Ambassador Nikki Haley’s Africa trip: ‘Mission Possible’ for fixing peacemaking model

The region of the world U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley is traveling to this week isn’t in the headlines very often, but it has been one of the most dangerous neighborhoods globally for decades. Ambassador Haley will visit South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, part of the deadliest region in the world since the Second World War.

The number of deaths resulting from violent conflict during the past three decades alone in South Sudan and Congo approaches eight million. Both are semi-authoritarian states, marked by well-developed kleptocracies in which the ruling cliques have hijacked their governing institutions and repurposed them for private financial gain. While billions of humanitarian and peacekeeping aid dollars flow in every year, billions have flown out into the hidden accounts of the countries’ leaders and their commercial collaborators, both domestic and international.

These are not poor countries. They have immense natural resource wealth in the form of gold, oil, diamonds, cobalt, copper, tin, other important minerals, and ivory from elephants. These extraordinary national assets are lining the pockets of the countries’ leaders rather than spearheading economic development and prosperity.

In both countries, wars have raged in large part because their rulers allow no peaceful way to share wealth and power. Absent democratic processes or basic freedoms, some marginalized populations rise in armed revolt.  In some countries in Africa and around the world, wars have produced effective peace processes, which when handled competently have led to peacefully settled disputes and properly functioning and accountable governing institutions. 

Until the model of peacemaking is fixed and until the region’s leaders begin to pay a price for their financial and human rights crimes, the status quo will enjoy a further lease on life.

In East and Central Africa, however, peace efforts have consistently failed due to a common but fatal flaw.  The regional heads of state who lead these processes attempt to prop up their autocratic fellow heads of state in war-torn countries in an attempt to resist African-wide demands for democratization. The leaders of most of the countries sponsoring the peace talks are themselves strongmen who rule over semi-authoritarian or authoritarian states, and thus have an interest in engendering or replicating similar governing systems in their neighbors. This cannot work, however, in South Sudan and Congo, nor in Sudan, Burundi, Central African Republic, or other conflict-ridden states in the region where current leaders cannot enforce stability through violence alone. 

South Sudan’s and Congo’s kleptocratic ruling parties concentrate all power and wealth, leaving large swathes of the population completely marginalized and highly motivated to violently contest the status quo. Because this rot at the core has never been addressed through peace efforts, endless conflict results. 

Peace efforts led by regional leaders have done little to promote inclusive processes and transitions, and they often manipulate peace efforts to achieve their own political and economic interests. Their mediation model receives little or no challenge from external states supporting the efforts, such as the United States, China, and key European governments, as well as United Nations peacekeeping missions in Congo and South Sudan.

Ambassador Haley has a two-fold opportunity to help alter the negative trajectory of peace efforts in South Sudan and Congo.  First, she should confront this failed conflict resolution model that aims to reinforce semi-authoritarian kleptocrats in an effort to create stability. The U.S. should be pressing for inclusive peace agreements with real power and wealth sharing tied to democratic transitions in both Congo and South Sudan. U.S. advocacy for basic freedoms should be prioritized, because repression will only beget more violence and extremism, as demonstrated in neighboring Sudan, where the regime continues to provide support to radicalized groups that recruit for ISIS and al-Qaeda.

Second, for the U.S. to have a role in reforming these efforts for peace and human rights, new leverage must be built. To create that leverage, Ambassador Haley should work with allies to impose biting consequences on the leaders of governments or rebel groups and their networks of collaborators who undermine peace, orchestrate war crimes, repress fundamental rights, and steal the natural resource wealth of their countries. Utilizing the tools of financial pressure – particularly targeted sanctions on networks of leaders and their commercial partners combined with the aggressive use of anti-money laundering measures – can help shift the calculations of the region’s war-mongers over time from war to peace and from mass corruption to good governance. There has to be a price for intransigence, and the U.S. has the underutilized policy tools to begin to exact that price.

Until the model of peacemaking is fixed and until the region’s leaders begin to pay a price for their financial and human rights crimes, the status quo will enjoy a further lease on life, leaving a mounting toll of death and destruction.

John Prendergast is Founding Director of the Enough Project, and co-founder of The Sentry.