Congo: National elections now only hurt democracy

What the Democratic Republic of Congo needs is not another national election but a rethinking of how the state might be reorganized. In the long run, only a decentralized system of government – or perhaps a partition of the country – is likely to produce accountable leadership.

REUTERS/Luke MacGregor
Demonstraters protest in front of police in London over recent elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo Dec 14, 2011.

Late last week, officials in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) released the final round of results for the presidential and parliamentary election that first took place in late November. From the beginning, the election process has been plagued by controversy – accusations of fraud, multiple instances of poor organization at polling locations, breakouts of violence.

Rather than move the country forward, as international observers like the US had hoped, this election has exposed deep rifts in the country and is unlikely to result in better government. Ongoing bloodshed seems inevitable.

The situation should not surprise anyone, given the country’s long history of brutality, government mismanagement, exploitation, and war. But the international community continues to see elections as the most important cure for what ails the country. In fact, elections have repeatedly exacerbated regional tensions.

What the DRC needs is not another national election – especially one that allows corrupt leaders to remain in power – but a rethinking of how the state might be reorganized. In the long run, only a decentralized system of government – or perhaps a partition of the country – is likely to produce accountable and responsible leadership.

Those who wish to help the troubled DRC must first understand and address its underlying problems before real change can occur. Foremost among the DRC’s problems is the structure of the state itself. The country’s vast size, lack of cohesion, and limited infrastructure all undermine attempts to create a functional and effective government. Distances alone make governance difficult. National leaders have little capacity to govern regions distant from the capital of Kinshasa. Regional leaders have few incentives to cooperate with the national government, which is often thousands of miles away.

Further complicating matters is the country’s tempting treasure trove of natural resources and its abundance of guns, which exacerbate these problems, creating a combustible mix. Segments of the government are in league with traffickers who trade in illicit minerals and weapons, resulting in extensive corruption. With weapons so easily available, young men, with little hope for work or improved lives, join roving militias which rape women and plunder the country’s wealth. All these activities have earned the country a reputation for unspeakable violence and horror.

Since taking office in 2001, President Joseph Kabila has brought little improvement to the lives of his 70 million countrymen. Yet he is now claiming a new five-year term despite doubts about the legitimacy of the election process and the voting results.

What, if anything, can be done to change what appears to be an impossible scenario?

After DRC’s civil war ended in 2002, the international community led efforts to rebuild the country. Unfortunately, it did not focus sufficiently on rethinking the structure of the state and decentralizing the government, which would have addressed some of these issues. As a result, the Constitution that this process produced in 2006 was flawed. The document did not go far enough in devolving power to regional governments. And the presidency retained substantial executive authority inviting a repetition of the monarchial pretensions and corrupt practices of the past.

The situation was undermined further by the international community’s insistence on holding national elections shortly after the Constitution was adopted – before the country was ready to implement the decentralization provisions that had been included in the Constitution. As a result, the elections created a set of power brokers in the capital Kinshasa with little incentive to transfer authority and revenue to regional governments. Doing so would weaken their control over the country.

Emphasizing elections and a Western top-down model of government rather than customizing the structure of the state according to its sociopolitical, geographical, and cultural realities repeats an unfortunate pattern seen elsewhere. When the West attempts to recreate a state in its own image without due consideration of local context – whether in the DRC, Somalia, Afghanistan, or Iraq – it does not succeed. Fragile states need creative thinking about their systemic problems.

A horizontal form of government, which would empower regional or local governments, makes more sense. National elections would be less important. And those in power would have more incentives to act in the interests of their peoples.

Unless such changes are forthcoming, it is likely that one or more secessionist movements will appear, probably in the areas where the writ of the central government is weakest. The majority of uprisings in the past have been in the provinces of Kivu, Katanga, and Kasaï – all in the combustible east of the country, which is far from the capital. The longer the country’s misgovernance continues, the more likely a charismatic leader will appear and foment a rebellion against the central government.

Any attempt to break up the country would be unfortunate in the short-term as it would produce bloodshed and violence. But ultimately, a division of the country into its eastern, western, and possibly southern parts may be the only way to make it work. Each of these areas already has closer cultural and economic ties with its neighbors than with each other. The people of the DRC surely deserve better than what they have now.

If such changes do occur, it would continue the slow, arduous restructuring of Africa’s colonial era boundaries to better meet the needs of the continent’s populations, economies, and geographies. Southern Sudan became independent in July. Somaliland has been operating as an independent state since 1991. The strengthening of regional organizations – which create much needed economies of scale – should be seen in a similar light.

The United States and other donors would do well to prepare for this future now. Instead of spending hundreds of millions of dollars on elections that have little credibility and simply reinforce the status quo, they should be pressing the DRC to decentralize the state. At the least, donors should be using their money to strengthen regional governments and push implementation of the Constitution. But given the current realities, they should be preparing for the day when efforts to help the country fail – and it breaks apart.

Seth Kaplan, author of “Fixing Fragile States: A New Paradigm Development” (Praeger Security International, 2008), writes and consults to governments on state building issues. His next book, on poverty and state governance, will appear in 2012. He blogs on development and governance at the Fragile States Resource Center.

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