DRC: Why the US has not appointed a special envoy for the Great Lakes

By Stanis Bujakera Tshiamala
Posted on Thursday, 8 September 2022 12:39

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (C) meets with members of civil society in eastern Congo, including Panzi Hospital and Foundation founder Dr. Dennis Mukwege (2nd L) at the US Ambassador's residence in Kinshasa, 10 August 2022. © ANDREW HARNIK/POOL/AFP

Since the election of Joe Biden, no American representative for the Great Lakes region has been appointed. Is this a sign of US lack of interest or mere lack of competence? Faced with the violence in eastern DRC and the approaching presidential election, many voices are calling for a greater commitment from Washington.

Kinshasa, 11 August. On the last day of his visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo, as he prepared to take off for Kigali, Antony Blinken was questioned by Congolese civil society actors and human rights defenders. In turn, Denis Mukwege, the famous doctor and 2018 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and activists Julienne Lusenge and Fred Bauma wanted to ensure that the US Secretary of State would stand firm with their neighbour. Since the resurgence of M23 in November 2021, Rwanda has been accused of supporting the rebel movement, accusations it has denied.

Then they brought up a second point, asking Blinken for the appointment of a special US envoy for the Great Lakes. This request had already been made in 2021 by the NGO Human Rights Watch: “Given the deteriorating situation and the potentially devastating consequences for the DRC and the region, if nothing is done, it is time for the US government to adopt a new approach and engage at the highest level (…). Such a commitment should include the appointment of a new special envoy for the Great Lakes,” the organisation wrote at the time. In addition to political activism for new peace negotiations in eastern Congo, an American special envoy would be tasked with working on issues of good governance and the fight against corruption, with the next presidential election coming up in December 2023.

Lack of interest?

Since Joe Biden came to power, the departure of J. Peter Pham, who occupied the special envoy post from October 2018 until March 2020 during the Trump presidency, has been noted, but no one has been appointed to replace him. Which seems to signal a certain disengagement of the United States in the region. “It is quite possible that an American special envoy will be appointed to monitor electoral issues in the DRC for the purpose of democratic consolidation, rather than advancing the regional peace process,” explains a European diplomatic source.

“If the Biden administration has not found it appropriate to appoint someone, it means that it is not one of its priorities,” says an adviser to Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi. “The appointment of a special envoy would not be a bad thing, it would allow the US government to monitor the situation closely. But how much leeway would it have to make progress on the ground? Blinken came to Kinshasa but what has changed on the ground?” asks a member of the Congolese government.

Results

Traditionally, the appointment of a special envoy has several advantages. It allows for global coverage of a region (in this case, Burundi, DRC, Uganda and Rwanda) and for the emergence of an American policy in terms of security, humanitarian and economic issues… A strategy that has been successful in the past.

Russ Feingold, Special Envoy for the Great Lakes from 2013 to 2015, helped manage the first M23 offensive after the takeover of Goma in 2012. In particular, he exerted pressure on Rwanda, which eventually withdrew its support for the rebel group, which was finally defeated. He also contributed to the signing of the Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework Agreement for the DRC in Addis Ababa. “Today, the resurgence of this movement could also result from a certain detachment of the United States on these issues, whose approach is no longer global,” explains a diplomatic source.

In the opinion of a former US special envoy who requested anonymity, the success of a special envoy’s mission depends on three elements. First, he or she must have political clout within the administration. “If the Biden administration has already appointed its third special envoy for the Horn of Africa, it is precisely because the first two were experienced diplomats, but had no political importance,” adds our source.

Secondly, the special envoy must have excellent personal relations with the US assistant secretaries of state whose jurisdiction overlaps with theirs, or else there could be bureaucratic conflict. Third, the special envoy must offer something more than the current US ambassadors. Otherwise, what good are they?

Skills

“When I think of my predecessors, the ones who have had the most influence are the ones who have brought something special to the table, whether it’s [Clinton administration Special Envoy] Howard Wolpe’s long personal history of peace and development in the region or Tom Perriello’s [the Obama administration] commitment to human rights and rule of law. I had not only studied and published on the region but had personal friendships with many leaders and civil society representatives,” Pham has recalled.

A year and a half after taking office, why then hasn’t the Biden administration appointed anyone? “I think the Biden administration really didn’t know what policy they wanted to pursue in Africa,” says another Western diplomatic source. “It took them months to find a candidate for assistant secretary for Africa in the person of Molly Phee. Unlike the Democratic administrations of Clinton and Obama, they simply did not have anyone who met the criteria,” our source says. Another diplomatic source spoke more toughly, referring to the negligence of the Biden administration with “only empty words” to offer the continent.

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