Paul Pillar

Congo the Colossal Cripple

Flickr/Julien Harneis.There's been more fighting lately in the eastern portion of Congo. Again we are led to think about how a country that occupies such a large part of the map can get pushed around by a much smaller neighbor such as Rwanda. This time a rebel group known as M23 and suspected of being backed by both Rwanda and Uganda has scored advances against Congolese government forces and recently seized the provincial capital of Goma.

What ought to gain our attention about conflict in this painfully conflict-prone section of Africa, besides any complications regarding access to its mineral resources, is the repeated involvement of multiple nations and the sheer magnitude of some of the bloodshed and human suffering in the area. The five years of warfare, ending in 2003, that centered in this same portion of Congo involved the forces of eight countries and a couple of dozen armed groups and led to the deaths of more than five million people, many of them from disease or starvation connected directly to the fighting. That toll made it the deadliest war anywhere since World War II.

None of this means there is much of anything the United States can or should try to do about the situation in Congo. The complicated and confusing lines of conflict make this area one of the least promising venues for effective outside intervention. (A United Nations force is present; it has mostly been only a spectator as M23 has made its advances.) To the extent that bloody events in this part of Africa have had any influence on American policy thinking it has probably not been on balance good. The war of 1998-2003 came on the heels of a shorter war in Congo that in turn was triggered by developments that followed the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. Subsequent hand-wringing over that latter event has served mainly to inject more emotion than reason into U.S. policy deliberations. An intervention in Libya based on a dubious rationale about preventing a presumed bloodbath was one result.

The situation in Congo, although it does not imply a particular policy response, may have more general implications about sovereignty, territory, and what makes for a viable nation-state. Maybe Congo is just too big. No one has ever really governed it all, although the autocratic kleptomaniac-strongman Joseph Mobutu came closest. The territory that is now Congo was first assembled as an ill-managed private possession of a nineteenth century Belgian monarch. The Belgian government later took over the mess and did some good things, but effective governance of a territory that is 75 times the size of Belgium itself was beyond its capacity. When Congo became independent in 1960 it was in turmoil from day one, with a president and prime minister trying to remove each other and the wealthiest province trying to secede. With more than half a century having gone by since independence, there probably is sufficient grounds for calling this experiment in nation-building a failure.

Africans have since independence generally refrained from challenging the often illogical boundaries that European colonialists had left them, lest this lead to unstoppable unraveling. The secession of the southern portion of Sudan is a recent and conspicuous exception. The jury is still very much out on how that story will turn out, and there is not an obvious line of division in Congo that is even as clear as the (nonetheless contested) line in Sudan. But if Congo were to break up that would not necessarily be cause for regret.