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Beyond Elections in the Congo

| December 5, 2011
CONGO-DEMOCRATIC/ELECTION

Last week, millions of voters went to the polls in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The elections were only the third in the history of the Congo – a country wracked by decades of conflict, and which, earlier this month, was given the dubious accolade of being the world’s least-developed state. 

Rather than being a cause for celebration, the election was a shemozzle marred by frequent irregularities and deadly violence. Reports abounded of ballot-box stuffing, incomplete voter lists, and intimidation and interference by security forces, prompting several candidates to call for the annulment of the vote and others to declare premature victory. To stem the tide of rumours that risk further instability, senior officials have suspended mobile-phone messaging throughout the country until the provisional election results are released on Dec. 6, the last day of President Joseph Kabila’s five-year mandate. Analysts fear the worst is yet to come.

Five years ago, the UN played a critical role in organizing and overseeing the Congo’s landmark post-war elections, which were widely heralded as a success. When opposition candidate Jean-Pierre Bemba denounced the results of the second run-off round as a “hold up,” alleging “systematic cheating,” the Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) William Swing facilitated daily meetings to investigate claims of fraud. And when it became evident that Bemba’s MLC party had indeed lost, Swing, along with several ambassadors, played a formative role in convincing him to concede defeat with little violence.

This time, however, the UN’s participation has been much more marginal and contested. Last Sunday, on the eve of the elections, leading presidential candidate Etienne Tshisekedi asked Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon to “immediately recall” the current SRSG, Roger Meece, and replace him with someone “more impartial and competent.” As Meece is head of the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) – the UN’s largest and most expensive peacekeeping force – this charge is particularly damning of the mission altogether. What it suggests is that in its current form the mission’s future is uncertain and there is little likelihood that it will be accepted by the parties to act as an arbiter when, as so many predict, the situation deteriorates. 

Tshisekedi’s charge, however, is far from surprising. Since 2006, the UN has increasingly aligned itself closely and compromisingly with the Congolese state in the name of stabilizing the country.

MONUSCO and international donors have disengaged politically, becoming increasingly uncritical of the country’s deteriorating democracy, increasing corruption, and impunity for perpetrators of human-rights abuses throughout the country.

The UN’s alignment has been most apparent in MONUSCO’s involvement since 2009 in a series of military operations conducted by government forces that target militia in the unstable eastern region of the country. During these ongoing operations, the UN has provided significant material, logistical, and operational support to government forces. No sooner had the operations commenced than evidence began to surface of widespread abuse of civilians and repeated human-rights violations by militia and, critically, government forces – actions that contributed to the rapid deterioration of security conditions. The violence was extraordinarily vicious. 

In December 2009, after nine months of support, the UN attempted to mitigate the potential legal and moral liability of continuing to support the government by adopting a conditionality policy. However, UN military officers on the ground lament that the policy has proven to be largely unenforceable due to the UN’s lack of oversight over key parts of their mission. Consequently, the UN continues to “work alongside” those with significant human-rights-abuse records, including General Bosco Ntaganda, a war criminal indicted by the International Criminal Court, who, despite government assurances to the contrary, continues to be involved in military operations.

Kabila’s government has proven unwilling to address the root causes of conflict and to reform the very Congolese institutions that are necessary for stability, such as the security sector. Indeed, the last five years have demonstrated that the government is more interested in preserving and augmenting its own power than in democratic and equitable peace-building for the benefit of the country’s population. Criticism of the government has, in part, led Kabila to call for the mission’s withdrawal at various junctures.

Where has the international community been? Unlike the lead-up to the last elections, during which international actors worked closely together to ensure the success of the political transition, disunity among donors since 2006 has meant that opportunities to exert leverage on the state, such as the International Monetary Fund’s cancellation of $12 billion in Congolese debt, have been squandered, and Kabila has gone unchecked in his centralization of power and profit. Indeed, increasingly uninterested international partners have chosen to refocus resources on technical tasks, and have disengaged from the necessary political processes at the local, regional, and national levels.

Whatever the outcome of the presidential elections this coming week, the future of MONUSCO is a precarious one, and the international community will face some tough decisions on the Congo. If elected, opposition candidates are unlikely to throw their support behind a mission they perceive as distinctly partial, and President Kabila has already insisted publicly that international assistance in the post-election period be restricted to development rather than peacekeeping. As it stands, MONUSCO’s mandate stipulates that reconfiguration of the mission be based on progress towards the reduction of threats from armed groups in eastern Congo, that the government’s capacity to effectively protect the population be improved, and that state authority throughout the territory be consolidated. None of these objectives has yet been reached, and there is the risk that, after a decade of involvement, “donor fatigue” and attention to seemingly more pressing international situations, such as Syria and Egypt, will cause international actors to further disengage.

As the last five years have revealed, the holding of elections does not mean the job is done. International actors must come together to design a new approach to addressing the instability in the Congo. Underpinning this new approach must be the recognition that the problems facing the Congo are ultimately political and not technical. Donors – in conjunction with the Congolese – should develop comprehensive interventions that proceed from political-economic analyses and avoid technocratic tinkering. The Congolese government must show leadership in reforming state institutions, and in the design of a comprehensive solution to conflict that involves stakeholders at the local, provincial, and national level, and that addresses the various political, social, cultural, and economic dimensions of violence.

Moreover, as I argue with Guillaume Lacaille in a recent policy report, “Stabilizing the Congo”, international actors, rather than continuing to support the state unconditionally and in the face of intransigent behaviour, must strengthen and exercise their financial leverage in critical priority areas that together form a comprehensive roadmap to long-term peace and stability. Failure of the Congolese government to abide by the terms of such a roadmap and/or further political donor disengagement should result in the reduction of international support to the state, withdrawal of MONUSCO, and a cessation of development or stabilization activities in favour of critical lifesaving humanitarian assistance.

The last five years have laid bare the difficulties of supporting and partnering with governments emerging fitfully from war and attempting to build a comprehensive and inclusive peace in which citizens and politicians alike feel they have a stake. If securing the peace is to mean anything, and if engagement is not perpetually to fail, international actors must take an honest look at the actual interests and motives of individuals holding political mandates, and at their own roles and responsibilities.

Photo courtesy of Reuters.

  • Academia

    It is time for the international community to seek an alternative way for stability in the Congo because Kabila is indeed part of the problem

    • #cdnfplease

      Are you pushing for more international engagement or less??? See 1FriendofCongo – maybe international community is problem.

  • Anonymous

    The so-called international community has its own agenda. The people of the Congo must create their own new approach that best serve their long term interests.

    • #cdnfplease

      Do you think it will benefit Congo for MONUSCO to get out?

  • Babakarimi7

    I am yet to see an international player in DRC who has no vested interest. If one such exists, it should lead in empowering the “Congoman” take charge of the processes for restoring democracy and governance. Till then, the Congolese know they are a marginalized lot in their own country and can only trust on time and chance to lay the opportunity in their hands to take charge of their beloved land.

  • Tshijaol

    Thank you for this well-informed and responsible viewpoint. MONUSCO under Roger Meece has lost all credibility. One need look no further than his cables as ambassador to understand that he is unalterably biased against the only nonviolent actors on the political scene — UDPS and Dr. Tshisekedi — and has personal and pecuniary interests in prolonging the thoroughly corrupt and murderous regime of Joseph Kabila and his protege Antoine Ghonda (a student who we understand on good authority shined Meece’s apples during his shortlived academic career). T. John Metzel

  • Harry

    Hmmm…. no mention of the Canadian mining companies that have been wreaking havoc in the country?

  • CD

    Good article, but do we really want international actors to come together to design a new approach to addressing the instability in the Congo? Or should this be a Congolese initiative? Especially considering that conditionality of assistance needs to increase. We do not want to go back where we came from, developing plans for Congo, but we want to move forward developing plans with the Congolese, with a government that has the choice between taking responsibility or having to do this without international assistance.