US names new envoy for Africa's Great Lakes

Africa's Great Lakes region includes the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the military is bracing for presidential elections on December 23, 2018 (AFP Photo/John WESSELS) (AFP/File)

Washington (AFP) - Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday named a scholar who once called for the disintegration of the Democratic Republic of Congo as the new US envoy to Africa's Great Lakes region, tasked with encouraging stability in the conflict-ridden area.

J. Peter Pham, now a vice president at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think-tank, will focus on "strengthening democratic institutions and civil society," State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.

He will also work to encourage "the safe and voluntary return of the region's refugees and internally displaced persons," she said, amid renewed tensions in Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The appointment comes ahead of December 23 presidential elections that are seen as critical for the future of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the sprawling nation that has never experienced a peaceful transition of power since independence from Belgium in 1960.

Pham, a frequent writer on African affairs, in a provocative 2012 article proposed that the DRC be allowed to split into smaller states, saying it was time to put an end to peace deals "with shelf lives barely longer than the news cycle."

In an opinion piece in The New York Times headlined "To Save Congo, Let it Fall Apart," Pham said the world could then devote scarce resources to humanitarian relief and development instead of preserving the country's unity.

He called the DRC "a fictional state that is of value only to the political elites who have clawed their way to the top in order to plunder Congo's resources and fund the patronage networks that ensure that they will remain in power."

Pham holds a doctorate from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and later served as a diplomat for the Vatican around Africa and in the Philippines, according to James Madison University, where he is an associate professor.

He was formerly a vice president of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa, a group of scholars founded by two of the most prominent academics to support the US invasion of Iraq, Fouad Ajami and Bernard Lewis.

Pham will fill a role empty for a year since the departure of Larry Wohlers, a veteran US diplomat who held a similar role as special coordinator for the Great Lakes.

Atlantic Council president Frederick Kempe congratulated Pham, crediting him with producing "cutting-edge projects" about Africa.

"It's difficult to imagine anyone with deeper subject-matter expertise on the challenges faced by Africans or US ties with the countries of the African Great Lakes," Kempe said.

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