Home » General » Africa: Final Speech as U.S. Special Envoy


Thomas Perriello

Special Envoy for the Great Lakes Region of Africa 

U.S. Institute for Peace

Washington, DC

December 15, 2016

As Prepared

Thank you, Ambassador Carson, for the kind introduction and for your tremendous leadership over the years from inside and outside of government service. Thanks as well to the U.S. Institute for Peace for offering this chance to offer a few thoughts on my tenure as Special Envoy for the Great Lakes and for the high-quality, high-impact work USIP does every day under the visionary leadership of Nancy Lindborgh.

The Road Ahead for the Great Lakes

Eighteen months ago, I had the honor of accepting Secretary Kerry’s offer to serve in this role. At that time, we were headed into one of the most tumultuous periods for the Great Lakes region in over a decade. Burundi was already on the verge of civil war, and the DRC was heading into a high-stakes political showdown over prospects for the first peaceful democratic transfer of power in the country’s long-suffering history. Against these odds, I had two major forces working in my favor. First, President Obama had laid out a clear, compelling vision both of atrocity prevention as a core element of our national security and of respect for constitutional transfers of power as a key component of our Africa policy. Second, we enjoyed great momentum thanks to the leadership of my predecessor Russ Feingold, and his exceptional team that I inherited. I also had an invaluable partner in Assistant Secretary Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who had already been an enormous help to me during the QDDR and epitomizes the best of the Foreign Service and American diplomacy. I have learned a lot about diplomacy and about life from her.

Our priorities were clear – prevent a return to civil war and mass atrocities in Burundi and give the Congolese people their best chance to experience the first democratic transfer of power in the DRC's history. These and related goals, like protecting open political space and security sector reform, reflect not only the vision of President Obama but also the strong bi-partisan commitment on the Hill in support of democracy, human rights, and rule of law across the African Great Lakes region.


Not long before my tenure began, President Nkurunziza made the tragic decision to violate several key elements of the Arusha Agreement, which plunged the country into a cycle of violence and disintegration. These violations included not just pursuit of a third term of office but reversals of guarantees about human rights and media diversity. This period also witnessed the fateful decision of a small number of opposition leaders to attempt a coup, an illegal action that served to justify, in the minds of the Nkurunziza regime, a systematic campaign of violence, repression and intimidation against all critics and all institutions of accountability.

Since April 2015, over 325,000 Burundians have fled to neighboring countries as refugees. The economy has cratered, and the government is largely bankrupt. My recent trips there include stays at empty hotels, dinners at empty restaurants, and streets with even less activity than when I began. The government has isolated itself from the international community and strained relationships with its closest allies. As many as a thousand Burundians have been killed since 2015, and tens of thousands tortured and detained. All credible NGOs have been banned, and over 100 journalists have had to flee the country. Dozens of assassinations against both sides have been conducted or attempted, including targeted attempts on non-violent human rights activists. And we continue to worry that either side may escalate to mass violence, or that the government may incite widespread fighting by pushing for a Constitutional Referendum.

Despite this, for nearly two years now, the persistent, high-alert attention of the international community and the region, has gone far in preventing a full-scale civil war. Even more important, the Burundian population – farmers, businesspeople, street vendors – wary of returning to their country’s worst days of conflict, have consistently resisted cynical efforts to divide them. Such divisions led to mass atrocities and ethnic war in earlier eras, but thus far have largely been avoided. We work and pray for this to remain true and not to erase the gains of ten years invested in post-conflict reconciliation by governments, NGOs, and faith leaders. This created a resiliency among the people and communities that has held relatively strong despite the onslaught.

There has also been the partial success — and thus partial failure — of starting and re-starting a serious peace process, a key element of our preventive diplomacy. The East African Community-led negotiations remain the only legitimate way to solve the crisis, and we are disappointed that these have not gained serious momentum. The Government of Burundi deserves the bulk of blame for blocking and delaying talks, but all of us share some of the responsibility. But even with the shortfalls of various rounds, their existence and the diplomatic pushes that forced them into existence created a sense of hope and deterred hardliners on both sides from escalating. Full-time negotiations must begin urgently, as demanded by the regional Heads of State months ago. We welcome President Mkapa’s goal of securing a peace agreement by next summer, and hope that the opposition coalition CNARED’s recent withdrawal from the talks after Mkapa’s remarks in Bujumbura will be quickly reversed.

While the international community and its partners in Burundi and the region have prevented the worst case scenarios, it is possible that we have only delayed them. And I want to be clear: despite our intensive efforts, the risk for mass atrocities and civil war in Burundi remains disconcertingly high. It is concerning and disappointing therefore to see the Burundian government continue to deliberately isolate itself from the international community by rejecting the United Nations' offer of an unarmed UN police force, announcing its withdrawal from the International Criminal Court, and pushing back against the Committee of Inquiry and the UN’s Jamal Benomar. We also see worrisome indicators such as a recent survey asking civil servants to disclose their ethnicity, and reports of markings appearing on the homes of Tutsi individuals. While the Burundian government often touts its diplomatic victories in blocking various efforts to help the country, I often ask them what prize they think they have won. Have any of these victories done anything to reverse epic poverty, the fraying of ethnic cohesion, the stability of the country, or the prospects for a better life for Burundians?

Attempts by the government to force through constitutional amendments that reverse elements of the Arusha Agreement could permanently undo years of progress and exacerbate instability. International attention and the regionally-mediated peace process may have so far prevented an ethnic civil war, but the country is perched on a precipice and it is vital that it not disappear from the policy radar in the coming months. It is equally vital that should our efforts fail, and Burundi does slip back into war, that we are all prepared to respond quickly and comprehensively.


Next door in the DRC, we have worked hard to learn and apply lessons from both the Congo’s own long, troubled history and from our more recent experience in Burundi. We have engaged early and meaningfully with all DRC stakeholders, leveraging a range of diplomatic tools well before the crisis was likely to peak in order to provide greater time and flexibility to escalate consequences and provide multiple off-ramps for key stakeholders, thus improving the chances for a peaceful, consensual solution.

Learning from previous eras, we also worked hard to maintain popular legitimacy and support for U.S. policy, grounding it solidly in the Congolese constitution, which remains a source of great pride and comfort for the Congolese people. This includes Constitutional guarantees both of broad political freedoms and of term limits. The Congolese government and people believed in 2001 that this constitution was their best hope at a more stable and prosperous future – we still think that.

One of the striking oddities about the escalating crisis in the DRC is that this one, unlike most foreign policy challenges, is shockingly simple, entirely avoidable, and, even at this late stage, almost instantly solvable by a few actions from one individual – President Joseph Kabila. As the most powerful man in the DRC and the driving force behind the nation's historic peace agreement and Constitution, he had overseen the growth of impressive levels of political freedom and diversity in the country. But over the past two years, in advancement of the high-risk strategy of glissement, he has overseen a 300% increase in human rights abuses and repressive acts.

For months now, since it became clear that the DRC government would fail its responsibility to hold on-time elections, we have been pressing all Congolese stakeholders to engage in an inclusive process to reach consensus on a new electoral timetable – recognizing that the greatest threat to the DRC’s tenuous stability was reaching the end of President Kabila’s second and final Constitutional term on December 19th without a roadmap for elections and a transfer in power. With a great deal of leadership from Pope Francis's Vatican and Angolan President Dos Santos, and persistent and substantial support from the United States and European allies, last week saw the first fully inclusive negotiations begin. For the first time since the crisis began, we have facilitation in the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, or CENCO, that is accepted by all sides, commitments to participation from all sides, and a manageable, limited agenda of topics to finalize. The CENCO-led talks offer the best chance to reach a consensus roadmap for this country, to avert mass unrest in the coming weeks and months, and to secure the DRC the brighter and more democratic future that its people deserve.

During this tense period, our top priorities are to support the CENCO process and all efforts to produce a consensus path towards alternance, and to deter government repression, and violence by all sides. To this end, we announced on Monday additional targeted sanctions against two top DRC officials, National Intelligence Agency chief Kalev Mutondo and Interior Minister Evariste Boshab – both of whom were sanctioned for undermining democratic institutions and processes. Opposition leaders are also aware that, as demonstrated by our sanctions in Burundi, we are prepared to sanction individuals on both sides if appropriate.

This year should have been an historic turning point for the DRC instead of an entirely unnecessary flirtation with disaster. The people of Congo want a chance to choose their next leader and to feel like the old rules of the past no longer apply. The political elites constantly talk about how the Congolese want national dialogue because that is their tradition, but I have never heard that from a Congolese outside the President’s inner circle. The Congolese people see most past dialogues as utter failures at worst and at best solutions necessitated by the existence of war or lawlessness. What the Congolese tell me they want is for their leaders to do their jobs, follow the Constitution, and stop excuses for repeating the errors of the past. The Congolese people have shown great courage and principle in keeping the focus on alternance, even in the face of government-led repression. Civil society and opposition leaders have remained steadfast in their support for the Constitution, rather than give in to bribes or threats.

While elections and alternance in 2016 are clearly not possible, the United States shares the belief of the vast majority of Congolese that presidential elections must take place before the end of 2017. The United States has invested billions in the DRC's security and development but what is truly priceless is statesmanship from leaders during inflection points like this. The next few days, weeks, and perhaps months will determine whether the DRC will be defined by the worst of its past or the potential of its future.

Validating the Case for Term Limits, Political Space, Constitutions

President Obama’s speech in Ethiopia in 2015 was a landmark defense of why we must prioritize strong institutions over strong men and why this requires respect for democratic transfers of power. This speech was and remains wildly popular among citizens across Africa, most notably among younger Africans who dominate the continent’s population. The speech and the advice was, it is fair to say, embraced with less zeal by many of the continent’s leaders.

After 18 months of promoting this policy and receiving feedback on it, I want to offer a few reflections on what has become the U.S. term-limit strategy. First, the policy was always framed as offering our best advice to our partners across the world, and particularly the Great Lakes region. It was a never a declaration that “we shall use all means necessary to block these efforts,” but an honest assessment that we would make every effort to convince countries to adopt and comply with their own term limit provisions. Where the United States threatened consequences, and has backed that up, has primarily been for state violence and repression to deny citizens the political space to shape their own future, and our most recent sanctions were for the undermining of democratic institutions and processes.

Second, President Obama did not set this baseline standard from pure principle alone. It also came from empirical research that showed countries allowing democratic transitions graduate to a much higher level of security and economic growth. When incumbents try to rig or change the system to stay in power, their countries are 4 times more likely to face economic or security crises. On the flip side, over 90% of African countries that have allowed their first democratic transfer of power have not had subsequent crises or backsliding during subsequent transfers. Allowing the first peaceful democratic transfer of power is a game-changer, and too often blocking this step has disastrous consequences.

Tragically, Burundi has proven the wisdom of this advice, even as it has shown the limits of our ability to persuade partners to take it. Even a very popular and charismatic president was no match for the widespread popular desire of Burundians to see the Constitution and historic peace agreement respected. President Nkurunziza dramatically underestimated the cost to himself and his country of pursuing a third mandate. The decisions of his government to systematically and brutally repress and eliminate legitimate dissent became a necessary corollary to his illegitimate extension of power, and had the inevitable consequence we so often see of making some opposition leaders feel justified pursuing illegitimate means to block his actions. Witnessing the bleak Burundi landscape today — fraying ethnic cohesion, decimated public institutions, a shattered economy, a massive brain drain of the professional class, elimination of dissent, and hundreds of thousands displaced — it is difficult but important to remember how different things could have been. If President Nkurunziza had chosen to respect Arusha and the Constitution, his party would have won landslide elections, the opposition would have had to participate rather than boycott, the world would be celebrating the success story of Burundi’s decade of post-conflict reconciliation, and Nkurunziza would be a massively influential political and religious leader. The country would be focused on economic development and building on its many strong bilateral relationships across the region and the world.

Today, President Kabila clearly faces a similar choice — frankly one even more stark. He lacks Nkurunziza’s popularity and has never fully consolidated governance over a vastly larger country. He is associated more with mass kleptocracy where Nkurunziza was seen as a genuine man of the people. Nkurunziza’s army was a major contributor to international peacekeeping, whereas DRC still houses the largest international peacekeeping force. All of this is to say that President Kabila faces far greater risk of destabilizing his country by refusing to leave power. But President Kabila is a survivor and extremely smart, though constantly under-estimated. He has failed for two years to forge a political path forward though, and the stakes keep rising. President Kabila could manage this transition and leave a rich man with a proud legacy of accomplishments and no serious fear of the ICC. But as Burundi should show, those options could be about to get a lot worse.

Closed political space and questionable efforts to remove term-limits continues to be an unfortunate part of the story of Rwanda as well, where despite remarkable economic progress, and substantial stability, Rwandans cannot freely express themselves politically. In the long-term, this policy is simply not sustainable, and stability that depends largely on a single individual can never be stability in any real sense. Rwanda will need to take steps to address these fundamental road blocks to becoming an open democratic society and stable, economic leader.

Many here will consider the most important question to be why, if the policy was clear and sound, does it not succeed more often, defining failure as leaders still being in power. In many ways, this observation is fair, and I accept responsibility for that. Some very smart, dedicated people from the region and those who advocate from here think we should have focused more on persuasion and laying out the benefits of doing the right thing than seeming to threaten and lecture. Others offer the opposite critique, namely that we should have shown more concrete consequences earlier in these processes to back up the policy. I think there is truth in both critiques. I regret not having more personal time with a few of the Presidents — my conversations with President Nkurunziza, for example, were some of the most transformative and genuinely educational moments of my tenure in this job. I believe that if those had continued, a constructive dynamic could have emerged that could have positively impacted the trajectory of these leaders and our corresponding bilateral relationships.

Ultimately though, it is important to reinforce, as I have tried to do with Heads of State as well as opposition, that the fate of a country will always be determined far more by its own citizens than by our government. I am proud of our policy and the extent to which U.S. policy in the Great Lakes has become synonymous with supporting democratic principles and fundamental freedoms.

Lastly, I would encourage observers to take the long view. I have not given up on the idea that President Obama’s policy has planted a seed that is still growing. More accurately, he and our policy have nurtured a seed that already exists, indigenous to the region. That is a hope in rule of law over “might makes right,” a commitment to democratic governance, and an acceptance of regular transfers of power. Shocking many, for example, President Dos Santos recently announced his intention to step down from power. The situation in the DRC remains one that has every possibility of ending with an historic transfer. Other leaders in the region that extended their time in power have paid very real diplomatic consequences, and we need to help them think through what a glide path to alternance looks like. The arc of history is long but bends towards justice. I have been so deeply inspired by the people of the Great Lakes, and I believe they are measuring success with a wider aperture than some here. This is not to deflect disappointment from our shortfalls, but it is to ensure we balance that against areas where we have been able to help to protect the space for — and perhaps increase the odds of — the peoples of the Great Lakes region fulfilling their aspirations for peace, prosperity, and fundamental freedoms.

Policy Rooted in Bipartisan American Values

Before I conclude, let me mention five lessons I have taken from this experience.

First is that an ounce of prevention remains far better than a pound of cure, but our systems continue to make it exceedingly difficult to shift resources and attention from reactive to preventative diplomacy. The Secretary and the White House deserve real credit for making the Great Lakes, particularly in the case of DRC, a test case in giving more space to early diplomatic intervention. Sanctions were threatened and then applied early, which helped to create time and space for late negotiations to take shape. Our early engagement with the Vatican helped to increase confidence for CENCO to take on the thankless task of political arbiter. Deep engagement with our European partners over many months helped to ensure consistency and forcefulness of message and actions. The Atrocity Prevention Board helped mobilize early attention to Burundi and keep conflicts in eastern DRC on the agenda. And perhaps the most pleasant surprise has been the extent to which our analysis has converged with that of our African partners, particularly those who stand to pay the highest price for a destabilized DRC. As we wrote about in the second QDDR, we need to do far more to support our diplomatic professionals on the ground – who are always ahead of the curve – to use the levers we have earlier, and not just once we see burned bodies and buildings on the front pages.

Second, Capitol Hill can be a major asset to U.S. foreign policy, particularly in those areas that still enjoy bi-partisan consensus such as the Great Lakes region. The Congolese people consistently ask me to share with others in the U.S. government and in Congress their appreciation for the bipartisan support the United States has shown to the DRC. House and Senate, Republican and Democrat, Members and staffers impressed me thoroughly with their interest, willingness to both challenge and support, and to be a partner in advancing American interests.

Third, again drawing on a lesson from the second QDDR, I observed the value of letting our diplomats do their job, even in environments that are not entirely secure. Allowing our diplomats to get beyond the barriers of embassy walls to engage with everyday Congolese and Burundians produces the quality of information and most importantly of relationships that are the lifeblood of quality diplomacy – and conflict resolution. Having great public servants, like Eastern Congo Unit Chief James Liddle, able to travel around the Kivu provinces, forge relationships across ethnic lines in areas of rising tension, and sit with everyone from the governor to the market-women is why the best and the brightest join the service and why we must let them do their jobs. Physical risk, as well as programmatic risk, has always been inherent to good diplomacy, but that has become a starker reality in an era of super-empowered non-state actors and global terror and smuggling networks. We have lost more Ambassadors than generals since World War II, because we are on the frontline of every country. As endorsed by Secretary Kerry and demonstrated by the brave teams in Burundi and the DRC, America’s strength is not determined by the height of the walls we build around our posts but the depth of the relationships we forge.

Fourth, I was struck consistently by how much America’s strength at home impacts our strength abroad. In previous work overseas, this has been most pronounced in the extent to which the United States remains the model for social mobility and economic opportunity. During the past eighteen months, the clearest example has been the status of racial justice and reconciliation within the United States – a dynamic that was also present during the height of the Cold War. Not a week went by during my tenure as Envoy that I was not asked about the latest video of an unarmed black American being shot, a law to limit voting rights or, more recently, about incendiary racial rhetoric. This was not because much of my work was in Africa — the question was at least as likely to come from our European partners, Vatican officials, or Chinese counterparts. Certainly some of this came from the diplomatic version of trolling, leaders or tweeters from countries we have lectured about police brutality or minority rights. But this also came from countries genuinely struggling with the challenges of pluralistic democracy, who have seen us as one of the few countries that seems to get this right. This is a subject for a much longer conversation, but I note it here because of how prominently it featured in my work. In the same way that the strength of our middle class at home directly affects our soft power abroad, the way we value black lives at home has direct impact in the value of U.S. foreign policy.

Fifth and finally, I want to note how much this mission I was honored to be asked to take on has reminded me that America matters. I think of the tireless work of our team in Kinshasa advocating and fighting for human rights. The young Foreign Service officer in Kinshasa who visits human rights activists in jail and fights tirelessly until they are released. This goes for the hearing on Capitol Hill that can be heard around the globe. And this is not just about those who represent the American government. This is the NGO worker who passed up greater salaries and comfort to research the intricate details of human rights abuses or build an advocacy group that spent the last decade trying to break the resource curse of conflict minerals. Groups like Enough that have taken every snarky critique as an invitation to do better for the people of Congo, not give up and move on to the latest headline-grabbing crisis zone.

And it is the standard set by American companies abroad. I was struck by my visit to the copper mine in Katanga managed, at the time, by Freeport McMoRan. This was not a company I came of age celebrating, but they were the gold standard, so to speak, of investing in the community, investing in the human capital of Congolese workers, protecting the environment, and avoiding bribes. We ask a lot of our companies, most notably through the vital Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, and it does not go unnoticed. Dozens of Congolese working in the company, living in the nearby community, and throughout the region pulled me aside to encourage the company to not sell the mine to the Chinese. They talked of the illegal smelting operations run by investors from other countries that wreak havoc and leave nothing behind. Thanks to corporate responsibility as well as corporative activism by advocacy groups and strong laws from Congress that reverse some of the worst practices of our companies in decades past, the United States can be a tremendous force for good in the world.

In a cynical time, it was powerful to see America use its resources and influence to promote human rights, rule of law, women’s empowerment, and security sector reform. Many continue to assume we have ulterior motives — and our past gives fuel for that fire — but week after week, Americans inside and outside of government proved that their purpose in the region was to help, to invest the right way, to fight corruption, and to forge partnerships that improve lives.

Thank Yous

To that end, let me finish by thanking some of those inspiring Americans who made this mission possible for me.

First, I want to thank my exceptional team. We were never more than six in number, but you guys produced the results of ten times that. Brennan Gilmore, my Chief of Staff, has devoted the better part of a decade to the region, and he is the only guy I know who uses 12-hour flights to read neuroscience textbooks. Jeanne Hruska, my Senior Advisor and Enforcer, was both the brains and the muscle to win dozens of fights each week that I did not even know were happening but kept our strategy on track. Caroline Wadhams has now been willing to bail me out in three different roles, including the QDDR and this. She is honestly one of the most talented thinkers and leaders in her generation. Nate Schaffran and Rachel Schiller rolled the dice with the office, and we were the winners for it. Not only did Rachel help us develop complex metrics for gaming out the Burundi talks that never quite happened, she also travelled with me to Bujumbura 8 months pregnant and insisted on walking nine flights up to meet with Minister Bunyoni in our first meeting since we had sanctioned him. And last but not least, ChiChi who made every trip happen, every invoice processed, and every Byzantine State Department rule followed. This team has been nothing short of astounding.

Second, I want to reiterate my thanks to Assistant Secretary Linda Thomas-Greenfield for her tremendous leadership of the Africa Bureau and for the close collaboration we enjoyed over the past 18 months. Together, we demonstrated the diplomatic dividends that can be generated from a regional bureau and a special envoy working together to bring special attention to a problem spot. I learned a lot from her.

We have had amazing partners throughout State — including Malinowski, Sewall, Dan Fried, and Finer. I also had the enormous benefit of great Ambassadors not only in the region, but at the Vatican, Addis, Pretoria, and across Europe. Jim Swan, Dawn Liberi, Erica Barks-Ruggle, and Mark Childress deserve particular thanks for putting up with unusually frequent visits, often with too little notice and far too many changes of itinerary. I was also blessed to work with great colleagues across the Inter-Agency, and want to express particular appreciation to Steve Pomper at the NSC who deserves a medal for demonstrating tremendous patience with what can only be described as persistent and, well, determined engagement from our office to move this policy forward.

Finally, let me thank President Obama and Secretary Kerry for asking me to serve in this role and for setting a visionary policy that reflects our best values. And to the peoples of the Great Lakes region I have grown to consider brothers and sisters, please forgive me for my shortcomings and accept my thanks for all I learned from you during this mission. While I leave this post soon, my commitment to remain a friend of the region will not. God bless.