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Congo Votes With Fingers Crossed

Prepared by: Stephanie Hanson
Updated: October 30, 2006

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The Democratic Republic of Congo’s elections in July were preceded by high anxiety and fears of violence that, once the vote concluded without serious incident, quickly dissipated into relief. As the Congolese voted Sunday, tension prevailed, and two people died in clashes with police (Scotsman) as opposition supporters tried to destroy a polling place in the north. The campaign for the second-round elections (ElectionGuide.org) saw repeated clashes in the capital of Kinshasa between the private armies of the two presidential contenders—President Joseph Kabila and former rebel Jean-Pierre Bemba—which dampened campaigning in the rest of the country. Neither candidate ventured outside Kinshasa, citing security risks (Reuters), though Kabila sent his wife (VOA) on the campaign trail in his stead.

The divisive atmosphere in the capital mirrors what many experts say is a growing fissure between Congo’s west and its mineral-rich east. Kabila, who garnered 45 percent of the first-round vote and is expected to win the presidency, draws most of his support from the east (BBC), which credits him with ending a five-year regional war in 2003 and bringing peace to the country. Bemba’s stronghold is the Lingala-speaking west, which views Kabila as a foreigner (he grew up in Tanzania and doesn’t speak their language). Yet some say the two-part elections have forced the candidates to seek alliances that bridge regional and ethnic divisions. At a recent Great Lakes Policy Forum presentation, Caty Clement of the International Crisis Group (ICG) said Kabila’s recent efforts to build coalitions with people in the west are a “major victory” for the country’s electoral system.

But if Congo is to have any hope for lasting peace, such alliances must extend to the nation’s armed forces. In a CFR.org Podcast, ICG’s Jason Stearns “hammers on” the necessity of international assistance to create a “professional and apolitical national army.” The Congolese national army, whose creation was mandated by the 2003 peace agreement, is an ill-trained collection of former government and rebel forces that currently preys on the population rather than protecting it. Soldiers have even abducted civilians and used them for forced mine labor, reports Human Rights Watch. Integration has failed, write Rick Neal and Nigel Pearson in a new Refugees International report, but peace has grown because rebel groups know that “participation in the transitional government gives them their best chance to retain at least some access to the riches.”

As in other resource-rich African countries, Congo—whose land is rich in cobalt, gold, copper, and diamonds—has long been plagued by conflicts between groups struggling to control its natural wealth. The Congolese army is only the latest (AP), in a string of offenders that include armed groups from neighboring Rwanda and Uganda. In July, the UN Security Council extended for a year an embargo on the illegal transfer of natural resources and the transfer of all weapons to Congo, but neither the UN peacekeeping force in Congo nor the Congolese government have the manpower or funds to enforce it. China, which has large investments in the country, operates on a “see no evil, hear no evil” policy (Asia Times) that does little to discourage rebel groups. Though investors are clamoring to get into Congo, experts say foreign investment will not improve Congo’s economy unless something is done to combat the country’s endemic corruption. This ICG report says strengthening the judiciary and parliament would help promote good governance in Congo.

Whether Congo’s peace process falters under a new president remains to be seen, but its stability (or lack thereof) will have repercussions for the entire region. “Recent history has taught us that when Congo sneezes, all of central Africa catches cold,” writes Chris Hennemeyer, IFES regional director for Africa, in an International Herald Tribune op-ed, urging a long-term strategy of engagement in Congo for the international community. This CFR Task Force report recommends a more comprehensive U.S. policy on Africa, cautioning “conflict prevention and resolution should not be an ad hoc activity.”

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