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Op-Ed

Elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Michael E. O’Hanlon

The Democratic Republic of the Congo doesn’t get enough attention. It is sub-Saharan Africa’s largest country in size and its third largest (after Nigeria and Ethiopia) in population. It is also the continent’s geographic, ecological and environmental heartland.

It has suffered the continent’s only true regional war in post-colonial history. This has resulted in perhaps the highest overall mortality figure from the direct and indirect effects of war (some 3 million fatalities) as well as the worst sexual violence of any state in that calamity-prone continent. To my mind, it is also the most beautiful place on Earth of anywhere I’ve visited (full disclosure: I was a Peace Corps volunteer there from 1982 through 1984) with some of the kindest and most positive people I know.

On November 28, the Congolese are supposed to go to the polls to vote in their nation’s second presidential elections since the demise of President Mobutu and the mayhem of the 1990s. Eleven candidates are running for president, with the incumbent Joseph Kabila viewed as the frontrunner. A simple plurality will decide the winner. 500 parliamentary seats are up for contention too and there are 19,000 candidates vying for these positions.

All this political news sounds exciting but there are huge problems, of course. At a general level we know that elections can help or hinder a country’s progress towards peace and moderation—unhappy examples from Iraq in 2005 to Gaza in 2006 to many other cases and places drive home that point. The second election of a young democracy is particularly fraught, as it can require the peaceful transfer of power. Here, Kabila is likely to win reelection, but that underscores the importance of making sure the election process is seen as fair so that angry voters whose candidates lose will not resort to violence out of frustration.

That latter point was underscored at a Brookings event today by Tony Gambino, former AID mission director in Congo, in a panel discussion that also featured John Mbaku of Brookings and Mvemba Disolele of Stanford’s Hoover Institute as well as the Eastern Congo Initiative. Gambino and Disolele wrote a longer paper as well sponsored by the Eastern Congo Initiative (Ben Affleck’s brainchild). They are concerned about all the delays in election preparations—formats for ballots have not even been agreed to, for example, with adequate allowances for Congo’s many illiterate voters who will soon be doing the choosing from those 19,000+ candidates. Once the ballots are printed, they then have to be distributed—by prop plane, helicopter, land rover, riverboat, pirogue and on foot—to Congo’s many remote regions and villages. It is highly dubious this can happen on schedule.

The Obama administration is putting more than the average college try into supporting these elections. Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs Maria Otero also spoke at Brookings today—after a trip to Congo last week—and the Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, Johnnie Carson, is headed to Congo next week. But it is no longer clear that the timetable for elections is achievable and a delay of several months’ time may now be more prudent.

That is one issue, and the most immediate one. The broader issues about Congo include, among other things, whether the international community has enough military capability in its 18,000-strong United Nations force to stabilize the country’s east and train Congolese armed forces to take on that job someday themselves. We probably need more international forces. For the Congress, as it seeks to reduce the nation’s deficit, this kind of case should remind everyone that while all belts need to be tightened in America’s federal budget, foreign aid accounts that fund security, democracy and development in places like Congo must not be decimated in the process.

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