In general I try to stay away from matters regarding the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire), even though I spent seven years of my life there with the Department of State.
My reasons are the same as those of most American governments since the end of the Cold War: The Congo's problems are too immense.
Its population is now estimated at 68 million, and it is as big as the United States east of the Mississippi. It is far away and not easily accessible to Americans militarily, economically or politically. It is French-speaking, a serious constraint to meaningful engagement for most Americans. Its infrastructure, among the strongest in Africa at independence in 1960, is basically gone now, including almost all of its river, rail and road networks, leaving only questionable air strips, sometimes hair-raising planes and adventuresome pilots to provide access to its interior.
Some American ambassadors make a post-retirement career of staying involved with the countries in which they served. Not me. I am usually quite ready to move on. One aspect of my present position that I like a lot is that one day I might be writing about North Korea; the next, Bolivia.
All of that said, the situation in the Congo is alarming. My mind was called back to it last week when I attended a film -- a bad, distorting film, actually -- made by a group called the Friends of the Congo. It was presented in Munhall and was accompanied by remarks by Becky Cech, a Congo hand who had just visited the east of the country where she had lived. Her comments on the current situation were most helpful in bringing me up to date.
That situation is, in a word, appalling. This is a country with precious and industrial minerals, offshore oil, extensive timber forests and enormous commercial and agricultural capacity. It has the potential to produce enough hydroelectric power to light up the whole African continent.
In spite of all that, virtually all of its people are pathetically poor, not receiving education or health care, while a rich elite -- the Congo's 1 percent -- live as they have since independence, very well, indeed. Millions of Congolese have been killed, raped or driven from their homes in recent years.
The security situation, particularly in the east, is shockingly bad, with murder, rape, displacement and terror widespread, in spite of the presence of the largest U.N. peacekeeping force in the world. That force numbers 17,000, which sounds like a lot until one looks at the size of the Congo and the strength of the armed opposition to the government and to the United Nations.
What is the problem? There is an ease on the part of the Congolese sometimes to blame their problems on everyone except themselves.
It is a historical fact that the place has been victim to truly awful outside intervention. King Leopold II and the Belgians ruled the place with cruelty from 1885 to 1960. After a stormy post-independence period, its leader was Mobutu Sese-Seko, a colorful but larcenous and sometimes brutal man, from 1965 to 1997. He was succeeded by Laurent Kabila, equally heedless of his people's needs, until Kabila was assassinated in 2001. The elder Kabila was succeeded by his son, Joseph, elected in 2006 and reelected in 2011. I knew Mobutu and Kabila Sr.
The United States is held responsible for Mr. Mobutu, which is at least partly true. What gets left out is that U.S. support of him came in the context of the Cold War. The Congo has all that wealth and borders with nine other countries. The West contested it against the Soviet Union starting in 1960, and triumphed, thanks in part to Mobutu.
Congo's external antagonists now include tiny Rwanda, population 12 million, and Uganda, population 28 million. Rwanda has been especially pestilential, playing off the ethnic links of its ruling minority, the Tutsi, with a Congolese minority in the eastern Lake Kivu region. It has grabbed mineral concessions and undermined the authority of the Congolese central government and the efforts of the United Nations to buttress it.
Rwanda benefits from the failure of the United Nations, European countries and the United States to prevent the genocidal slaughter of an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda in 1994. Guilt from this still clouds the judgment toward Rwanda and Congo of senior American officials, such as National Security Adviser Susan Rice, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former President Bill Clinton.
Rwanda has efficient security forces, which the United States helps build. It has changed its official language from French to English. Its leaders, starting with President Paul Kagame, project a serious approach to governance and development. Americans like all of that. Rwanda's fans include the leadership of Carnegie Mellon University, which has established links to the country.
However, in the end, blaming Congo's enormous problems on external forces, such as Belgium, the United States, Rwanda and Uganda, leaves out the obvious point that, if the Congolese could get their own act together, nobody could push them around. If they used their resources to build their own country -- honestly, efficiently and sensibly -- they would not be vulnerable to commercial or political adventurers.
I won't defend Mobutu. I can catalog better than most just what was wrong with him. Nevertheless, he did a reasonable job of building a sense of nationality among the people and of holding the country together.
People laughed at Zaire and at him, with his leopard-skin cap, with his getting rid of Western dress, with his making the Congolese change their Western names to African names and with the famous "Rumble in the Jungle" 1974 boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. But Mobutu has been gone a long time now, and the country still has not completed its journey to genuine nationhood, 53 years after independence. Its people await and deserve richly to see its resources applied to their needs.
Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1976).