Congo can’t thrive without dismantling its kleptocracy

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Almost 30 years ago, I moved to Rwanda in the wake of a genocide that left nearly 1 million dead and resulted in nearly 2 million people fleeing to neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). My work with Save the Children focused on helping communities support kids who lost their parents to genocide, imprisonment or flight. With many leaders of the genocide escaping among innocent refugees, it was clear that the seeds of future conflict were being sown.

In December, I traveled across the DRC as it prepared for elections amidst continuing conflict. The horrors of the 1994 genocide maintain a throughline to today. Subsequent fighting metastasized into Africa’s World War, involving nine countries fighting on Congolese soil. Nearly 6 million people were killed. Twenty years later, more than 120 armed militias vie for resources and power, plaguing local communities, and 7 million people are displaced. The past looms large in today’s DRC politics.

President Felix Tshisekedi has been unable to bring peace to Congo’s troubled east. In November, U.S. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines brokered a shaky cease-fire between him and Rwanda’s leader Paul Kagame. Yet candidate Tshisekedi threatened to invade if re-elected. He struck a nerve with voters fearful that Congo’s neighbors will continue to intervene and, under the cover of conflict, smuggle out much of DRC’s mineral wealth.

The Dec. 20 vote was chaotic. 11,000 of 75,000 polling locations never opened and people in conflict areas didn’t have a chance to vote. The opposition has called for annulling the elections. Nonetheless, the DRC election commission projected President Tshisekedi the victor with 73 percent of the vote. Even critical domestic observers acknowledge that Tshisekedi won a majority of ballots cast.

The incumbent was eager for a convincing win. Tshisekedi came to power five years ago through a backroom power-sharing deal despite evidence of losing the last election. He has been plagued by questions of legitimacy since.

Despite this election’s faults, prominent candidates campaigned for the presidency and more than 100,000 candidates competed across all elections. The presidential results seem to reflect the will of the people. The DRC has made considerable democratic gains. Dictatorship and military rule are increasingly a stain of the past, while other African nations are plagued by coups. The DRC is more politically vibrant than other countries in the region — its citizens can organize, voice opinions and access media.

Yet its people remain among the most impoverished in the world, even as the nation possesses enormous mineral wealth central to modern technologies.

With this election, President Tshisekedi has a second chance to do something about this sorry state. To do so, he will need to work with the opposition. To overcome their resentment of the conduct of this election, he will need to make clear his intention to stick to a constitutional two terms. He must show skeptics that he is motivated more by policy goals than personal gain.

Throughout its tortured history, the people of Congo have lived through dramatically different regimes that followed a common approach to ruling: predatory governance. Rooted in traditions begun in colonial times, predatory governance today means politicians, in cahoots with mining companies and their enablers, use official roles to enrich themselves and their cronies. Tshisekedi, despite initial efforts in his first term, sacrificed decisive action against corruption to build a political coalition of patronage that contributed to his reelection. His family and close allies have profited handsomely.

The DRC will struggle until its leaders are either motivated or induced to deliver for their electorate rather than line their pockets. There will be no peace without taking on the corruption that has hollowed out the DRC government’s ability to govern effectively, control its armed forces and develop the nation.

This progress is what the Congolese are demanding. Civic groups are mobilizing against corruption. The youth movement Iconia Institute emphasizes “patrimony over party” as it gives young people a stake in their nation’s future. The Voice of the Voiceless protects citizen’s rights and pressures institutions to respond to their demands. Afrewatch works to ensure average people benefit from mineral wealth.

The international community needs to side with the Congolese people. Even as the United States works with the DRC and Rwandan leadership to achieve peace, it must be willing to act against those who subvert democracy and pillage the state.

This means going after kleptocrats and their enablers with sanctions. Coalitions such as Congo is Not for Sale and investigative groups like Resources Matters and the Sentry can help by ensuring the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, global financial institutions and the Financial Action Task Force are armed with information to act.

Dismantling kleptocracy is tough work. Yet grassroots pressure and free media, along with political will and international backing, has shown it can produce results in countries from Moldova to Zambia.

Improving governance in the DRC matters to the world. A huge country of over 100 million people bordering nine neighbors, the DRC possesses trillions of dollars in copper, cobalt, coltan, lithium, gold and diamonds, much of it crucial to the world’s transition to electric power and monopolized by Chinese investors. Congo has the world’s largest tropical forests after the Amazon, a vast river network that could power half the African continent, enormous agricultural potential and ample gas and oil reserves.

For these reasons, Washington has invested the diplomatic capital required to compete against Chinese interests. Engaging Kinshasa and backing Congolese aspirations for a more democratic and less corrupt government will position the U.S. as a better long-term partner than China.

Dismantling the DRC’s kleptocratic networks will enable the more durable peace needed to generate enough jobs for the half of the Congolese population under the age of 20. Winning this herculean battle is central to the challenge of whether the next generation of Africans will conclude that democracy can deliver — or be tempted by the false promise of autocratic alternatives.

Damon Wilson is president and chief executive officer of the National Endowment for Democracy.

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