The State of Democracy in the Democratic Republic of Congo

By Marissa B. Goldfaden
2011, Vol. 3 No. 04 | pg. 1/2 |

The problems associated with democratic reform in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) are manifold. While the name of the country surely lends itself to an assumption of regime type, in actuality, this area has experienced great civil unrest over the last five decades, resulting in an extremely tenuous so-called “.” The issues that need to be resolved within the country are numerous, and span the spectrum, from ethnic strife to a weak, declining economy.

The country presently known as the DRC initially achieved independence from its Belgian colonizer in 1960. Tensions were escalating between Prime Minister Lumumba and President Kasavubu; the latter dismissed the former from office in 1960. The following year, Prime Minister Lumumba was assassinated. Then, in 1965, President Kasavubu was overthrown in a U.S.-backed coup. The infamouse Joseph-Desire Mobutu came to power, a position he maintained until 1997. The First Congo War was fought from 1996-1997, followed by a Second Congo War that lasted from 1998-2003. The Ituri conflict1 endured throughout and beyond both Congo Wars.

In January 2001, leader Laurent Kabila was assassinated and his son, Joseph Kabila, was subsequently named head of state. In October 2002, the new president was successful in negotiating the withdrawal of Rwandan forces occupying eastern Congo; two months later, the Pretoria Accord was signed by all remaining warring parties to end the fighting and establish a government of national unity. A transitional government was set up in July 2003. President Joseph Kabila and four vice presidents represented the former government, former rebel groups, and the political opposition. In December 2005, the transitional government held a successful constitutional referendum, as well as for the presidency, National Assembly, and provincial legislatures in 2006, the same year as President Kabila’s inauguration and the installation of the National Assembly. Prior to these events, in the early 1990’s, Mobutu suspended a National Conference that had been convened to discuss the future of his nation.

In a report dated July 20, 2006, the International Crisis Group states,

"While international attention has concentrated on elections, the other elements of a stable democracy are weak or missing, including the necessary checks on executive political parties. Parliamentary inquiries lack necessary resources and expertise to be effective. The judiciary is deeply politicised and inadequately funded. Not a single official has been tried during the transition for . Presidential and legislative candidates should have – but have not – presented detailed plans for addressing corruption in customs, public finance and natural resources."2

Thus, a handful of the roadblocks to a true and efficient democracy are outlined and that which is mentioned above only refers to problems within the government itself, rather than the country as a whole. While these problems clearly have a trickle-down effect on Congolese society, there are more urgent matters that need to be addressed in consolidating and contributing to lasting democratic reform. As such, nearly a year later, the same organization published another report, which concludes:

"The way forward lies in strengthening democratic governance. The government must allow the opposition and institutions - parliament, press and courts - to do their jobs. Reform requires genuine political will to tackle impunity by vetting police and army officers and making courts independent. The government also needs to live up to its promise to review mining and timber contracts and audit key sectors, including the army, state companies and the Central Bank. Donors must stay engaged, linking aid (over half the budget) to a political framework for a new partnership with Congo's institutions to deal with peacebuilding priorities."3

History has shown that there is no cookie-cutter model for democracy and the transition period varies greatly. Since the second of the two reports discussed has been published, only one other report has been generated by this group in this particular region. Hence, one can infer that the situation in DRC has not dramatically changed in the last five months.

Other obstacles to democracy in the DRC include widespread poverty and limited or no access to clean water, nutrition, healthcare, and . As a result, disease and starvation claim thousands of lives on a daily basis and many children end up working in diamond mines. Tribalism is still more prevalent than and decades of kleptocratic rule have sapped the public’s trust in public institutions, which are weak and ineffectual. Churches are the only civil-society institutions with popular credibility, but their influence is limited.4 However, in accordance with the findings of the International Crisis Group, reports:

"Even these handicaps are dwarfed by the greed and irresponsibility of much of the political class. Corruption is endemic. Most politicians, military leaders, businessmen, and bureaucrats have spent their time in office plundering state resources at a rapid rate, following a well-established Congolese tradition. The quest for personal enrichment has triggered widespread distrust and makes it all but impossible for the different organs of the state to cooperate."5

Such reporting beggars the question of where one should or can begin. Whether one considers voting a right or a privilege, allowing people to partake in the democratic process becomes meaningless if those same people are starving to death. Last year, the New York Times reported,

"In less than a decade, an estimated four million people have died, mostly of hunger and disease caused by the fighting. It has been the deadliest since , with more than 1,000 people still dying each day. For many here [DRC], survival, not elections, is the milestone."6

Due to the sheer number of militias and bandits operating from bases in the more rural areas of DRC, it is very difficult for aid agencies to actually work effectively in the area. These outlaws steal the food, money, and other supplies intended to reach the masses. All of this takes place in spite of the continual presence of United Nations peacekeepers in the region, the largest U.N. peacekeeping mission in the world. But the entire mission may be in vain, due to the fragility (at best) of the “peace” these people are attempting to maintain.

Another major issue in DRC that acts as a hindrance to democracy is the subjugation of the rights of women. The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of against Women in 2006 expressed concern that in the post-war transition period, the promotion of women’s and gender equality is not seen as a priority. Congolese women have registered and voted in impressive numbers and secured commitments on paper for greater roles in governance. However, in practice they remain badly under-represented and against them, often rape, is widespread and committed with impunity.7 Democracy is intended to be an all-inclusive process and as previously stated, having and exercising the right to vote are simply not enough to achieve such an aim.

To address such pressing needs, the International Crisis Group recommends that the Congolese Government establish commissions to apply and monitor measures related to women in the new constitution, especially Article 15 on the elimination of sexual violence, and promote equal opportunities for women; include promotion of women’s rights in the job description of all ministers, not only the ministry for women and the family; and strengthen the justice system by promoting reforms to end impunity for perpetrators of sexual violence, give legal aid to victims and establish special police and prosecutorial units to investigate sexual crimes.8

A local initiative by women in Bukavu aims for recovery from violence based on women's own empowerment. However, more needs to be done. Rather than just having a standing committee, the United Nations should implement a special task force to provide education, psychological counseling, emotional support, and medical care to the women in dire need of such provisions. This should be a collaborative effort on the behalf of relevant non-governmental (or inter-governmental) organizations and United Nations agencies.

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