Friday, August 11, 2006

Congo Again

“People here see their state primarily as a predator. It is not there to serve its citizens but to run a massive extortion racket… In a recent survey carried out by the World Bank, Congolese were asked how they would treat the state if it was a person. “Kill him” was a frequent reply.”

—Jason Stearns and Michela Wong, International Crisis Group, in the Financial Times

We don’t know who won the Congolese elections yet, and we might not for a little while yet. Given the wait, it might be worth reflecting on a few things that are likely more important than the result itself.

First, the quote above suggests that the state itself in DRC appears to be in the midst of a worrying transition. It has emerged from abject state failure, insofar as violence has abated and some order returned across most of the country. However, it is becoming something not much better—a predatory state, providing few if any basic public goods, and praying on the socioeconomic wellbeing of the population through a pattern of bribery and extortion. The state has stopped doing nothing, but it isn’t doing much for the population. It’s doing things to people. Regardless of who is in power, a significant campaign of reform and reconstruction is badly needed in the most basic areas: security, health care, the prevention of hunger.

Second, the election result is a lot less important than the perception that it was reasonably fair. This is holding up pretty well so far. A perception of fairness will determine whether or not the result is peacefully accepted by an important constituency—the many losing candidates, who will be relied upon to fall in line behind the newly legitimized government. Given how many of them were until recently criminals, warlords, and the like, this is a big question. It's also important that accusations of vote mishandling are taken seriously and publicly cleared up. A perception that the election result was an inside job in which the international community acquiesced would not be a good thing for anyone.

Lastly, turnout matters. Voter turnout was high in the recent constitutional referendum. The legitimacy of the election, and the prospects for elections in future, depend not only on the cooperation of candidates, but on the level of participation.

This last point seems already to have been a success. Turnout was apparently fairly high again, suggesting that the population is serious about democracy, and that they believe it will help improve their standard of living. They probably believe this in part because it has been a large component of the international community’s message to them. The relative success of the elections so far is significant, but it isn’t everything. If the rest of the world fails to ensure follow through on developmental issues, irreparable damage will be done to Congolese faith in democratic governance as a vehicle for reconstruction.

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