Thomas Lubanga Conviction Will Not Lead African Warlords to Give Up Their Child Soldiers

This week, Thomas Lubanga was sentenced to 14 years in prison for enlisting child soldiers during Congo’s many overlapping wars. This is good news for several reasons. First, Lubanga was a force for evil during his time in Central Africa. While he was not tried for other crimes, he faces accusations that his forces raped and killed opposition soldiers as well as civilians. His presence undoubtedly contributed to instability in a volatile region. Additionally, this conviction is the first by the International Criminal Court and should pave the way for more action by a body with a great deal of potential for positive change. 

The bad news is this does little to alleviate a critically unstable situation in a country where stability has long been lacking. I can assure you that active warlords did not release their enlisted child soldiers upon hearing the news of Lubanga’s conviction. More young people will be enlisted in the future. If you need proof, consider recent indications of fresh fighting in Eastern Congo.

There are more warlords and more armies. We should certainly strive to convict them too. But will this solve the problem? Joseph Kony himself will eventually be caught and convicted and, however famous he has become, violence will remain. Even if we were to somehow end the use of child soldiers, there are more concerns in Eastern Congo. The point is not that there is no hope, it’s that there is no one-step solution.

Our focus should not be on the sentence or even the legitimacy of the ICC itself. It should be with the many victims of the violence. So how do we help them? There are copious outlets for action. We could improve school systems, we could build hospitals, or we could institute democracy. The problem is that each of those “solutions” has to do with our action, not action by the Congolese. They are Band-Aids, covering the symptoms but doing nothing about the causes. It is not up to us to solve these problems. 

Some organizations are beginning to understand. Dynamic NGOs like Educate!, the Congo Leadership Initiative, and the African Leadership Academy provide real training to talented young people who will change Africa now and in the future. These organizations are not ignoring the copious issues that stand in the way of peace and prosperity. Instead, they are choosing to focus on educating leaders who can solve these problems themselves.

With all of this in mind, we need to reframe the debate. Our arguments should not be about how long Lubanga will be locked away, they should be about what we are going to do to make sure that the best and the brightest young Congolese do not become the warlords of the future. The only real solutions are the ones that rely on these youth to build their countries’ futures.