What can you do with US$1.2 billion? Treat over one million HIV/AIDS patients in Africa for one year. Build 200 new university campuses in places such as Ghana. Provide core funding for hundreds of developing country think tanks. Or organize an election in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Which is likely to improve the most number of lives?
The election in the DRC this week, the second since the end of the bloody civil war that ravaged central Africa in the 1990s, is supposed to bring greater stability and more accountable government to a country almost the size of western Europe. But progress since the first election in 2006 has been disappointing. The country ranks dead last of the 187 countries on the Human Development Index. The poverty rate is 71%. Only 9% of the DRC’s people have even intermittent access to electricity.
And as the New York Times reported recently:
Brutal rebel groups still haunt the hills [in the eastern region], pillaging minerals and killing and raping at will. . . . A witch doctor recently led a revolt in the northwest of the country. In February, rebels besieged the airport in Lubumbashi, in the south, thought to be Congo’s most promising city. Even here in Kinshasa, home to about 10 million people, bands of wiry, adolescent street children wielding iron bars routinely set up roadblocks and steal money from helpless motorists.
This election is unlikely to change much. The polls are widely believed to be rigged, will probably be contested, which will likely yield violence. In releasing a report that detailed abuses, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said, “The kind of intimidation, threats, incitement, arbitrary arrests and violence that we have documented is unacceptable and has a chilling effect on voters.”
There are few other places on the planet where politics are as disconnected from reality. Elections are more a fight to control the spoils of power between competing groups of elites then a mechanism likely to bring better government
to the country’s people.
Although President Joseph Kabila and his entourage have surely let down the DRC’s 70 million people, the real tragedy is how much focus there is on elections as a possible cure for what ails the country when its problems are really much more fundamental in nature. Unless more structural issues are addressed, it is unlikely any leader—no matter how virtuous—is going to reform the country.
The DRC‘s governance challenges are far greater then any other country in the world because of how its disadvantageous population geography, weak governance, and a tempting treasure trove of natural resources combine in a toxic mix.
Great distances separate concentrated pockets of people—each of which speaks a different language (or a different set of languages), has a different history, and trades mainly with neighboring countries. The central government has little control over vast areas of the country. Its enormous size creates a host of problems—such as weak cohesion and meager infrastructure—that even a competent and uncorrupt government would be hard pressed to deal with. And the DRC’s government is neither of those things.
The dynamics these conditions create give national leaders little capacity to rule distant lands and regional leaders few incentives to work with rulers in the capital, who are often thousands of miles away. Extremely limited transportation and communications infrastructure exacerbates these divisions.
As a result, local elites establish their own forms of authority; local businesspeople pay no heed to any rules or regulations; young men, for whom a good job is a fantasy, join militias to rape the country’s wealth (and people). Sections of the government are in league with traffickers who trade in illicit minerals and weapons. Corruption is so rife that the state collects scant royalties from its vast natural resources.
As Maman Marie Nzoli, director of the local non-profit organization COPERMA, says:
There is no government in Congo. Kabila’s government is a government that doesn’t exist.
What the DRC needs is not another election—especially one that is going to be hijacked by those with the most power—but a rethinking of how the state might be best structured to take advantage of its sociopolitical, geographical, and institutional resources.
Obviously, a highly centralized top-down government does not suit the country. A more horizontal form of government—which would yield a much better balance between the central government and regional or local governments—is far more likely to give leaders incentives to act in their peoples’ interests.
The best chance for the country to develop robust institutions may lie in some form of weak confederation. If steps are not made in this direction, forces demanding secession—along the lines of Southern Sudan—may increasingly be heard. More bloodshed would follow.
The international community had a chance to rethink the structure of the state after the civil war ended in 2002. But an inability to think creatively about what ails fragile states left little room for anything besides the generic post-conflict strategy of elections, peacekeeping troops, and aid.
Although its leverage is much reduced now, the international community should condition its still substantial aid and support for 19,0000 UN peacekeeping troops on steps to build a more sustainable state—a state more likely to produce leaders that care for their people then national elections can now.