What do the United States Chamber of Commerce, the Atlantic Council, the Council on Foreign Relations, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz and National Security Adviser John Bolton have in common? In early April, they all hosted and/or welcomed the newly elected president of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Felix Tshisekedi.
Despite the celebratory tone of these meetings, it was not U.S. officials and institutions that ended the 18-year rule of DRC President Joseph Kabila. Rather, undeterred by years of indefinite detention, torture and mass killings by Kabila’s state security apparatus, Congolese activists marched, organized and successfully pressured Kabila to abandon his effort to remove presidential term limits from the DRC’s constitution and hold elections.
Faced with unrelenting internal pressure and growing international condemnation, Kabila caved, running a figurehead candidate, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, on his behalf in 2018. To ensure his successor’s victory, Kabila waged a campaign of electoral violence and institutional “reforms,” including packing the constitutional court, shutting down media outlets, barring potential presidential candidates from re-entering the country, violently restricting opposition candidates, jailing and killing activists, and purchasing unreliable electronic voting machines.
Still, Kabila’s electoral violence and foul play was not enough to thwart the Congolese people’s desire for change. Kabila’s proxy candidate finished dead-last among the three presumed front-runners, with Tshisekedi finishing second. Martin Fayulu (former Exxon Mobil executive and Felix’s former political ally) was the actual winner, according to Catholic Congolese election monitors, poll results leaked to Radio France Internationale and the Financial Times, and subsequent statistical analyses.
Defeated at the ballot box, Kabila chose the least bad option: form an informal alliance with Tshisekedi, instruct his political allies in the electoral commission to declare him the winner, and rely on his allies across the government and security apparatus to ensure his interests are secure.
Overwhelming evidence of fraud was not an issue for the United States. On January 23, the U.S. welcomed the certification of Tshisekedi by Kabila’s packed constitutional court and recognized Kabila’s peaceful transfer of power, while ignoring Congolese deaths and torture at his hands.
The sudden policy change, however, came as a surprise to some members of the U.S. State Department. Initially, the U.S. position was simply to “note,” not welcome, the election and provide a statement acknowledging widespread election fraud. U.S. Ambassador to the DRC Mike Hammer, Pompeo Adviser Michael McKinley and Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale quickly changed the U.S.-Congolese policy course.
The current U.S. position on the DRC election was solidified February 26, when Special Envoy for the Great Lakes Peter Pham congratulated Tshisekedi on his inauguration and stressed U.S.’s commitment to him and his agenda. On April 3, Pompeo met with Tshisekedi, and according to Pompeo, the two discussed the importance of responsible development of Congolese resources. Pompeo also expressed support for Tshisekedi’s reform agenda.
Congolese resources are vital to U.S. security and economic interests. The DRC is Africa’s top copper producer and mines more than 60 percent of the world’s cobalt. These raw materials are used in everyday electronics such as cell phones, electrical equipment and will be key to meeting the demands of future electric vehicle markets. As such, the United States “seeks to ensure secure and reliable supplies” of 35 critical minerals.
National Security Advisor John Bolton outlined American interests across Africa in December 2018. Speaking at the Heritage Foundation, Bolton claimed China was “rapidly expanding their financial and political influence across Africa” by using “bribes, opaque agreements, and the strategic use of debt to hold states in Africa captive to Beijing’s wishes and demand.” To counteract this decline in American hegemony, the Trump administration would “focus our economic efforts on African governments that act with us as strategic partners … which are striving toward improved governance and transparent business practices.” A barrier to U.S. strategic objectives was Kabila’s presidency, during which the DRC was ranked 184th in ease of doing business. This has benefited former President Kabila, his international financial allies, and regional U.S. allies Rwanda and Uganda as the expense of the Congolese population.
Moreover, the United States has reoriented its foreign policy objectives to compete in a multipolar world. As stated in the U.S. 2018 National Defense Strategy, “Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern of U.S. National Security.” To remain on the top of the international order, the Department of Defense argues, the U.S. must “develop new technologies,” “modernize our nuclear forces” and “evolve our alliances and partnerships into an extended network capable of deterring or decisively acting to meet the shared challenges of our time.”
In Africa, the strategic report notes, the U.S. will “develop new relationships to address significant terrorist threats that threaten U.S. interests” and “limit the malign influence of non-African powers.” (The dominant non-African power in Africa is China.)
Not coincidently, President Tshisekedi touched on every one of these points during his visit to the U.S. At the Council on Foreign Relations, Tshisekedi lambasted his predecessor and nominal ally Kabila. Further, Tshisekedi claimed he would make a clean break from the previous dictatorial regime by rooting out the systematic corruption that has stunted the DRC’s economic growth, calling the U.S. an ideal partner to attract foreign investment. Specifically, he listed uranium, cobalt and niobium as strategic mineral reserves that are of great interest to the U.S.
Militarily, Tshisekedi alluded to the U.S.’s foreign policy power pivot. He told the Council that in today’s world of global competition and globalization, the U.S. needs a strategic partner in the heart of Africa. As if he was directly reading from the National Defense Strategy report, Tshisekedi asserted that the DRC was ready to become a member of the global coalition against terrorism. He continued to emphasize these key points in meetings throughout the week.
In recognizing and welcoming Tshisekedi’s electoral “victory,” the United States has an opportunity to chip away at former President Kabila’s hidden power structure in the DRC. Although the U.S. had endorsed Kabila’s previous fraudulent victory in 2011 (to the displeasure of Kabila’s rival, Tshisekedi’s father, Etienne Tshisekedi) and ignored Kabila’s corruption in 2006, it looks like Kabila has worn out his welcome in the West.
His continued violence against the Congolese population was eventually too much to ignore. His regime, overseeing the cover-up (and possible killing) of United Nations observers, too brazen. Mass graves can be overlooked when American interests are met, but not when your rule isn’t meeting U.S. interests. For the U.S., Kabila was an ally of necessity and convenience.
He allowed U.S. allies to plunder the DRC’s resources and allowed the U.S. itself to train commando battalions that the UN would eventually condemn for human rights abuses. The U.S. would then cover for him when he used child soldiers, but when U.S. officials had an easy opportunity to denounce electoral fraud in the 2011, they felt it was best to turn the other cheek.
Kabila’s narrow-minded greed, however, wasn’t enough to satisfy the growing U.S.’s geopolitical or corporate interests in Africa, especially as U.S. policy continued to produce blowback across the continent.
Now, however, Tshisekedi needs the United States. Kabila’s political party won an overwhelming majority in the country’s National Assembly and its indirectly elected Senate seats, elucidating the level of fraud that took place despite the fact that Tshisekedi won. As part of Tshisekedi’s “change agenda,” he initially refused to allow the senators to be seated, but relinquished to Kabila prior to visiting the U.S. President Tshisekedi suffered another electoral defeat in the gubernatorial elections, where his party won only one province. Kabila’s party won 16. For the time being, Felix has been able to successfully veto Kabila’s recommendation for prime minister.
Tshisekedi’s pledge to reduce “corruption,” i.e., make it easier for U.S. corporations to invest in the DRC, is appealing to the U.S. foreign policy establishment, as it is projected to spend more than a trillion dollars on nuclear weapon upgrades, including flying and developing new drones for use in Africa while using African forces as proxies for U.S. interests across the continent.
Whatever the outcome of this behind-the-scenes jockeying for power in the DRC, the Trump administration continues a long legacy of subverting and capitalizing on Congolese democratic ambitions for myopic U.S. interests.