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Little Trouble in Big Congo?: Searching for meaning behind U.S. responses to the DRC elections

In David Meyer on December 18, 2011 at 8:53 pm

As news outlets constantly remind us of the “tense” and “explosive” situation on the ground in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) following the contested Presidential poll of November 28 (and a few days after…and allegedly before), critics have appeared, not just of the clearly deficient election process itself, but also of the international response to the flawed results. In Foreign Policy magazine, Mvemba Phezo Dizolele, a visiting scholar at Stanford and a member of the Carter Center observation mission in the country, decries what he sees as a lack of Western response to the manipulated election. But what explains this muted and rather tepid response by the Obama administration, which recently stood up for the democratic process in Russia, upsetting Vladimir Putin and calling into question the longevity of the “reset” strategy. In fact, the nature of the U.S. response should not be surprising, and reflects several key factors, both in the corridors of power in Washington and in the situation on the ground in the DRC.

In a Winter 2009 article for African Affairs, Nicolas Van De Waal argued that U.S. State Department institutional capacity in sub-Saharan Africa was declining and, while hopeful for the future, struck a tone of skepticism towards the Obama administration turning this situation around. Despite the fact that the U.S. government (USG) deployed election observers in every DRC region, under the auspices of the Carter Center mission, it is likely that travel inside the country by U.S. Embassy staff is extremely limited outside of Kinshasa, especially in the East of the country, where numerous rebel groups still operate in low-level insurgency. Security considerations and travel restrictions thus prevent an extension of diplomatic presence throughout the country, which is so vast it could host an economic-focused consulate in the East if the region was more secure.

The USG seconding its election monitoring out to the Carter Center’s mission gave the possibility of having it both ways, allowing the Carter Center to come down hard on the elections while freeing the USG to take a more tempered approach that ruffles fewer feathers. This despite the fact that the USG does not shy away from its complete association with, and funding of, the Carter Center’s mission. It’s a rather strange position to be in, and more than anything reinforces De Waal’s contention that USG institutional capacity in many African states is severely lacking.

What follows is a review of USG statements on the elections in the aftermath of the vote and a brief expansion on De Waal’s thesis:

December 1st, U.S. Ambassador James Entwistle delivered remarks on the elections, broadly praising Congolese citizens for voting and participating in local observation of the process. While he noted “irregularities” and regretted several violent incidents, it was mainly a positive speech that attempted to link in with the Congolese people and salute their efforts.

December 6th, nearly a week later, State Department spokesman Mark Toner gave a vague statement on “supporting the democratic development” of the DRC while noting “[v]iolence has no place in the democratic process.”

On December 10th, the Carter Center reported that the election results “lack credibility.” A few days after digesting this report, on December 14th State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland doubled down, calling the results “seriously flawed.”

However, has their been any real response behind this rhetorical posturing?

De Waal would argue that the State Department and Ambassador’s statements reflect that the USG lacks leverage inside the country to affect any serious change and thus is relegated to light scolding while rallying against possible outbreaks of violence.

On another level, the American response reveals a deep cynicism that has long dominated U.S. policy in sub-Saharan Africa. The USG knew before the elections that this was the likely result: a technically flawed poll that would comfortably return Kabila to power. For the U.S., whether a completely clean poll would have brought Tshisekedi to power is irrelevant. Kabila still controls state security forces and, though his popularity in the East of the country has fallen, this is mostly to the benefit of other candidates (besides Tshisekedi) and rebel groups. It’s clear that the State Department views Tshisekedi, along with the other presidential candidates, as a potentially destabilizing factor in the delicate balance of the DRC non-state. Whether economic interests are at play as well remains half-truth, half-conspiracy theory, but the point remains that stability and security are likely the primary objectives of the State Department and Obama administration.

On December 15th, Assistant Secretary of State Jonnie Carson testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, calling for a “rapid technical review of the electoral process” but little more. DRC expert Jason Stearns argues on his blog Congo Siasa that this represents a “logical fallacy” on the part of the USG, which he holds is implying that irregularities should not be investigated because we do not know whether they had an effect on the actual ranking of candidates. Stearns pushes back hard on this thinking, noting that we should follow the Carter Center report in concluding: “We don’t know who won these elections. And we should.”

While I broadly agree with Stearns’ critique, it’s clear that the U.S. government is less concerned with substantial democratic progress in the country and more concerned with maintaining stability while slowly building democratic norms. Of course, how well these norms can develop through consistently flawed elections remains a point of contention. For James Talbott, writing in Foreign Policy magazine, even flawed elections can have benefits for society if they get people to react against perceived injustices. Is the U.S. government endorsing this approach? I don’t know, but without a doubt right now the Obama administration is praying for stability in the country, not necessarily democracy.

-David Meyer


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