And Once More the World Shrugs at the Congo

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Could last week's flagrantly stolen election finally lead the world's leaders to insist on more and better from the Congo, and from their own engagement with it?

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Riot police patrol the pro-Tshisekedi Matete commune in Kinshasa after election results announce Kabila the winner / AP

The Democratic Republic of Congo's President, Joseph Kabila, has just perpetrated a massive hoax in order to retain power. Bowing in principle to the Western-driven demands to the famous but nebulous "international community," Kabila has held just held elections, which he would like the world to believe he has won.

The overall tally, 49 percent for the "winner," and 32 percent for the first runner up, had a ring to it that at first glance, at least for the uninitiated, sounded both plausible and competitive, which in such matters usually go hand in hand. The results proclaimed the Congo to be the latest African country to have traveled far away from the bad old past of continental elections, which authoritarian rulers once routinely "won" with upwards of 95 percent of the vote.

Closer glimpses reveal immense problems with this exercise, beginning with the fact that Kabila, the incumbent, has carried a number of districts by "old African" margins of 100 percent or close to it, in his favor.

If the problems ended here, this story would be bad enough. Unfortunately, they don't. As made clear by the Carter Center, in the most authoritative review of the results by an international monitoring organization, in Kinshasa, an opposition stronghold, some 2,000 polling station's results simply vanished. Another 1,000 or so more disappeared in other parts of the country.

The closer one looks at this electoral exercise, down to the composition of the electoral commission, which was stacked in favor of the sitting president, the more one is obliged to conclude that it was a farce. Such an examination may never suffice to overturn the results in favor of the leading opposition candidate, Etienne Tshisekedi, toward whom the Western diplomatic world has a marked, if rarely publicly avowed, distaste. But that is not the point here.

Why should anyone care? The Congo is a chronic, seemingly doomed basket-case. It takes a very short step to conclude that it would be unreasonable to expect much better from what has so long been a failed or failing state.

This kind of reaction, best described as a resigned shrug, is the international community's reflexive, almost ritualized response to negative turn of events in Congo. It is typically followed by a fatalistic acceptance of the newest status quo, and if this reliable old pattern holds, that will mean de facto acceptance soon for Kabila's election outcome, if not the precise details of the vote itself.

But just as it is dishonest to pin all of Congo's problems on outsiders, it is equally untruthful to pretend that the international community's silent tyranny of low expectations has nothing fundamental to do with the country's cursed situation, or more so even than for most African countries, with its long term history of debilitation.

The resigned shrug -- whereby powerful and deep-pocketed outsiders, largely concentrated in the West, come to live with and even support a situation they know to be deeply wrong -- has been a signal factor of nearly every disaster the country has faced since the Rwandan genocide, in 1994.

This state of affairs began with the housing of armed Rwandan Hutu refugees in United Nations-run camps close to the Rwandan border, in violation of the UN's own statutes. Things were done this way not because it was right, but because it was the cheapest and easiest way to proceed.

This chronicle of shrugs continued with the overthrow of the longtime dictator, Mobutu Sese-Seko, in 1997, which began with Rwandan mortar attacks against the UN refugee camps, which scarcely raised a peep from the UN. or the West. Here again, one senses that this is because they had decided that for a variety of reasons, Mobutu, whom they had long favored, had to go, and this was the cheapest and easiest way to proceed.

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Howard W. French is an associate professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He is the co-author, with Qiu Xiaolong, of Disappearing Shanghai: Photographs and Poems of an Intimate Way of Life.

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