The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The United States should learn from its past blunders in Congo

Congo’s President Joseph Kabila. (Carl de Souza/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

Officials and human rights groups in Washington are strongly considering imposing targeted sanctions on individuals in Congo in the hopes of averting a political crisis in the country. Though elections are supposed to be held in November, President Joseph Kabila will likely try to extend his term in power beyond his constitutional limit of two terms — by either delaying the elections, or rewriting the constitution altogether. Last year, some 40 people were killed in the capital, Kinshasa, during protests against a draft law that would have potentially extended Kabila’s term. Kabila has not publicly declared whether he will run again.

There is no doubt that the situation in Congo is incredibly tense. Congolese activists fear that the unpopular Kabila will not hesitate to use violence to suppress dissent. The United States is in an understandable position of appearing to do all it can to help prevent Congo from going the way of Burundi, which is still in crisis almost a year after President Pierre Nkurunziza announced his intentions to run for an unconstitutional third term. But this is now coming after years of inconsistent approaches toward elections and democracy in Congo by the United States.

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The U.S. government had a clear opportunity to take a strong stand for Congolese democracy five years ago. In 2011, elections in which Kabila was elected winner were marred by serious irregularities and rigging. The results were decried by Congolese and rights groups. The U.S.-based Carter Center said the results “lacked credibility”, pointing to districts that reported 100 percent of voter turnout. The Catholic Church, which commands a large amount of respect in the country, said the official results did not “conform either to truth or to justice.” Protests broke out, and 24 people were killed in the ensuing government crackdowns.

However, the United States and other countries in the West were at the time largely silent about the problematic elections. It’s true that, not long after the elections, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for a review of the election process. But the Congolese electoral commission refused to cooperate, and by February, the U.S. administration embraced Kabila. Then-Ambassador James Entwistle said, “United States recognizes Joseph Kabila as President of the Democratic Republic of Congo for the next five years.”

As Anthony Gambino, former USAID mission director for Congo, put it back in 2012, “American policymakers appear to have concluded that accepting Kabila, although ignoring democracy promotion, was the wiser course.” Tiago Faia, an election observer in Congo, wrote later in 2012 about how the United States and other Western nations viewed Kabila as the best bet for stability, despite the botched elections and the country’s weak political institutions:

The West always regarded Kabila as the best option to guarantee peace and stability in the DRC. In his first presidential term, Kabila largely lived up to the West’s expectations. He managed to control the bloody war in the east of the country, temper the country’s volatile relations with Rwanda and Uganda, foster new mineral and commercial deals with the West, and make many Congolese believe in his plans for development.”

As Congo barrels down the path toward an electoral crisis, its clear that the United States was wrong to bet on Kabila at the expense of Congo’s long-term stability and democratic development. ‘The U.S. made a fatal mistake in 2011,” said Laura Seay, professor at Colby College and longtime researcher in Congo. “We let Kabila get away with stealing an election. We made it clear that he needed to stay in the interest of stability. The lesson [to Kabila] was, ‘I can get away with this.’ ”

Kabila is no doubt also watching other African leaders get away with hijacking electoral processes — particularly in countries that receive U.S. and Western funding for peacekeeping missions. Burundi’s Nkurunziza has so far managed to remain in power despite plunging his country into chaos, knowing full well that the African Union and the United Nations would be reluctant to send peacekeeping troops in to back up their threats. U.S. sanctions were levied against individuals in Burundi, which have had little effect. After 30 years in power, President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda steamrolled his way this year through elections that were marred by fraud and irregularities. Museveni has repeatedly arrested his main opponent, Kizza Besigye, and put him under house arrest. Besigye is now being charged with treason, which is punishable by death in Uganda. Yet there has been no hint of American sanctions, or a review of the millions in U.S. aid to Uganda’s security sector. And then of course, Paul Kagame of Rwanda engineered a referendum for a constitutional change that would allow him to potentially remain in power until 2034, to which the United States only meekly responded that it was “deeply disappointed” in Kagame’s decision.

All of this is not to say that the United States should stand by and do nothing to help avert the crisis on the horizon for Congo. Sanctions, especially if they are coordinated with the European Union countries, would send a clear message to Kabila that the United States is not playing games this time. However, Kabila’s actions should prompt some serious soul-searching for Africa policymakers in Washington when it comes to rubber-stamping blatantly flawed elections in Africa as free and fair, and preferring short-term stability with strongmen instead of standing with the African people. In Congo’s case, an ounce of standing for democracy in 2011 would have been worth a pound of sanctions in 2016.