And Once More the World Shrugs at the Congo

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.

The West shrugged at evidence that, along the way to power, Mobutu's replacement and the current president's father, Laurent Kabila, had presided over the extermination (by Rwandan Tutsi-led units) of hundreds of thousands of Hutu refugees. A minority of those refugees would have been perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide and the feeling was that they had to be liquidated. If that meant also killing a distinct majority of people who were innocent women and children, along with men who were not perpetrators, well, shrug, so be it. This is Congo. It's a tough luck place.

One could go on and on with examples like these. Suffice to say that things have continued much this way down to the present day, with the world giving the same reflexive response at each critical moment. But there must come a time when the international community, and the Western nations that provide so much of its direction, insists on more and better from the Congo, and from their own engagement with it. And that's what makes this time potentially so different.

Elections are something that the West loudly professes to care about deeply. And here's where we get to where Congo's fraudulent outcome should really matter.

For several years now, Africa has been in the midst of both strong economic growth and a quiet democratic revolution. These developments have commanded few of the headlines dominated by subject like terrorists and pirates in Somalia or rape in eastern Congo, but increasingly vigorous democratic competition is becoming the rule rather than the exception on the continent.

There is any number of holdouts, though, and many of them are in Congo's neighborhood. One might start with Rwanda itself, where President Kagame arranges to prevent opposition parties from competing, and now flirts with changing the constitution to perpetuate his already long rule. Zimbabwe, a near neighbor to the south, would be another case in point of an authoritarian figure, Robert Mugabe, clinging to power by every means possible.

What kind of standing would the international community have to criticize processes in places like these, or in other holdout countries, from Uganda to Cameroon, if it cannot find its voice in Congo?

A fact too easily lost in the election's immediate aftermath, but unlikely to remain lost in the longer term, is that the shambling, dishonest way the vote was conducted makes a mockery of more than just the Congo. It casts well-deserved ill-repute on the international community as a whole, and particularly on those who financed the vote: the United Nations ($110 million), the European Union (47 million euros), and the UK (31 million pounds).

It's tempting to conclude that, if this is the best that your money and technical assistance can achieve in the realm of elections, it would be better to invest in such badly needed things as primary health care or schools, and avoid spoiling the name of a good cause.

Here it is worth recalling the international context, which is newly competitive after years of fading Western interest in Africa after the Cold War. A resurgent China has been happy to mock the West's obsession with elections and governance in Africa, as it touts the more tangible things it builds, such as roads, ports, and stadiums.

As the West shrugs, how much better for China to compare itself to a model that demonstrably doesn't work and cannot deliver, as with Congo's fraudulent elections, a bridge to democratization that was paid for but never got built.