Governance Not Guns in the Congo
January 28, 2008
Congratulations have been rolling in from diplomatic headquarters in Paris, London, Brussels, and Washington with the news of the signing of a cease-fire agreement in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s violent eastern frontier region. If it holds, the deal could mark the beginning of the end of the ugly little war in North and South Kivu, which has been going on, in one form or another, since 1994. An array of militia groups as well as government troops have treated the Kivus as a playground for mayhem, looting, killing, torturing, and raping with near total impunity. Given the huge numbers of displaced persons, child soldiers, sexual crimes, mutilations and summary executions, it makes sense for peace to be high on the international agenda. However, it would be a mistake to view the Congo primarily as a military or humanitarian catastrophe; in fact, it is really a crisis of governance.
A little over one year ago, 25 million enthusiastic Congolese went to the polls to cast their votes in presidential run-off elections, the final step in the nation’s first free and fair polls. President Joseph Kabila won with 58% of the vote and a popular mandate to pull his country out of its 20 year spiral of violence and economic decline. Voters wanted him to give meaning to the national motto “Justice, Paix, Travail” (Justice, Peace, Work). In reality, the lot of the ordinary Congolese has not measurably improved since the elections; justice remains in short supply, as has been the case ever since the days when Congo was the private property of the Belgian King Leopold; and peace and work are as endangered as the country’s rare mountain gorillas.
The failure to deliver a democracy dividend matters for several reasons. Bear in mind that the Congo is no ordinary place. It’s the giant of sub-Saharan Africa, as large as the United States east of the Mississippi, bordering nine other countries, including the fragile states of Burundi, Congo-Brazzaville, Rwanda and Sudan. Alone in the sub-region, it holds the potential for both pandemonium and prosperity. Sitting atop enormous mineral wealth – copper, diamonds, gold, cobalt, coltan, and potentially large reserves of oil and natural gas – Congo has been courted by suitors from Arizona to Zhejiang. Indeed, China’s recent $5 billion concessionary loan to Congo spurred nervous talk in western capitals of a new “scramble for Africa.” But putting aside geopolitics and financial markets, the Congo matters most because it is a potent symbol of the high cost of Africa’s failure and the world’s contribution to that failure. The Congo’s history reads like a long national obituary, starting with the millions who perished from the trans-Atlantic slave trade and under Belgian rule, and concluding with the millions who died of war-related causes during the past decade. For Africa to change, the Congo must change and become something other than a byword for chaos, corruption, and killing.
The solution has to begin with improved governance. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon recently released a report which describes the challenges in terms that are uncharacteristically blunt for the UN: “Non-existent or barely functioning State institutions and decaying infrastructure, along with a lack of resources, continue to hamper the Government’s efforts to extend basic services and to address the urgent needs of the population.” Note that what the people of Congo want is nothing grandiose – no gleaming new international airports or nuclear reactors – but simply a government that meets some of the most elemental needs of a people who have been deprived of them for years. A few hours of electricity per day, a modest paycheck for schoolteachers, mail delivery, the ability to travel from one town to the next without facing extortion or rape – these do not seem to be excessive demands on a popularly elected government.
There are concrete steps that the Congo is ready to take, but they are complex and costly and require the active and long-term support of the international community, in particular the United States. First of all, the government has announced an ambitious program of political and administrative decentralization. Ideally, this would bring state authority closer to the people being governed and also result in a more equitable sharing of the nation’s revenue between the capital and the provinces. However, if it is to be successful, the Congolese government and its international partners must ensure that decentralization is accompanied by intensive capacity-building and training programs, stringent financial management systems, and sufficient resources to deliver social services.
Secondly, Congo plans to hold local elections in 2008. These promise to be at least as complicated and contentious as the 2006 national elections, with perhaps as many as 200,000 candidates vying for public office. Congo has a reputable electoral commission, but it will need major support from the UN, the United States, and NGOs if it is to acquit itself well in meeting the challenge.
Thirdly, if the newly signed cease-fire is to be translated into lasting peace, serious preparation must begin for the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of thousands of erstwhile combatants. The mistakes of similar exercises in Liberia and Sierra Leone, which were inadequately funded and sloppily executed, must be avoided. Likewise, efforts must be redoubled to professionalize the Congolese army, which from the first days of independence has been an important contributor to anarchy rather than order. As reforming the army will be a long-term project, it is essential that MONUC, the United Nations peacekeeping force in Congo, be kept in place for the immediate future to ensure some measure of security and stability.
Finally, Congo must join the battle against its endemic corruption. King Leopold epitomized the problem when he said, “my rights over the Congo are to be shared by none.” In modern times, Congolese speak of an apocryphal 15th clause in the national Constitution which ostensibly states “Debrouillez Vous” (Help Yourself). This has cynically been cited as justification by ordinary people to do whatever is necessary to survive and by elites as a license to steal on a colossal scale. Some progress has been taken to address the disease, particularly by local civil society groups, but much more needs to be done. Activist media, an impartial judicial system, vigorous law enforcement, and an improved economy are all important ingredients. But given the deference to authority that characterizes African political life, it is absolutely essential that the country’s political class set an example of honest and ethical leadership. It’s also worth remembering that given the country’s enormous natural wealth, foreign governments should police the economic conduct of their own nationals and companies, which have not been above contributing to a culture of corruption.
Certainly the United States should support and encourage the efforts of the Kabila government, assisted by the United Nations, to quell civil unrest in the country’s wild east, but not at the risk of losing sight of the long game. Ultimately, it is governance not guns which must rule the Congo, and improvements in governance should be the primary focus of U.S. policymakers in their efforts to help the longsuffering Congolese people. ______________________________________________________________________
Chris Hennemeyer is the Africa Regional Director for IFES (the International Foundation for Elections Systems) based in Washington, D.C. He first went to Africa as a child in 1961, and since then has spent more than 20 years on the continent, primarily working in the humanitarian and democracy and governance fields.
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