Africa Matters is a blog that follows the news and offers analysis of African affairs. Our aim is to delve deeper into the issues of African politics and development. We don’t presume to be experts, and we don’t presume to have all the answers—we are just trying to ask the right questions.

Wednesday, March 28

Congo's fragile democracy

Last year’s elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo marked an end, nominally at least, to nearly half a century of autocracy and instability. Not since Patrice Lumumba was appointed prime minister and Joseph Kasavubu elected president had this country held free elections. But Joseph Kabila’s runoff victory over Jean-Pierre Bemba last summer presumably restored stability after decades of dictatorships followed by state collapse, and formally ended one of the most devastating wars in recent history.

Yet in the last week, violence has erupted again in the capital, Kinshasa, with news reports of up to 600 casualties.

Amnesty International predicted this breakdown in January: military demobilization and reform, the organization warned in a comprehensive study, has been overtaken by human rights violations, lackluster political will, and ineffective central control, stalling the process and presaging a disintegration of the country’s fragile peace.

The deputy director of AI’s Africa Programme, Tawanda Hondora, cautioned: "A failed demobilization and army reform programme risks a new cycle of political and military crises that could lead to an escalation of violence and a deterioration of the humanitarian and human rights situation in a country already ravaged by war—with potentially disastrous consequences for hundreds of thousands of people.”

In today’s New York Times, Jeffrey Gettleman takes a closer look at the DRC’s tenuous democracy.

Gettleman explains that one reason for the derailed demobilization program is that the $200 million donated to decommission the country’s 330,000 militiamen has disappeared—siphoned by corrupt politicians.

Towns across the country, from Kinshasa to villages in the heart of the Congo jungle, have been ravaged, not even so much by the fighting itself as by years of neglect.

Gettleman writes: “Congo is spread across more than 900,000 square miles, but it has only 300 miles of paved roads. The lack of infrastructure keeps the people poor. Kindu’s farmers used to export bananas, wood, rice and peanuts. Now much of their land, among the most fertile in Africa, lies fallow because they cannot get crops to market.”

Yet, the fighting and abuse have yet to rend apart the ideal of a unified, democratic Congo—“I am a Tutsi, but more than that, I am Congolese,” says Laurent Nkunda, a warlord in Eastern Congo. “I truly hope that one day I’ll be part of the national army. They need the help.”

Gettleman, hopefully, finds that, “After decades of brutal colonial rule, kleptomaniacal dictatorship, ethnic fighting and regional isolation, a faint pulse of nationalism still survives.”