Do the US and South Africa have a role in resolving DRC conflict?


On March 18 Bosco Ntaganda, International Criminal Court (ICC) inductee and leader of one of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s M23 rebel factions, walked into United States Embassy in Kigali. Ntaganda, also known as “The Terminator,” specifically asked to be transferred to the ICC in the Hague.

Less than a week earlier, on 12 March, a tripartite summit gathering of the presidents of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Angola and South Africa took place in Luanda, Angola, to discuss the situation in the eastern DRC with the goal of implementing the Framework Agreement for peace, stability and cooperation in that country and region. This includes the deployment of more than 3 000 troops to the area. This meeting came a month after South African police arrested 19 suspected Congolese rebels in Limpopo, including two senior members of the M23 group, on suspicion of running an illegal military operation.

These developments raise a number of questions around the involvement of Washington and Pretoria in the conflict in the DRC that has been witness to the loss of millions of lives.


Africa is a continent full of minerals and other resources. It is also home to seven of the current 14 UN peacekeeping operations taking place around the world. One of these operations is the United Nations Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) that aims to protect civilians and consolidate peace in its eastern region. The conflict in the eastern DRC, raging on and off since the 1990s, has led to the deaths of millions – some NGOs such as the International Rescue Committee put the number as high as 5.4 million, making it the worst conflict since World War II.

The issue of peace in Africa is high on the agenda of both America and South Africa. The latter has played a beneficial role to help resolve the conflict during the past decade. The Global and All-Inclusive Peace Accord between the DRC and main rebel groups was signed in Pretoria on 17 December 2002. The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) is sending troops and equipment to the DRC as part of a South African Development Community (SADC) standby force, but crucial questions still remain around its capability. Although it currently contributes over 1 000 soldiers to MONUSCO as well, there is a general consensus that more needs to be done in order for the military to become a more lean, robust and effective fighting force that can assist in peacekeeping and peacebuilding in the DRC, SADC and continent wide. Questions were also raised after 13 South African soldiers were killed in late March in the Central African Republic (CAR).

The US military, on the other hand, is still the world’s largest. However, America’s history in the DRC is much more controversial. Since the 1960s, Washington helped install Mobutu Sese Seko as dictator of the Congo therefore giving American companies preferential treatment to the country’s minerals. When Mobutu began to limit access by Western corporations, the Pentagon trained leaders of Uganda and Rwanda in order to maintain access to mineral-rich areas of the DRC. US companies frequently cited in these activities include Citibank, American Mineral Fields, and engineering firm Bechtel.

In 2010, US President Barack Obama signed the Dodd-Frank Act into law with the goal of breaking the link between the region’s mining industry and rebel groups by cutting off their main sources of funding such as gold and tin. It does this by requiring all US-registered companies to certify their entire supply chains as conflict-free.

Today, the US State Department describes America’s relations with the DRC as ‘strong.’ The State Department talks about the role America has played in the peace process and internal reconciliation and democratization. The bilateral military relations are probably even stronger. Former US Africa Command (Africom) commander General Carter F. Ham made several visits to Kinshasa during his time in office, including an 11-13 July 2012 visit to discuss regional security issues and the ongoing operations against the Lord’s Resistance Army.

Africom provides training to the Congolese Armed Forces that includes the 391st light infantry battalion, which was subsequently deployed to LRA-affected areas of the DRC. Moreover, Washington is the largest donor to MONUSCO.

However, people like Glen Ford of Global Research strongly criticise America’s role in the region stating some now “charge the Obama administration, like the Bush and Clinton administrations before it, with ‘protecting’ Rwanda and Uganda in their de facto annexation of eastern Congo and its mineral riches. But the actual relationship is more like that between a Mafia Godfather and his murderous henchmen.”

There is a perception outside of America that the DRC’s large mineral wealth is one of the driving factors behind US foreign policy in the region, but exactly how large is this wealth?

The DRC’s ‘large figures’

The DRC is the 11th largest country in the world, roughly comparable to the size of Western Europe, and has a population of over 70 million people. Economically, the numbers are even bigger. Twenty-four trillion dollars or almost 40% of the global economy’s copper, cobalt, coltan and other mineral reserves lie beneath DRC soil. The DRC may also hold the key to unlocking Africa’s energy problems via the Grand Inga Dam scheme. If constructed, it could provide power to 500 million of Africa’s 900 million people who currently live without electricity. Projections are that the project could generate up to 39 000 megawatts, which equates to more than double the amount generated by China’s Three Gorges Dam.

While these large numbers are impressive, they rely mainly on one pre-condition – peace and security. Providing that is not a cheap or simple exercise. According to the CIA Factbook and Jane’s Defence Weekly, the DRC spends between 2 and 3% of its US$15.6 billion GDP on an annual basis on its military. If these figures are correct, this amounts to around US$313-469 million a year. This is far less than the international community spends on peace and security in the DRC.

Since 1999, the UN has allocated over US$10 billion in the search for peace in the DRC, with most of the money going to MONUSCO, the largest and most robust UN peacekeeping mission in the world. The budget for the 1 July 2012 to 30 June 2013 period alone is US$1.4 billion. In total, the mission involves over 23 500 personnel, of which 17 000 are military troops. The military personnel hail from dozens of countries including Special Forces from Guatemala and Jordan and troops from African nations such as Egypt, Ghana, and South Africa.

The peacekeepers’ main task is currently to assist the Congolese brigades in the fight against the M23 rebels. Although the DRC originally accused Rwanda of supporting the M23 and there have been several UN and NGO reports suggesting Rwandan involvement, an agreement has been reached for an African neutral force to be deployed under the AU and UN. This new neutral force will comprise of more than 3 000 troops, although it is not yet certain which countries will contribute troops to the proposed force. The AU, in July 2012, originally backed the move and promised to help raise troops. It was further announced at the Southern African Development Community Head of State and Government Extraordinary Summit on 8 December 2012 in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, that a Standby Force under supervision of the neutral forces will be sent to the eastern DRC to help guarantee peace.

South Africa and America’s role in the DRC

South Africa and Tanzania are two countries’ that promise to send battalions to the DRC as part of the SADC-led international assistance force. This is in addition to the SANDF already present in the DRC as part of MONUSCO. The SANDF has been operating alongside the UN in the DRC since 2000 when it led efforts to stabilize the country’s internal politics, and helped with post-conflict reconstruction and the development of infrastructure. In addition, South Africa contributes 1,214 troops to MONUSCO. South Africa has also provided a utility helicopter, which is a much-needed resource in UN peacekeeping missions. Overall, South African troops in the DRC and their numerous contributions to the mission from helicopters to engineering have been highly spoken of.

At a bilateral level, South Africa and the DRC signed an agreement on defence cooperation in 2004. South Africa has also been involved in the training of DRC Armed Forces (FARDC) troops based on a capacity-building/training agreement signed between the two countries in August 2007. The training has been concluded and the South African Ambassador to the DRC, Mr N. Mashimbye, formally handed over 42 and 43 Rapid Reaction Force Battalions to Brig Gen Mbuayana, Director of Logistics of the FARDC during a parade held in the DRC in February 2011.

Washington has also been heavily involved in the training of the Congolese military. American, DRC, UN and other representatives gathered on 17 February 2010 at a military base in north-central DRC to mark the establishment of a light infantry battalion trained by the US and intended to be a model unit for the future of the Congolese military. Overall, Africom through its Special Operations Command component is providing oversight of the training programme.

These training programmes have been accompanied by high-level US political visits to the DRC. The Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman visited Kinshasa in November 2012, meeting President Joseph Kabila, Prime Minister Matata Ponyo, Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Luba Ntambo and Foreign Minister Tshibanda to discuss the conflict in the eastern Congo. Other recent visits came from Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson who he spoke to leaders in Kinshasa, Kampala and Kigali in order to stress the importance of Washington’s diplomatic engagement with all of the players in the region.

Politically, South Africa has been involved in the DRC conflict for over a decade. It emerged as the principal broker in ending the fighting with the Global and All-Inclusive Peace Accord being signed in Pretoria on 17 December 2002 and endorsed at Sun City on 2 April 2003. Former South African President Thabo Mbeki played a crucial role in keeping the accord alive during his presidency.

More recently, the South African government spent R126 million to assist the DRC with its election in 2011. The South African military transported ballot papers printed in South Africa to 13 transit points or hubs in the DRC. This included 1 863 tons of electoral material on 39 flights with a chartered Boeing 747. This has led to accusations in some quarters of Congolese society of South African involvement in internal DRC affairs aimed at securing and sustaining its own economic interests.

Nonetheless, while economic cooperation remains strong, it is not as good as it could be. Two-way trade between South Africa and the DRC was R7.8 billion in 2011, up from R6.2 billion in 2010 and R4.8 billion in 2009. While it reflects steady growth in trade between the two countries, the trade balance remains skewed in favour of South Africa.

In order to support Congolese, South African and other African businesses, Presidents Jacob Zuma and Joseph Kabila signed a bilateral agreement in November 2011 to construct the Grand Inga Dam. The DRC and South Africa are forging ahead with their plans to build Grand Inga with the backing of the world’s major development banks. Eighty billion dollars is needed, and if completed, the generated electricity will be managed by South Africa’s Eskom and the DRC’s Societe Nationale d’Electricite Societe a Responsibilite Limitee National and be sold to the highest bidders. Zuma and Kabila met again in Pretoria in late October 2012 but no further information was revealed. Then on 07-08 March 2013, South Africa’s Energy Minister, Dipuo Peters, and DRC’s Hydro Resources and Electricity Minister, Bruno Kapanji Kalala, met in Lubumbashi to finalize the proposed Grand Inga Project Treaty. A workshop also took place to deliberate on the feasibility study for the project.

The US has less of an economic role in the DRC compared to Pretoria. The majority of US imports from the DRC are oil, with imports totalling US$606 million in 2011, up 14.8% from 2010. US exports to the DRC in 2011 were $166 million, up 78.3% from the previous year, making the DRC the 136th largest export market for American goods.

Despite its relatively low-key economic relationship, the US is heavily involved in development type projects. On the education front, US Ambassador James F Entwistle and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) Mission Director Dr Diana Putman inaugurated the newly renovated Institute of Training for Elementary, Secondary and Professional Education in Kisangani in February 2012. A month later, in March 2012, USAID announced a five-year project to boost the production of staple crops to make food cheaper and more available for the Congolese people. USAID has also provided technical assistance and material support for community radio stations and regional radio networks in the country and for journalists, radio station managers, and other media professionals. These programmes were in addition to the US$110 million provided in 2012 for humanitarian assistance for Congolese refugees, internally displaced persons, and conflict-affected civilians.

Can the SANDF and US military do more in the DRC and beyond?

Washington has unique influence in the region with strong connections in Rwanda and Uganda, as well as the DRC. It must continue to train government forces through Africom and the State Department, who are engaging with the various rebel groups in the area. Under that same line, it should withdraw support to any entity that supports the rebels. It should also provide the UN peacekeeping forces with any assistance it needs in terms of the use of surveillance drones that MONUSCO plans to use to monitor the DRC’s border with Rwanda.

Assistant Secretary of State Carson gave a presentation to the Brookings Institution in February 2013 outlining the main reasons for more US involvement in the DRC. These reasons included a moral imperative; fiscal and financial imperatives; the consequences of Congolese instability for US national interests; and the lack of an option for failure.

South Africa, which will most likely contribute more to the DRC, is currently undergoing a much-needed defence review after a 12 year hiatus. One of the key themes highlighted in the review is the importance of South African involvement in regional peacekeeping operations. Two of the SANDF’s main tasks are to conduct peacekeeping operations and protect South Africa’s coastline and land border. The second draft of the review discussed in November 2012 calls for a rapidly deployable division, additional maritime patrol aircraft and helicopters as well as ships. However, with manpower and equipment restraints, can the SANDF do more than what it is currently accomplishing? The answer is an unfortunate no.

More than half of South Africa’s soldiers are medically unfit and numerous servicemen are too old. Another issue is lack of training, with Army reservists not being deployed on training since 1996. However, a key concern is a lack of funds. Because of budget constraints the Army can deploy only one operational brigade of 3 000 and its military equipment is in an abysmal state with only 20 out of 168 Olifants and 16 out of 242 Rooikat armoured cars being deployed.

How much of a budget increase is needed to address these concerns is a valid question, but it is estimated to be between R7.5 billion to R14 billion above current defence spending. This money needs to be spent on the day-to-day running costs of the armed services and not expensive fighter jets. Some more pricey equipment will be required in future including transport aircraft and ground vehicles, but it is what is needed in order for South Africa to continue to participate in African peacekeeping missions. For example, South Africa is currently looking to acquire aircraft to fulfil its transport and maritime patrol requirements, which can be used in the DRC UN mission. It appears that the military has narrowed the choice down to Airbus’ C295 or A400M and Lockheed Martin’s C130XJ Expandable Super Hercules after South Africa cancelled a deal for eight A400 aircraft in November 2009 amid repeated delivery delays and complaints of cost increases.

Investments need to be made into South African military troops through schemes such as the Military Skills Development Programme (MSD) that helps train young unemployed youth. These individuals learn valuable skills in the fields of engineering, IT and logistics, which South Africa desperately needs. It is these same individuals who will hopefully return to African countries like the DRC in order to conduct business and create jobs.

South Africa’s low defence expenditure becomes apparent when comparing it to other perceived hegemons around the world.

Regional Hegemons and Defence

Country Defence spending – % of GDP Top 20 Arms Exports Rankings (2007-11)
India 2.5 <20
Russia 3.9 2
Brazil 1.5 20
South Africa 1.3 16
United Kingdom 2.6 5
France 2.3 4
Turkey  2.3 <20
Australia  1.8 <20
China 2.0 6
United States 4.7 1

Despite South African exports ranking quite high on the global scale as shown in the table, it would be beneficial for the country to invest more in its defence industry. South Africa’s Industrial Policy Action Plan (IPAP2) states: “The sector is a critical and pervasive generator of new technologies and is key to future innovation in South Africa. It also enhances Government engagement across substantial parts of manufacturing, services and primary sectors of the economy to achieve long-term intensification of the country’s industrialisation processes and movement towards a knowledge economy.”

Concluding Remarks

The DRC itself has a wealth of resources that could be unlocked to ensure a better life for its people. All members of the international community are in agreement that to unlock this ‘massive’ potential, the M23 rebels must be stopped and regional peace must be achieved. South Africa supporting the new African neutral force in the Eastern DRC via its commitment to SADC is a very welcome development. Furthermore, the neutral force will most likely consist of Rwandan troops, which is welcome due to their highly disciplined and well trained army who, in June 2012, were hailed for playing an active part towards the contribution of troops, police and correctional personnel to UN-led international peacekeeping operations. South Africa and America should offer assistance wherever it can.

Washington itself should reassess its support for the MONUSCO, continue to train government troops while demanding accountability from Kinshasa, use its influence in Rwanda and Uganda to ensure further support, and most importantly accentuate the need for an African strategy.

South Africa bolstering its peace and security efforts in the DRC and across the continent makes moral, political and economic sense for the perceived leader of Africa. South Africa can help bring an end to the massive loss of life. Politically, more involvement is especially relevant within the context of being a BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) group member and consistently ‘punching above its weight’ in political affairs.

This is going to require more targeted and higher defence expenditure, which currently stands at R38.4 billion rand (US$5.1 billion and R40.2 billion for the 2013/14 financial year) amounting to just over 1% of GDP. It will also require more training of young, medically fit soldiers using equipment that is actually deployable. A better integrated 2012 South African Defence Review and South African Industrial Policy Action Plan will achieve these worthwhile objectives such as a well-equipped military and the expansion of the local defence industry and thus job creation. Lastly, a peaceful DRC will bring with it numerous economic opportunities that will positively affect the lives of thousands of citizens from the DRC, South Africa, the US and beyond.

Dr Scott Firsing is a Senior Lecturer and Head: International Studies at Monash South Africa.