A roadmap for the United States in DRC and other budding African democracies

Voters queue outside a polling centre before casting their ballots in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, December 30, 2018. REUTERS/Kenny Katombe - RC129A38C790
Editor's note:

2019 could spell a new era for the Democratic Republic of Congo and the wider region if the international community pivots strategies and uses its available leverage to push for meaningful reform, write Michael O’Hanlon and Sasha Lezhnev. This piece originally appeared in The Hill.

On December 30, the Democratic Republic of Congo voted in only its third presidential election in history—and the first in which an incumbent president, Joseph Kabila, had promised to step down before the vote took place.

The poll was far from a free and fair election. The clear frontrunner according to independent polls, Martin Fayulu, was declared to have lost the race.

Subsequently, Felix Tshisekedi, the son of Congo’s most famous dissident for most of the nation’s 59 years of independence, was inaugurated on January 24 after the Congolese Constitutional Court certified the official, but almost certainly fraudulent, vote tallies.

At one level, the election was an insult to democracy and a deep injustice to the Congolese people. Yet at another level, what just happened is a better outcome than most observers predicted.

Congo has now achieved the first peaceful transfer of power in its history—and to a new president who was not his predecessor’s first choice (President Kabila had favored a third candidate, Emmanuel Shadary).

Moving forward, the choice for the international community is clear. Despite the tainted path by which Tshisekedi reached the presidency and the immense challenge of outgoing President Joseph Kabila’s continuing influence, the United States, Europe, and the African Union should strongly support the reform efforts that Congolese civil society leaders are calling for to transform the deeply entrenched kleptocratic state that Tshisekedi is inheriting.

Two realms in which the United States and Europe should use their financial and diplomatic clout to induce reform in the DRC, as well as other nascent sub-Saharan African democracies, are in the military sector and on corruption.

The United States and Europe have major financial leverage due to the heavy reliance of Congo’s economy on the U.S. dollar, and to an extent, the euro.

If the United States and European Union develop a strategy of using consistent financial pressure on corrupt actors in Congo’s violent kleptocratic state, there is a legitimate chance that Tshisekedi will be able to follow through on reforms to transform the rotten system.

The financial tools include:

  • Sanctions on corrupt officials, foreign facilitators and their corporate networks through use of the powerful U.S. Global Magnitsky Executive Order;
  • Anti-money laundering measures such as Section 311 under the USA Patriot Act or a Treasury advisory to banks; and
  • Asset-recovery tools.

For example, if the U.S. sanctions Official X because of his involvement in a $1 billion corrupt deal, it makes it easier for Tshisekedi to not name that person as a minister and then enact a transparency reform that would prevent such a deal from taking place in the future.

In regard to the military, the United States and other countries should propose a vision for the reform of the Congolese military that, to date, has been highly abusive of civilians and unable to defeat multiple insurgencies in the east.

As a result, the world’s largest U.N. peacekeeping mission has become virtually a permanent, ineffectual fixture, while the DRC military continues to be plagued by many corrupt officers and bloated by abusive and poorly integrated former rebels.

The United States and Europe should offer Tshisekedi a deal: Reform his military, particularly in rooting out corrupt top brass and holding them accountable for abuses, and they will help build it up into a force that can ultimately exert sovereign control over the preponderance of the nation’s territory.

The United States could offer several hundred or more in-field military advisors as part of such an effort.

Regarding anti-corruption and accountability, the U.S. and Europe should urge Tshisekedi to start with four main reforms. First, Gecamines, the state-owned mining company at the heart of numerous corruption scandals, should publish its annual financial reports, undergo an independent audit, and its management should be changed.

Second, Tshisekedi should require all public officials to publicly declare their assets, starting with himself, a requirement under Congolese law that is rarely followed.

Third, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) should restart an extended credit facility program in Congo, which would improve transparency in the central bank and improve Congo’s fiscal situation.

Lastly, Tshisekedi should insist that all mining and oil contracts, notorious for corrupt practices, are publicly disclosed, again as required by government decree but not practiced well.

Additionally, efforts to put in place a robust accountability mechanism for human rights and financial crimes—long called for by Congolese civil society—would be important.

2019 could spell a new era for Congo and the wider region if the international community pivots strategies and uses its available leverage to push for meaningful reform. If so, Congo could finally move from being a klepto-state to one where rule of law takes much deeper root.