Friday, December 9, 2011

What Happens Next? Rethinking Congo after the Election

Last week’s election in the Democratic Republic of Congo was marred by technical deficiencies and punctuated by incidents of voter intimidation and fraud. With the opposition crying foul and the prospect of urban unrest looming, attention is understandably riveted on the post-election drama. However, it’s what happens next year, not tomorrow, that’s the real problem.

First a little background. On Friday, the Congo’s national electoral commission declared incumbent president Joseph Kabila the provisional winner of the presidential race. He defeated his nearest challenger, veteran opposition figure Etienne Tshisekedi, by nearly three million votes.

Predictably, Tshisekedi and other Congolese opposition figures are claiming the election was rigged. Tensions are especially high in the capital Kinshasa, where Tshisekedi is immensely popular. A word from him, whether stray or deliberate, could unleash serious violence.

Western diplomats and journalists alike may be tempted to dismiss Tshisekedi’s complaints as the posturings of a sore loser. They'll point out that Kabila’s margin of victory is too large to be accounted for by the instances of fraud and mismanagement chronicled by electoral monitoring teams. In truth, however, too many incidents and too little oversight gave the opposition every reason to be suspicious.

The international community should work with the main political actors to ensure that the results are audited, by comparing polling station results to the final tally enumerated by the electoral commission. Someone acceptable to both sides, perhaps a retired African leader, can credibly head this job. Tshisekedi has stated that he will abide by the electoral results. We should take him at his word.

The bigger problem is what happens after the electoral mess gets resolved. The Congo scored dead last out of 187 countries on this year’s UN Development Report, an annual assessment of well-being. Corruption is reaching levels last seen under Mobutu, with ministers auctioning off the nation’s mineral wealth for suitcases of cash. The UN has spent a billion dollars a year for the last decade on peacekeepers. Yet they seem incapable of reining in the rag-tag assortment of militia besetting the eastern provinces. Nor does the country’s own army seem interested in taking them on—although they did fire on a group of unarmed demonstrators in the capital last week, killing five. Meanwhile, rape in the Congo has become an international cause celebre, earning the country a reputation, much resented within it, as the rape capital of the world.

Kabila has presided over the Congo for a decade already, since taking over from his assassinated father in 2001. Assuming he retains the presidency, he will remain in power through 2016—half the length of Mobutu’s rule, a truly depressing thought. With much of Africa beginning to boom, the Congo threatens to remain a huge hole in the center of it, a blight on the continent and a stain on the international conscience.

From the outside it can all look a little hopeless. Yet people who visit the country come back consistently hopeful. There is nothing wrong with Congo that Congolese can’t fix—provided they are given the tools and the resources to do the job.

To begin, diplomats and activists alike will have to give up the fantastical notion that the US is a decisive player in Congo’s destiny. Ultimately, it is the Congolese who will decide their country’s future. This was always true, of course, but it is particularly true now that the US faces its own budgetary constraints and the reality of a diminished presence in the world. Quick top-down fixes, like advocates’ ill-considered campaign against so-called conflict minerals, only hurt the people they are meant to help.

Instead, the US needs to work with the international community to strengthen Congolese civil society, so that it can compel its own government to be more responsive to the needs of the people. Anti-corruption and human rights groups should get more funding, as should the array of institutions, from orphanages to rape crisis centers, that Congolese themselves have established in the absence of government authority.

At the same time, the US needs to make the world a harder place for those who would exploit the country. Last year, when human rights activist Floribert Chibeya was murdered—presumably at government hands—the US clucked responsively, then went back to business as normal. That’s unacceptable. The Congolese government should be made to understand that it will pay a serious price for these kind of violations.

Just as it did during the Mobutu era, the Western banking industry continues to be all-too happy to receive the deposits of corrupt Congolese officials and the companies that collude with them. That should stop. As Oxford economist Paul Collier has said, “A small minority of bankers are living on the profits from holding deposits of corrupt money. We have a word for people who live on the immoral earnings of others: pimps.”

Finally, Monusco, the UN’s mission to Congo, needs to be thoroughly re-considered. It has drifted by on momentum; if its mission is not more sharply and clearly defined, it will die of inertia. There is a role for it, but only if it is willing to take more initiative and become more aggressive. Setting up camps of Bangladeshi or Uruguayan troops, cloistering them from the local population, and refusing to dispatch them after rogue militia accomplishes nothing.

Critically, in these straitened times, little of this requires additional money. What it requires is a better allocation of money, more aggressive diplomacy, and more policy collaboration with other Western donors and institutions, such as the World Bank and the IMF. If we can put the right tools in the hands of the right Congolese, their dismal past need not be prologue to the future. It will still be up to them, but at least they will have a fighting chance.

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