LONDON – Free, fair, and transparent democratic elections are no longer strangers to Africa. Indeed, they have become a regular occurrence. But the presidential and parliamentary elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo at the end of November will likely be Africa’s most daunting electoral challenge so far. If the vote comes off successfully, democrats and democratic norms will receive a boost in every corner of the continent.
Geography alone in this vast and poorly connected country constitutes a formidable obstacle to conducting an election according to internationally recognized standards. The DRC is the size of Western Europe. Much of it is covered in thick jungle. The country is also criss-crossed by its eponymous river and various other waterways. The DRC’s poor communications and transportation infrastructure makes it virtually impossible for most Congolese, government officials, and election observers to circulate freely.
Political problems compound the geographical impediments. The DRC has no tradition of democratic governance. The last election, in 2006, was marred by an opposition boycott and chaotic procedures. Perhaps the only reason that the international community declared itself relatively satisfied with the conduct of the poll was that international donors had generously contributed close to $500 million to organize the vote.
The DRC’s history since the withdrawal some half-a-century ago of Belgium, the former colonial master, complicates matters even more. The decades-long kleptocracy of the late president, Mobutu Sese Seko, virtually bankrupted this resource-rich country, eventually spurring an insurgency that brought Laurent-Désiré Kabila to power. After his bodyguards assassinated him in 2001, his son, Joseph Kabila, became president, a job that he is seeking to retain in the forthcoming election.
Amid the chaos of Mobutu’s downfall, a catastrophic regional war drawing in forces from Angola, Rwanda, Uganda, and Zimbabwe erupted, fueled by competition for access to minerals, causing the death or displacement of millions – indeed, slaughter on a scale unseen since World War II. The war also eradicated what little control the central government was capable of exercising in large parts of the country. Armed militias sprang up all over central and eastern DRC, and today wield absolute power across large swathes of territory, exploiting the extractive industries for funding.
With a weak central government facing brutal guerrilla forces, many rural Congolese are forced to survive in a dangerous and cruel environment. Corruption makes their lives even more precarious. Transparency International’s most recent corruption perceptions index ranks the DRC 164th out of 178 countries. The latest Amnesty International report on the DRC details a litany of mass rapes and extrajudicial killings. And the Mo Ibrahim Foundation governance index for 2011 puts the DRC in 50th place among African countries, three from the bottom.
It is facile to blame the current situation on colonial plunder and post-colonial corruption. Joseph Kabila has made only token efforts to rein in corruption, perhaps because his hold on the presidency depends to a large degree on the financial largesse and patronage at his disposal to maintain allies and buy off rivals.
Indeed, Kabila has had ten years, and seemingly endless supplies of goodwill and funds from international donors, to turn the tide on the DRC’s poverty, graft, and mismanagement. Cash-strapped Western governments, which are putting up close to $750 million for the coming election, would do well to ask if they can continue to justify subsidizing a country where such little progress has been made towards better governance and respect for human rights.
On the one hand, the European Union and the United States despair at the myriad economic and political failures of the post-Mobutu DRC. On the other hand, they see Kabila as perhaps the only political figure who can prevent his unruly country from descending into chaos again.
That ambivalence might explain the shrugged shoulders at news that DRC electoral registers had allegedly become swollen with hundreds of thousands of fake names. It might explain the exasperated sighs at recent news of yet more mass rapes, perpetrated with seeming impunity by armed militias in South Kivu, on the country’s eastern fringe.
Yet if Western leaders are serious about spreading democratic values, they cannot afford to take a defeatist approach to the DRC. If the coming elections are conducted in a free, fair, and transparent manner, the West should help the DRC’s elected leader to fulfill a legitimate mandate freely given by the Congolese people.
But if the election is fraudulent and unjust, then the international community should consider imposing targeted sanctions against the DRC. One measure at the EU’s disposal is to suspend the DRC from the provisions of the Cotonou agreement, which governs the conditions for development assistance.
The EU has always been reluctant to impose rigorous human-rights conditionality on third-country recipients of its financial aid. But such a move could be highly effective in improving conditions in the DRC – and very popular among European voters tired of seeing their tax money go to waste.
The DRC’s future is, at least in theory, in the hands of the long-suffering Congolese people. We can only hope that they are allowed to express their preferences in an environment free of fraud, violence, and intimidation – all the more so because the conduct of the DRC election (and the world’s response to it) will have a profound influence elsewhere in Africa. Investing so much time and effort on an election will mean nothing if the West is unprepared to follow up on the result, whatever it may be – and with whatever steps are required.