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In his second inaugural address, President Barack Obama said, “We will support democracy from Asia to Africa, from the Americas to the Middle East, because our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom.”
The president was right to single out Africa as a place where American support is greatly needed. The International Monetary Fund and the Economist report that during the past decade, six of the world’s fastest-growing economies are within sub-Saharan Africa. Despite this promising trend, which is expected to expand to seven nations during the next decade, recent developments from Mali to Algeria make it clear that U.S. leadership is needed to help maintain peace and stability so that the prosperity seen in places such as Angola and Ghana can spread to every corner of the continent.
On Tuesday, Obama’s nominee for secretary of State, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts is expected to win Senate confirmation, giving those closely following Africa the opportunity to elevate both the crises and the promise Africa holds.
Nowhere is U.S. leadership needed more than in an almost 20-year conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which has claimed about 5 million lives and displaced millions.
The DRC crisis has claimed more lives than the world has experienced in any conflict since World War II, and the fighting continues to simmer today. More than 1.3 million people have been forced from their homes and are now living in crowded camps, vulnerable to even more violence, disease and poverty. When put in those terms, this is certainly a worthy topic of debate and action as the administration develops its second-term Africa agenda.
The great depths of this conflict and its implications for American foreign policy demand nothing less than an actionable commitment to finally develop a comprehensive response to defuse this crisis, which has included a five-year civil war from 1998 to 2003. During this extraordinarily dark period, children by the thousands were recruited into the Congolese military and 1 in 3 women were subjected to sexual and gender-based violence as a tool of war.
Despite a sizable list of foreign affairs priorities for Obama’s incoming national security team, central Africa, particularly the DRC, is more than deserving of this renewed focus.
Roughly the size of Western Europe, the DRC is home to 73 million people and boasts natural deposits of diamonds, gold, copper and zinc. It is also home to the rare metal coltan that is used in the production of capacitors found in daily electronic items such as cellphones, pacemakers and hearing aids. With the recent discovery of oil and gas reserves, the DRC’s mineral wealth exemplifies extraordinary economic and development potential.
While the DRC’s mineral wealth may be vast, so too is the depth of the country’s social and political challenges. In a nation where three-quarters of the population lives on less than a dollar a day, the barriers to development are immense and exasperated by a critical need to change the security sector and the Congolese government itself.
Congress and the administration must work in common interest and show genuine U.S. leadership that works with regional and international partners to address the root causes of instability and strife. Any solution must address grievances of armed groups, hold perpetrators of human rights abuses accountable for their crimes, strengthen the Congolese government including security sector changes, and most importantly, ensure that neighboring countries respect and refrain from challenging the territorial integrity of the DRC.
An initial step toward this goal is to elevate the status of the special adviser to the DRC and Great Lakes region to the status of a presidential special envoy. Doing so would send a clear signal that the United States is not only serious about resolving this conflict, but that this is a moral imperative that compels us to act.
Furthermore, it empowers the person who holds this position with the authority to report directly to the president and secretary of State. It positions the special envoy to work within an interagency capacity to ensure the DRC is elevated to the top of the president’s second-term Africa agenda.
The president set the standard in his inaugural address for what American leadership must be when dealing with crises around the globe. Now that he has laid the marker for where America will stand during his second term, the time for decisive action on the DRC is now.
Democratic Rep. Karen Bass represents California’s 37th District and serves as ranking member of the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations.