On the night of September 23, former Australian ambassador to Zimbabwe (2011-2015) Matthew Neuhaus spoke at the ANU about his reflections on the Second Congo War and the ongoing conflict throughout the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) up to the present day.

He began recounting the history of the Congo from colonial times, the internal and ethnic strife over the decades amidst Western interference, and spoke on the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, which he characterised as “the greatest tragedy in modern Africa.”

Moreover, he stated that “fuelling [the current violence] is the mining industry”, driving rival warlords to fight over easily exploitable resources like gold and diamonds. The unrest was illustrated as a “struggle for resources in which political leaders use ethnicity.”

Neuhaus recounted experiences during his ambassadorship that troubled him, particularly the case of women he had spoken to in a DRC refugee camp who had been raped by police officers while conducting daily routine. They told him that “we were here because our very own neighbours chased us from our own home.”

He also related the story of a mayor in the DRC who sabotaged a potential peace deal to safeguard his commercial interests, highlighting it as the prime example of political life in “the country that eats itself.”

However, Neuhaus remained optimistic when considering the future of the DRC. He argued that continued investment into private industry, especially in Australia’s mining ventures, would bring long-term stability. Yet, concluded that “just as the problems of the Congo have been internal problems… the future of the Congo is dependent on the way the Congolese learn to live together.”

Neuhaus also mentioned Australian aid programs to the region, and when asked by Woroni afterwards about his thoughts on the criticisms of funnelling aid money to governments, with little grassroots effect, he said that he was “very critical about aid, and you have to be very careful about what aid you give.”

“I am certainly very opposed to what you call budgetary support [giving money straight into a country’s budget]. I think aid that goes to NGOs and small-scale development agencies… is well used and necessary. I also think development assistance in capacity-building… is very useful aid, especially for students that you might meet here at ANU.”

“The best form of assistance in the end is really in the private sector, and through investments that have a corporate-social responsibility side.”

When asked about what he achieved during his ambassadorship, he cited a discussion that he had with President Mugabe, trying to convince him to hold freer and more peaceful elections. He also mentioned his embassy’s refurbishing of Zimbabwe’s water infrastructure. However:

“The take-away for me was that the 2013 elections were actually peaceful, [Mugabe] spoke very strongly for peaceful elections, his thugs were not used… I’ve always asserted that they weren’t free and fair elections… but at least they were peaceful. And that’s progress of a kind.”

Finally, he also encouraged students to engage with the African continent, given its growth rates and equated it to Asia’s position 40 years ago. “Africa is the continent of the future for Australian engagement.”

“There’s a lot of opportunity in Africa, and we should see it as part of our wider world.”