the violence, chaos, abuse of power and dwindle the need for children to make drawings like these, allowing a new generation to reach its potential and avoid cycles of revenge and destructive frustration—but only if they can see that due process works, and that laws can limit the power of those who profit from harming folk.  We want you to support DRC’s democratic future and need you to prove the integrity of American law.  The American public is slowly rousing and recognizing Congo’s distress.  The tide of American citizens’ concern is rising, and I have heard people asking: “is PL 109-456 a law or a wish list?”  A great many of us eagerly await a response to the crisis in DRC, and our numbers are growing.  Whatever your thinking is, let us hear it and begin working together toward solutions, quickly.  The administration’s current silence on what’s happening to the Congolese people not only conforms to the age-old pattern of empowering strong men in Africa but emboldens old villains and recruits new ones by the hour.  Every moment of our passivity is a new act of negligence that flouts the integrity of US law and allows violence to grow deeper roots and go to seed in DRC’s environment of impunity.

What does hope for DRC look like?  For many Africans Obama is the very face of hope, and his presidency signals, for them, a new era of foreign policy that will support African development.  But, as I've already said, history shows that the cult of personality is not an effective tool for spreading lasting benefits to the masses.  It's not sufficient to trust in the symbolism of progress--there must be practical and tangible things happening toward that goal.  In the end, Obama is a representative of our political will as the American people; he is accountable to us, so we have our own roles to play in making good things happen through him.  The real source of hope in DRC is the Congolese people themselves and Americans who raise their voices are necesssary and welcome partners; to speak up is not just a human thing to do, but a responsible one, as we benefit immensely from the mineral exploitation fueling DRC's war.  A lot of people ask “But what can I do?”  I believe there are many ways to take meaningful action, and I encourage you to advocate for peace and justice in DRC in all the ways available to you.  Raise your voices through social media.  Invite speakers to your schools and places of worship. Spread stories that stimulate good questions while reminding people what's at stake.  If you're an artist, paint or draw something to engage your audience.   If you're a writer, write.  Whatever you do, seek to learn more about the situation in DRC, share what you know with others, and discuss productive ways to support Congolese visions of a better future--not just for the few, but for all.

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