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Is the DR Congo a Lost Cause?

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I stepped down as the UN Special Representative in the Congo a dozen years ago. My departure from the DRC coincided with the 50th anniversary of the Congo’s independence.


Is the DR Congo a Lost Cause?


I stepped down as the UN Special Representative in the Congo a dozen years ago. My departure from the DRC coincided with the 50th anniversary of the Congo’s independence.

The anniversary occasioned an interlude of optimism in the country. Sadly, that did not last very long. Violent conflict in the eastern areas of the country quickly resurfaced and, scarcely a year later, in 2012, the M23 rebellion erupted. Over the following decade, and despite numerous interventions by international and regional actors, the east has remained a cockpit of conflict. Today, the DRC has at least 6 million internally displaced people, more than any other country in Africa.

Of late, the economy is growing, largely based on mineral exports. Nonetheless, the IMF has cautioned that “Reforms to strengthen the rule of law and the judiciary system, curb corruption, and improve transparency in the mining sector and public finances are critical to improve the business climate for private investment and economic diversification.” Macroeconomic assessments shade the deeper reality of mass poverty and low human development in the Congo. The mineral wealth does not benefit the people of the Congo. According to the World Bank, the “DRC is among the five poorest nations in the world”; and one out of six people living in extreme poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa lives in the DRC. This data amply illustrates a sad adage about the Congo: a rich country with a lot of poor people.

Of course, not all of the Congo’s problems can be blamed on the current or recent administrations. History casts a long shadow. We have to be mindful of the doleful legacy of colonialism and the impact of the Cold War when major powers condoned or overlooked the transgressions of the Mobutu regime in exchange for strategic and commercial advantage. Unfortunately, external political and economic forces continue to have an adverse impact on the DRC’s security and development. We know that much of the violence in the east has been perpetrated by armed groups that originated in Rwanda and Uganda and then fled into the Congo. Regrettably, the competition between those two countries for political primacy and pecuniary gain in the eastern Congo contributes to instability, although that has been amplified by the failures of governance within the DRC.

As a former head of the UN’s peacekeeping mission in the Congo, I am also acutely aware and recognize that our efforts to protect civilians were not always as effective as they should have been. This has created understandable frustration among local communities,  and, lately, a demand from Kinshasa for an accelerated withdrawal of UN peacekeepers. But irrespective of whether UN peacekeepers go or stay, the failure of successive Congolese governments to achieve significant institutional and policy reform (as agreed in the 2013 regional security framework and the 2021 joint DRC/UN transition plan) has undermined efforts to stabilize the eastern DRC.

Martial law is not the answer. Nor is the replacement of UN forces by another force. These measures will not solve the problems that are at the root of insecurity in the east. So is the Congo a lost cause, a Hobbesian dystopia forever blighted by mass poverty and widespread violence? That is not inevitable. However, if the country it to achieve a brighter future, change is unavoidable and urgent.

The upcoming presidential election is a critical inflection point.

Independent observers, including the Catholic Church, denounced the presidential 2018 election as fraudulent. Nevertheless, in the name of stability, the result was largely accepted by regional organisations and major powers. The downside, however, was that the incoming government lacked genuine legitimacy and internal coherence, and soon became entangled in internal disputes and discord. Worryingly, the Catholic and Protestant churches in the Congo, together with civil society organisations, are again warning that the credibility of the forthcoming election is in danger.

There are serious doubts about the impartiality and integrity of the National Electoral Commission (CENI) and the Constitutional Court, the final legal arbiter of the electoral result. For its part, the political opposition in the DRC needs to present a plausible case for change and avoid self-defeating fragmentation propelled by ethnic antagonisms and personal ambitions. The DRC uses a “first past the post” electoral system. This usually makes it easier for incumbents to retain office, especially if there are multiple candidates on the ballot. That is why President Kabila changed the electoral law before the 2013 elections. Congolese civil society is now calling for the various opposition contenders to adopt a collaborative approach to ensure that voters have a viable choice. I hope they will heed this call.

Regional and international actors have to play their part too. In the time remaining before the election is held, they should forcefully impress on the Congolese government that the election must be truly free and fair and warn of the consequences if it is not. They must not again endorse a dubious result in the name of stability. For its part, the UN and other organisations should suspend technical and logistical support for the election if there are clear signs of electoral malpractice.

But irrespective of who wins the presidential election, the fundamental problems facing the Congo will not be solved quickly or easily. Electoral legitimacy will provide a foundation for reform but will not guarantee that it happens. Reforms in the security and judicial sectors have been promised in the past but not delivered. Why? What are the impediments to reform in the DRC and how can they be surmounted? Responses to these questions should guide how the DRC’s international partners frame their support for the incoming government.

Equally important and urgent, however, is the elaboration of a well-articulated and integrated political/security strategy that addresses the causes and material incentives behind the recurring violence in the east. That strategy should be based on community engagement and conciliation. But the strategy has also to tackle the vested interests – local and foreign – entrenched in the political economy of the eastern Congo, which are helping to drive violent conflict. Over the last sixty years, the people of the Congo have suffered grievously through one crisis after another; they deserve a better future.

A Congo at peace and enjoying prosperity would also be hugely beneficial for Africa as whole. Africa needs economic champions because, as we have seen in East Asia over the past half century, prosperity can ripple outwards to embrace neighbours. The forthcoming election provides a fresh opportunity for the DRC to reimagine its future and unlock its vast potential at the “Heart of Africa.” So, let’s hope that Congo’s leaders will grasp and not squander this opportunity.


Alan Doss is the former Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General to the Democratic Republic of the Congo,  and Senior Political Advisor at the Kofi Annan Foundation.  


(Photo credit: Marie Frechon / MONUC)