A 'waning of US leadership' in Africa's Great Lakes region

The peaceful transition of power is not a luxury a society should crave, but rather is a basic right. It is a principle the United States promotes in all countries across the region, and, indeed, the world. Changing constitutions and eliminating term-limits to favor current incumbents is inconsistent with democratic principles, reduces confidence in democratic institutions, often leading to serious instability, and undermines the legacy and legitimacy of any individual who demands such steps.

— Former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), remarks at the U.S. Institute of Peace, Feb. 24, 2015

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Former Sen. Russ Feingold's (D-Wis.) departing words as our nation's special envoy for Africa's Great Lakes region and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) took on new urgency in East and Central Africa this week.

Feingold's departure on March 3 has left a discernible void in a position where he demonstrated both extraordinary leadership, and frankly, diplomatic muscle. It is also a position that many hoped would have been filled well before now.

During his tenure, Feingold traveled to the region 15 times and met with heads of state, civil society and a host of regional decision-makers. His mandate was to capitalize on the convening power of the United States to keep a multi-nation peace accord on track and ensure stability in a region brought to the brink by two decades of conflict and violence.

Last week, Reps. Karen BassKaren BassMeet the Democrat at center of party platform tug of war Amateur theatrics: An insult to Africa 'Veep' star lobbies to end human trafficking MORE (D-Calif.) and Chris Smith (R-N.J.), leaders of the House subcommittee on Africa, sent a bicameral letter alongside 20 members of Congress to President Obama, urging the administration to expeditiously appoint Feingold's replacement. The letter expressed growing congressional concern that the continued vacancy "signals a waning of U.S. leadership."

A similar letter, signed by two dozen advocacy and human rights groups including our own, was sent to Secretary of State John KerryJohn KerryWhite House: We were prepared for Brexit vote After Brexit vote, is anything left of Britain? Kerry reaffirms support for Britain, urges calm MORE on March 2, calling for the appointment of a "dynamic, high-profile, well-resourced" envoy.

The urgency of this situation is self-evident. Yesterday, news reports indicated a possible coup in Burundi launched by the newly formed "National Salvation Committee."

Burundi's reported coup comes after the deaths of more than 20 people over the past two weeks during protests against the controversial bid for a third term by the country's president. Opposition parties, the African Union and even Kerry all argue that Burundi's president, Pierre Nkurunziza, violated a 2005 peace agreement that ended a bloody 12-year civil war that claimed an estimated 300,000 lives.

This week, in an effort to stave off a crisis that could have violent and even deadly regional consequences, an emergency summit was scheduled — but subsequently cancelled yesterday — to address the political crisis. With the special envoy position unfilled, the U.S. assistant secretary for African affairs, Linda Thomas Greenfield, was dispatched to Tanzania. While the assistant secretary is an extremely accomplished and a well-respected diplomat, she cannot be expected to be the main U.S. point of engagement given her expansive portfolio, which covers all 48 sub-Saharan Africa nations.

Unfortunately, Burundi is not the only urgent matter requiring the direct engagement of an special envoy. In DRC, some 40 Congolese protesters were killed in January and several activists detained without due process after participating in demonstrations to protest proposed changes to the country's electoral policies. Last month, the State Department issued a statement calling on the Congolese government to either immediately free the detained activists or charge them. After nearly two months, activists Fred Bauma and Yves Makwambala remain in custody.

And on May 6, MONUSCO, the United Nations' peacekeeping force in Congo, reported the death of two Tanzanian peacekeepers, killed in an area where the Congolese Army is presently fighting the Allied Democratic Forces, a Ugandan-armed militia. These deaths come after countless Congolese have been terrorized and killed over the last year.

Some fear the risk of violence and instability in the region will only increase. With historic parliamentary and presidential elections expected in the DRC, Burundi and Rwanda over the next two years, the region approaches a critical juncture fraught with a mix of uncertainty and cautious hope.

The U.S. has invested billions of dollars in humanitarian, development and security assistance to build and strengthen democratic institutions throughout the region. There is critical need for a high-level envoy who is actively engaged and pursuing the full range of interests that are good for Africa as well as the U.S.

We hope the administration will answer calls by congressional members and advocacy groups and promptly appoint a new special envoy.

Abramowitz is the vice president for policy and government relations at Humanity United and former chief counsel to the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Williams is a senior policy adviser for Eastern Congo Initiative and former staff director to the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa.

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