Obama’s Africa visit: Turning rhetoric into reality in the Great Lakes region

President Obama delivered a case for growing trade relations among African states, overcoming barriers that restrict economic opportunities, and deepening engagement for U.S. private sector investment.

The message President Obama brought was clear: democratic reform, the development of opportunity for young leaders, and making peace and security a priority are all essential for economic growth and capacity building on the continent—and we the United States want to be a partner in that growth. 

Nowhere is this message more critical than in the Great Lakes region, especially in the Democratic Republic of Congo, or DRC, Rwanda, and Uganda.

With Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent appointment of former U.S. Senator Russ Feingold as Special Envoy to the Great Lakes region and to the DRC, the Administration can deliver on its commitments to increase trade and development in Africa.

Many of the economic incentives that drive ongoing conflict reside in the region’s capitals—Kinshasa, Kigali, and Kampala. There, the political elite maneuver their proxies in the field. These proxies, such as the rebel group M23 in Congo, skirmish over access to strategic minerals reserves and trade routes; claims to land around Congo’s eastern border; and the militarization of politics that typifies eastern Congo’s socio-economic landscape.

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There is good news. After nearly 20 years of armed conflict in eastern Congo, an opportunity for peace and prosperity is taking shape. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon recently demonstrated a commitment to ending the conflict by appointing former Irish President Mary Robinson as the U.N. Special Envoy to the Great Lakes. Her appointment came with promises of increased transparency, accountability, and inclusivity. These promises, if realized, could make the peace process more comprehensive and effective than efforts to date.

Acting with regional stakeholders, the U.N. has facilitated a new Framework for Peace, Security, and Cooperation for Congo and the Region. This framework aims to address the drivers of conflict, include more youth and civil society leaders, and facilitate growth and trade as a means of creating peace. And now, together with regional partners and U.N. Envoy Robinson, the Obama administration should work to encourage economic growth by implementing four policies.

 1.     Incentivize regional cooperation.

The U.S. must use its diplomatic and economic leverage to incentivize the harmonization of tariffs and the elimination of trade barriers among regional states, particularly within the mining industry.

 2.     Develop infrastructure.

Lack of transportation and energy infrastructure are among the challenges to economic growth and community development in eastern Congo. At the Bisie tin mine in Congo’s north Kivu province, miners have to haul sacks of tin ore for two days through a jungle to get to a market. They face extortion by multiple armed groups along the route. Therefore, building road and rail systems would improve human security. Similarly, eastern Congo suffers from frequent power shortages, which discourage investment in conflict-free mining. The U.S. should build on the World Bank’s recently promised infrastructure plans, by supporting public and private investment initiatives.

 3.     Monitor cross-border trade.

Cross-border trade, if allowed to remain informal and unmonitored, will keep fueling the kinds of lucrative smuggling that benefit armed groups, corrupt businesses, and arms traders. The U.S. should ensure that efforts to grow cross-border trade are accompanied by similar efforts to create independent regional monitoring, such as the Independent Mineral Chain Auditor of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region.

 4.     Involve local leaders.

Past peace processes that did not sufficiently include leadership from civil society, women, youth, and the private sector have failed. This time, the U.S. and U.N. must ensure that all regional economic integration strategies incorporate sustained involvement from these leaders.

By working with regional and international partners to improve security, governance, and prosperity for the region, the U.S. can help create jobs, diversify livelihoods, and help nations become less dependent on international aid. Only through addressing the economic drivers of conflict will the region and our relationships there succeed.

Hall is a Nairobi-based field consultant for the Enough Project at the Center for American Progress.