There is a common flaw in US foreign policy. In giving aid to foreign nations, the United States prioritizes its own foreign policy goals over any standards of good governance. Because this system of support ignores the realities on the ground, it ultimately backfires, undermining US long-term interests and fueling instability, conflict, and violations of core human rights standards. Nowhere is this more true than in Africa. Today, President Bush supports corrupt, illegitimate regimes that will either cooperate in the Global War on Terror, provide US companies access to much sought-after natural resources, or both. If history is any indication, this infusion of wealth and military training for such self-interested gains is likely to be disastrous for the people of Africa.
A particularly good example of this is Rwanda — a country that has abused its neighboring people in the Democratic Republic of Congo with support from the United States government. President Paul Kagame will host President Bush this week. Will the leader of the most powerful country in the world have the courage to discuss Rwanda’s negative role in peace and economic development in DRC? Will he castigate Rwandan President Kagame for not providing the political space for Hutus to return to Rwanda? Likely, no. He will announce US support for peace in Congo while simultaneously pushing forward a foreign policy that favors only America’s narrow interests.
From 1996-2003, the people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo suffered a great deal from two wars that pitted Rwanda and its allies against the Congo. The Congolese loss was other people’s gain. According to Global Policy Forum’s Tito Dragon in “DR Congo: Dirt Above Ground, Precious Metal Below,” “it was the attempt to control coltan mines that was the principal, if not the only, motivation behind the US-backed 1998 occupation of part of DRC territory by Rwanda and Uganda.” In fact, in 2004, after a three-year investigation, a UN Panel of Experts implicated three major US companies for fueling war in DRC by collaborating with rebel groups trafficking coltan. US assistance to Rwanda continues today largely due to Kagame’s willingness to be engaged in the US War on Terror; and again, the people of DRC lose.
Though he publicly denies any direct involvement, most officials agree that President Kagame funds renegade General Laurent Nkunda‘s militia in DRC — a militia whose primary purpose appears to be keeping Hutu rebels away from the Rwandan border. A UN report accuses Nkunda’s Tutsi faction of some of the worst human rights abuses of any rebel group currently operating in the eastern region. Though Kagame has undoubtedly brought strong economic development to the small Great Lakes nation, he has failed to adequately deal with the legacy of the 1994 genocide — the strained relationship between Hutus and Tutsis.
Bush knows that Rwanda’s involvement in the armed conflict in DRC delays peace in eastern Congo, but he continues to authorize military aid to Rwanda. In 2007, the United States armed and trained Rwandan soldiers with $7.2 million from the US defense program Africa Contingent Operations Training Assistance (ACOTA) and $260,000 from the International Military and Education (IMET) program. At the same time, the US is involved in facilitating peace talks between Rwanda and DRC and the various rebel groups operating in eastern Congo. Not only does arming Rwanda contradict the peace process, but it also delays the recovery of Rwanda from its 1994 genocide.
During the Cold War, the US provided military aid to African countries to counter communism. Many of those countries — Somalia, Sudan, Liberia, and DRC — have now become hotspots of violence and economic failure in Africa. It is no surprise that lending arms and financial support to corrupt dictators and human rights abusers contributes to destabilization, but still the US government has yet to learn its lesson. Today, the rationale for providing military aid to countries like Rwanda is to counter terrorism; likely, the methods and outcomes will be largely the same as they were in the 1980s.
The Department of Defense argues that by training and equipping African military forces, it will bring greater stability and legitimacy to African governments. The case for professionalizing militaries was also made during the Cold War and it was a policy that ultimately failed. It should not be used again today to justify the self-interests of the United States.
This week, President Bush has the opportunity to encourage African governments to engage peacefully and democratically with their people and with each other, but only if the Administration’s actions are seen as legitimate by African nations. Most countries have voiced a vehement “no” to the creation and implementation of a new US military command for Africa (AFRICOM) and other US military activities on the continent. For the sake of countries like DRC, Mr. Bush should begin with a drawing back of his own defense policy in Africa.
Bahati Ntama Jacques is the Policy Analyst at the Africa Faith and Justice Network (AFJN) in Washington, DC. He is Congolese. Beth Tuckey is the Associate Director of Program Development and Policy at AFJN in Washington, DC. This article first appeared in Pambazuka News on 19 February 2008.