Even before Laurent-Dsir Kabila took control of Kinshasa and renamed Zaire the Democratic Republic of the Congo, demands mounted on him to prove himself a democrat by holding elections.
But a little humility is in order. After decades of ruining Zaire by supporting a dictator who never held elections, the US, France, and other powers should take stock before ruining it further with ill-prepared elections to salve our guilty consciences.
Zaire is not ready for national elections. Mobutu wrecked the country. It has no roads, national independent media, or national political organizations. It has no administration, voting registry, or police. Its only army, Mr. Kabila's coalition of foreign-aided rebel groups, may dissolve into new conflict any day. Relief groups operating in areas Kabila has controlled for months still cannot identify the commanders. The civilian administration Kabila has put in place is not coordinated with either the political leadership or the armed forces. Efforts to stop the massacres and start repatriation of remaining Rwandan Hutu refugees have repeatedly stumbled on these obstacles.
The economy has collapsed into a set of local barter zones, some of which do not recognize Mobutu's currency. Kabila's recent signing of an avalanche of mining deals may offer some quick cash to the central government, but it will hardly begin to finance the major reconstruction required or create a functioning economy.
Danger of moving too fast
Congo desperately needs accountable, democratic government, and Kabila's recent suppression of demonstrations and opposition parties bodes ill. His troops' apparent massacres of Rwandan Hutu refugees raise the gravest concerns. But national elections without the mechanisms needed to administer them or govern the country will only incite unaccountable leaders to conflict. Without any genuine popular base, they will fall back on ethnic and regional appeals, threatening a new civil war.
The alternative is not simply a new dictatorship. While Mobutu dismantled the government institutions of Zaire, resilient and creative people mobilized to try to fill the gaps. In nearly every town and city of the country, private citizens, often working with the aid and support of both the Catholic and new evangelical churches, organized grassroots associations for social services and economic cooperation. These are also the groups that fought for democracy and undermined Mobutu's dictatorship, preparing the way for Kabila. The struggle for democracy in Congo belongs to these organizations of civil society, not to the foreign powers who propped up Mobutu.
In response to international pressures, a National Conference convened by Mobutu issued a framework in 1992 for transition to democracy. It called for local elections first, then regional elections, national legislative elections, and a national presidential election at the end of the process. Such a transition would have given local political leaders time to emerge from civil society and build bases of support. Gradual institutional consolidation and economic recovery could then have provided the underpinnings for the more difficult task of holding national elections.
The following year, Mobutu unilaterally issued a new transitional framework, calling for national elections first. Of course, he never held them. But today, both representatives of grassroots organizations and experienced Western relief workers say that most Congolese active in civic organizations still want local elections first. The millions of dollars the US and other countries have offered for elections can go initially to support civic organizations and local elections, as the people themselves seem to prefer.
The outside powers on whom Congo will now depend for its reconstruction should listen to the people of the country and press Kabila to do the same. As part of the reconstruction effort, the donor countries, UN, and international financial institutions should support the establishment of consultative forums for civil society at all levels, local, provincial, and national. Such forums have begun to function in Guyana, Liberia, and Guatemala, where they enable people other than those with guns or offices to make their voices heard.
Mineral wealth not enough
Congo is rich in all kinds of minerals, but mineral wealth does not guarantee development. A country also needs what social scientists have come to call social capital - relations of trust and cooperation based on institutions where people work together. Despite, or because of, its tribulations, Congo is rich not only in minerals but in social capital.
Forcing on it a national contest for power before it has forged its basic institutions could squander that social capital as surely as Mobutu squandered the country's financial capital.
* Barnett R. Rubin is director of the Center for Preventive Action, Council on Foreign Relations. The Council on Foreign Relations takes no position on policy issues, and this article is solely the opinion of the author.