Above: A large suspension bridge connecting Brazzaville’s city center to the presidential palace is a prominent landmark along the city’s popular multi-use Corniche.
Story and photos by Isaac D. Pacheco
Coursing through the heart of Africa, the Congo River boasts several superlatives, including being the deepest river in the world, the second largest by discharge volume and the ninth longest. The Congo is the only river that crosses the equator twice, and along its winding journey, its tributaries provide drainage for a landmass roughly the size of the Indian subcontinent. For millennia, this vital waterway has not only shaped the geography of the region, but also the fortunes of the civilizations inhabiting it.
Before reaching the Atlantic Ocean, the river’s elevation plunges precipitously as the continent’s inner plateau transitions to maritime lowlands. The resultant rapids and waterfalls are so broad and powerful that ships cannot safely transit this 350km (217mi) stretch of the river, necessitating overland routes for all maritime trade between Yellala Falls and Pool Malebo. Fueled by increased commerce at these nautical chokepoints, flourishing communities sprung up along both sides of the Congo River, including the present-day capital cities of the two countries currently named after the mighty river.
On opposite sides of the Congo River, slightly south of Pool Malebo, Brazzaville and Kinshasa hold the distinction of being the world’s second-most closely geolocated national capitals after Rome and Vatican City. Despite being separated by only 4km (2.5mi) of water, no bridges connect the two major population centers, which results in each city having its own unique characteristics. In contrast to its megalopolis neighbor in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Brazzaville has a laid-back, small-town vibe and a more leisurely pace of life. Still, Brazzaville’s 2 million residents (nearly 40 percent of the country’s total population) make it the largest city in the Republic of the Congo (ROC) and the nation’s cultural nucleus.
“A great thing about Brazzaville is that it’s a big city, highly urbanized, but there’s very little traffic and you can be anywhere in the downtown region in 10 or 15 minutes. Our commutes are short, usually 5 to 10 minutes,” said Daniel A. Travis, deputy chief of mission at Embassy Brazzaville. “Yes, it can be a frustrating environment. It’s still the developing world. It’s not a functioning democracy, but you can get things done here. You can feel like you’ve accomplished something.”
An all-female percussion troupe performs a routine in Brazzaville.
For American officials, the ability to consistently realize tangible results in the ROC is a recent achievement. The embassy has faced significant obstacles to engagement since the ROC gained its independence from France in 1960. Between 1965 and 1977, diplomacy between the United States and the ROC was suspended and relations between the nations remained tenuous throughout its two decades of pro-Soviet Marxist rule. The ROC transitioned to a multiparty democratic system in 1992, but election disputes and political infighting led to a protracted civil war that claimed thousands of civilian casualties and resulted in the internal displacement of more than 200,000 residents. In recent years, Embassy Brazzaville has intensified its efforts in the ROC, rebuilding relationships with Congolese officials and laying the foundation for a more durable partnership moving forward.
“The number one priority when I got here was to improve the bilateral relationship because without that, we couldn’t really do much,” said Todd P. Haskell, U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of the Congo. “We’ve made real progress. And, frankly, because of that, some of our concerns about human rights and other things are listened to more.”
One campaign that played an outsize role in restoring trust and generating goodwill between the U.S. and the Congolese people was Embassy Brazzaville’s outreach in the Pool region following a period of political upheaval and armed conflict in the area. In 2017, shortly after the Congolese government signed a ceasefire agreement with Pool insurgents, Haskell and his team coordinated with USAID to quickly mobilize disaster assistance funds to help traumatized residents begin rebuilding their lives.
Using these resources, the embassy initially partnered with the United Nations’ World Food Programme to feed residents whose livelihoods were destroyed during the conflict. American officials quickly realized, however, that enabling the largely agrarian populace to produce their own crops again would be more beneficial in the long term. To this end, the embassy coordinated efforts to help residents restore valuable fish farming ponds that had lain dormant for years after being pillaged by rebel forces. The refurbished fish ponds not only provided residents with a renewable source of food, but also fertilizer for fruit and vegetable gardens, and income from excess fish and produce sold at market.
“We were able to go in, provide funds for the local people to pick up shovels and rebuild their own fish ponds and put fish in them that they already knew how to take care of,” said Travis. “You go out there now and you see people creating their own futures literally with their hands in the dirt. They’re growing gardens all around, which are meant to diversify their diets, and it won’t be long before those gardens are producing more than the local people need to eat.”
Notwithstanding the embassy’s successful outreach in the Pool region, additional bilateral assistance has been suspended in the ROC since 2017 due to Trafficking in Persons (TIP) concerns. Until Oct. 1, 2019, the Department classified the country as Tier 3 (least compliant) on the annual TIP report, which is published by the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. This classification meant that the ROC did not comply with the minimum standards outlined in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 and was not making significant efforts to do so.
Because of the importance of humanitarian aid and development assistance to furthering the relationship between the U.S. and the ROC, Embassy Brazzaville urged Congolese government officials to address the nation’s TIP shortcomings. These sensitive negotiations, spearheaded by Political Affairs Officer Benjamin Mossberg, ultimately led to reforms, the country’s reclassification as Tier 2 watchlist, and the reinstatement of bilateral assistance in 2020.
“Pride is something that is highly valued by our Congolese counterparts, and we found that having difficult conversations with the Congolese behind closed doors was a more effective approach to getting things accomplished,” said Mossberg. “I think that a lot of the work that we’ve done over the past couple of years has allowed us to get to a place that is largely normal in terms of conducting diplomatic relations here.”
Along with outreach that enhances people-to-people and government-to-government relations, the U.S. is actively seeking to improve the business climate and increase bilateral trade and investment opportunities in the ROC. As the third largest exporter of oil in sub-Saharan Africa after Angola and Nigeria, the ROC’s economy is dominated by the petroleum industry. Unfortunately for American businesses, corruption and bureaucratic roadblocks in the ROC have often precluded meaningful U.S. investment in the country’s burgeoning hydrocarbon sector. The World Bank’s “Doing Business 2020” report, which measures regulations across 190 economies in 12 business regulatory areas to assess the business environment in each economy, ranked the ROC an abysmal 180th for “ease of doing business” for a third consecutive year.
“It’s very difficult to establish a business here. It’s bureaucracy. And I think there’s a recognition at senior levels that it needs to be fixed, but it doesn’t get fixed,” said Haskell. “So, we’ve worked hard with the government and with several ministers to identify the things that need to be improved, but I think this is a long-term effort.”
The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) provides a framework for sub-Saharan countries like the ROC to improve business and trade relations with the U.S. and to better integrate into the global economy. AGOA participants gain access to significant trade benefits in part by upholding market-based economic principles and fair labor standards in their countries. These efforts help level the playing field for trade and create a more favorable environment for business development and foreign investment.
“Many countries take advantage of AGOA by developing an AGOA national strategy, which kind of syncs together the government, the public, and the private business sector to get everybody on board and export more to the United States. That’s good for [the Republic of the] Congo because it’s good for its development,” said David Kelm, economic affairs officer. “We’re making gains here. We only have 10 companies in [the Republic of the] Congo [that operate] on a day-to-day basis, but we have a lot more interest because of the oil sector, and we frequently go to bat for those companies.”
The embassy’s consistent advocacy on the part of U.S. business has begun to yield progress, including the recent formation and recognition of the first American Chamber of Commerce in the ROC. Additional wins on human rights issues like TIP, and a robust public diplomacy program that has spawned more than 1,000 English language clubs across the nation, are giving American officials cause for cautious optimism. With this solid foundation of recent accomplishments to build upon, Embassy Brazzaville’s talented cadre of junior officers are being encouraged and enabled by post leadership to seek out new and innovative solutions to pressing diplomatic issues in the ROC.
“I’m not going to be able to do all the work here alone, so everybody here gets an opportunity to do things, even on their first and second tour, in a way that they wouldn’t be able to do it anywhere else,” said Haskell. “It’s really important to win on the field, but it’s also really important to make sure that we’re providing career development for the junior folks here so that when they move on in their careers, and they’re in Moscow or Tokyo or Addis Ababa or Cape Town, they have the skills that they pick up here. Preparing these folks to be the future leadership for the Foreign Service is really important.”
The Congo River creates an imposing natural border as it flows between Kinshasa, DRC (right), and Brazzaville, ROC (opposite). (NO AUDIO)
Isaac D. Pacheco is the editor-in-chief of State Magazine.