Democratic Republic of Congo: High stakes for November elections

The United States Institute of Peace, in association with the Great Lakes Policy Forum, hosted a discussion June 2 on how the United States and the international community can help stabilize the dangerous situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo ahead of the November elections. As security has broken down in many areas of the country, the threat of politically motivated violence is real—before, during, and after the election.

The DRC has been in a perpetual state of conflict for decades. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum currently lists it as one of the places most prone for ethnic conflict in the near future. It’s suffered two major wars, with over 5.7 million people dead as a result. Armed groups continue to challenge government control, while the government itself is widely seen as corrupt and ineffective. Despite a successful election in 2006, dangerous conditions persist till today, especially in the east, where rebel groups perpetrate crimes against civilians including sexual violence, murder, looting, and forced displacement. According to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, “national and provincial structures remain incapable of ensuring basic security for communities, providing transparent management of resources and wealth, and addressing entrenched problems of corruption, poverty, lack of development and heightened ethnic and regional tensions.”

The first speaker at the June 2 discussion, Joshua Marks, the Central Africa Program Officer for the National Endowment for Democracy, spoke at length on the DRC’s upcoming election. According to him, international monitoring is key to avoiding violence. Successful monitoring has a two-fold effect, he said: It not only gives the government greater legitimacy in the eyes of its own people, it also gives it greater credibility in the eyes of other countries, which may encourage them to give more aid.

While Marks said he was confident that UN and EU teams would ensure a fair election, he urged listeners to be cautious in their expectations. As he pointed out, even successful elections can give way to chaos, and the international community must make sure to strengthen other aspects of society as well—for example, supporting a greater separation of powers and protecting freedom of speech.

Also integral to stemming an outbreak of violence, Marks said, is monitoring the media, since media can be used as a tool either for democratic expression or hateful propaganda. Donor countries need to take a greater role in ensuring that they guide the Congo’s media towards the former. He looks at successful U.S. policy in this case as a good example. U.S. funding has helped create local radio broadcasts that are fair, strengthening civil society and open and democratic debate—two factors that can help avoid election-time violence.

While admitting the country is still is a dismal state despite billions of dollars in aid, Marks said he believes coordination of efforts by governments and like-minded organizations can lead to fund being used more efficiently and effectively.

The discussion’s second speaker, Tia Palermo, assistant professor of preventive medicine at Stony Brook University, spoke extensively on the problem of sexual violence in the DRC. Recent reports have shown that sexual violence against women there is one of the highest in the region. However, Palermo claims the high levels of rape are not due to the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war, but simply by men acting on their own, which points to a fundamental problem in Congolese society. To rectify this, Palermo recommended that donor nations help build education programs and instruments to aid in the prosecution of accused rapists.

Photo:© UNHCR/P.Taggart