Monday, July 31, 2006

Democracy for Congo ?

This week the citizens of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire) went to the polls to elect a new leader, and government. It is the first democratic election in the large war-torn nation in over 40 years--and possibly one of Africa's most important.

When independence came in 1960 and the highly promising Patrice Lumumba was popularly elected to power, it was supposed to be a rebirth--the end of colonization and the rise of an African powerhouse, mineral rich and with the ability to change the face of a continent. But those high hopes have yielded bitter tragedy in the past 45 years. Today the DRC is a foundering giant, barely kept in order by a few thousand UN troops, ravaged by war and poverty, and exploited for its wealth by its neighbors, both near and far.

The more remote roots of the Congos problems can probably be traced back to the arrival of the Portuguese, their off and on again imbalanced power alliance with the old Kingdom of Congo, its eventual conquering, and the resulting slave trade that not only sent millions of black bodies to the New World, but also caused mayhem, displaced peoples and destroyed cultures. The DRC's time as a colony was even more horrific. Under European rulers like Leopold II of Belgium, the Congos natural resource wealth was plundered; brutality resulted in the death of millions; and ethnic tensions were exacerbated. Independence didnt free the Congo from the curse of its wealth. Its democratically nationalist leader Patrice Lumumba became victim to a US sanctioned and Belgian-planned overthrow/assassination, one of many Cold War casualties for Africa, where claims of "communist containment" were used to carry out economic and strategic policy. In his place came the Western propped-up dictator Mobutu Sese Soko, who remained a key US ally despite his continual rape of his own country.

Mobutu robbed the Congos treasury, placing the money in Swiss banks, and lined his pockets with monetary kickbacks by giving over pro-corporation mining rights to Western companies. He lavishly spent money on such items as high priced French furniture, fancying himself something of a European king. He carried out the bidding of the US, brutally repressing anyone who dissented with his dictatorship, and interfering in his neighbors affairs, sometimes on the side of Americas other African allythe white-minority apartheid government of South Africa. During the more than 35 years of Mobutus rule, the Congos vast wealth was squandered, a massive debt was accrued through Western banks eager to give loans as personal payoffs, and basic social services from roads to schools to hospitals were heavily neglected.

The dictator's end finally came in 1997, much to the happiness of the Congolese, at the hands of a rebel movement that converted or overtook his forces. The ousting of Mobutu, who by then everyone knew had been directly involved in the Western-backed plot that killed Patrice Lumumba, was hailed as the signal of a Renaissance. His palace was ransacked. The rebels were celebrated. The French name Zaire, that Mobutu had given the country, was even changed back to Congo, the Democratic Republic. But things didn't work out as planned.

The rebel leader Laurent Kabila took control of the vast nation with many promises of freedom and prosperity. Yet during his brief reign he outlawed opposition groups and shut down the press, making a host of enemies as he fought for control between factions. With internal corruption and an exploitative Western community, he was unable to implement meaningful reform to the shattered country's infrastructure and did nothing to remove some 60 million Congolese from abject poverty, in a nation literally teeming with resources, but kept shackled by detrimental IMF policies and a massive debt. Worse yet, his blocking of UN probes into reported massacres during his rebellion against Mobutu made him an international pariah. But Kabila's most direct problem, and the beginning of his country's nightmare, turned out to be the friends he kept.

Kabila's toppling of Mobutu was not a singular act or even that of just the people, but came with the backing of nearby Rwanda. The Rwandan army remained in Congo with the claim that they were there to train the newly liberated nation's defense forces. But when asked to leave, the Rwandans not only refused but helped spark rebellion among a faction of the DRC's army. Worse still, the Rwandans brought their own Hutu-Tutsi nightmare with them (the horror the world shamefully watched unfold in 1994 that claimed close to one million lives), citing the need to seek out threats to its own security (namely Hutu militias that operated in DR Congo's lawless frontier). Laurent Kabila soon found himself looking at not only a revolt by a section of his army, but much of the eastern part of his country that was ethnically aligned to Rwanda, all of which could result in a Hutu-Tutsi orgy of genocidal violence.

It didn't take long before others came looking for a feast in the weak, resource-rich giant. Nearby bordering Uganda, claiming worries over security, sent troops into the DRC to support Rwanda's war against the latter nation's former ally. Angola, another of Kabila's one-time allies, soon joined the fray on his side-against both Rwanda and Uganda. Namibia and Zimbabwe in turn allied themselves with Angola and Kabila, sending troops into the melee.

This all resulted in what until then was unheard of in modern Africa, a regional conflict with all the markings of a continental war - threatening to possibly draw even more combatants into the fray from as far off as South Africa and Libya. Cease-fires and treaties were signed, eventually ignored and fighting repeatedly resumed. And though these various nations issued rhetoric about claims of issues of security, their true motives were best seen through actions of their troops who hoisted off key mineral resources back to their respective mother countries. A UN panel noted that the foreign states all deliberately prolonged the conflict to plunder gold, diamonds, timber and coltan--a mineral used in the making of mobile phones--from the Congo, thus highlighting a key shameful reason for the disastrous and costly war: greed.

Laurent Kabila wouldn't survive the mayhem that had erupted around him however, dying from gunshot wounds inflicted by a bodyguard in January of 2001. His son Joseph Kabila, 30 years old and a political novice, would take the reins of power. To the surprise of everyone the younger Kabila embarked on an ambitious plan, declaring that he wanted to end the devastating war. It would take two more years of fighting and the sacrifice of many more lives, yet by December of 2002 a peace deal was signed and foreign troops began to withdraw finally from the Congo.

In the end, anywhere from 3 to 4 million Congolese were killed in what has been dubbed Africas First World War. No conflict in the past fifty years, since World War II, has claimed that many lives. No conflict of such magnitude, of such death, had ever gone on in modern history for five years, with hardly any media coverage. Unlike regions in Western and Central Asia with key oil reserves or Eastern European atrocities of ethnic cleansings that threaten region stability, the DRC's war and the snuffing out of some 3 to 4 million citizens of the global community to this day remains remarkably unreported. In the US, neither Democratic nor Republican administrations gave it much attention. The news media only become interested when sensationalist stories of butchery appeared that helped to foster well-harbored notions of "Darkest Africa. As one Congolese put it either the world turned a blind eye to the massive war, or its victims were emitting silent screams.

So here we are, four years after peace, and elections are finally being held. "Democracy has come to Congo" read news headlines in the country. The UN is hailing the recent turnout at the polls as a success, hoping for optimism. This is an important election after all, even if it doesn't make the news. The ultimate fate and direction of a country with such wealth, that helped spark a regional war that drew in its neighbors, is of monumental importance to not only Africa but the world. But centuries of exploitation, half a decade of war, 3 to 4 million deaths, and the ruin of such a large nation aren't healed overnight.

In parts of Congo, such as the eastern region, a state of lawlessness still exists, even with UN peacekeepers. Numerous bloody conflicts and massacres have taken place in the past four years that have claimed well over 50,000 lives, the leftover remnants of machinations by Rwandan and Ugandan armies, who recruited and armed rival ethnic groups as allies. The driving force for many of these factions was the war itself. What armed and kept them knitted together were often the larger more cohesive Ugandan and Rwandan militaries. With these groups gone, and the greater war seemingly over, these varied factions have been scrambling for control, leaving endless combatants (many of them children or young men) with no occupation, direction or distinct motive, other than the killing, raping and destructive methods the years of bloody fighting has taught them.

The people of Congo also didnt have the best options at the polls. Many on the ballot are ex-rebel leaders who are at best warlords turned politicians. They are running against the favored incumbent, Joseph Kabilawhose key claim to power is that he brokered the peace his father could not. Of course there are more than presidents to be voted on. Beyond the 32 presidential candidates, there are over 9,000 parliamentary candidates to be decided by some 26 million registered voters. At least 50,000 polling stations have been set up across the vast region, supervised by a quarter of a million electoral staff. The very feat of monitoring an election on this scale has proved daunting.

And of course, there are further complications.

The Congo's vast mineral wealth is coveted not just by its local neighbors, but the international community. Mining estimates by foreign companies have placed its accumulated potential wealth in the trillions--more than the economies of the United States and the European Economic Union combined. Thus far, accessing that wealth has been a matter of paying off the right corrupt leaders, who allow it to be carted away for cheap, leaving nothing for the country's citizens. In fact, through forced brokering of the IMF and the World Bank, the younger Kabila has already signed numerous contracts with foreign corporations to mine the Congos wealth. And, troubling to many, he is now their favored contender.

So what does this all mean for the future of the Democratic Republic of Congo? Uncertainty. The results of the election won't be known until September. And the entire process, which includes four more elections through January of 2007, still have be carried out. For now questions linger. Can the election that occurred this week in the DRC be considered democratic, given that those vying for power are already in power? Will the outcome be accepted by the Congolese people or the former ex-leaders? Will diplomacy take the place of war? And can a giant blessed with such wealth navigate the exploitative world of debt, neo-liberalism and globalization the larger Western world has straddled it with?

Time will tell. What is not in dispute is that the DRC is now at a crossroads. We just have to wait and see what path it will take.

For more on the DRC and the recent elections:

Friends of the Congo

AllAfrica News on DRC

Africa Action

No comments: