Congolese Elections: Democratisation is a process, not an event.

Lord McConnell

Congolese demonstrators opposing election violence- Kinshasa, November 2011

  On December 17 2010, a young Tunisian man set himself on fire.  This desperate act helped to spark a political revolution in the Arab world.  Images of people revolting against notoriously oppressive regimes captivated onlookers worldwide.  More than a year later, the world is indeed a different place – long-term dictators have been unseated, governments shuffled or disbanded altogether, and competitive political parties formed.  Leaders of states like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Yemen have managed to retain a hold on power, but only with some combination of repression and concessions in the face of powerful collective civic action.

For the states whose citizens won political freedom, myriad challenges remain.  Indeed, the shift to democratic elections has proved more difficult than anticipated.  This should come as no surprise – for while revolutions are swift and dramatic by definition, democratic transitions can be, in contrast, painfully gradual and mundane.   

Not so long ago, sub-Saharan Africa underwent the same sort of radical transformation sweeping North Africa and the Middle East.  In the 1980s and 90s, what scholar Samuel Huntington called the “third wave of democracy” changed the continent, unseating long-term dictators like Uganda’s Idi Amin, Guinea’s Sekou Toure, and Zaire’s Mobutu Sese-Seko.  Like the Arab Spring, Africa’s democratic phenomenon was the subject of intense international interest and optimism.  Some twenty years later, however, the political situation is more often viewed with a mixture of cynicism and despair. 

The truth is most countries in sub-Saharan Africa  remain among the poorest in the world and too many are ridden with corruption and conflict.  The United Nations Human Development Index – a comprehensive comparative measure that takes into consideration factors like poverty, security, equality, educational access, and political freedom – consistently ranks these  countries in the lowest tier.  In 2011, African states occupied three-quarters of the lowest 40 rankings.  Even Ghana and Senegal – democratic standouts in relative terms – ranked 135 and 155 respectively.  Dead last is the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The DRC has had a particularly difficult transition to democracy.  After gaining independence from Belgium in 1960, the country – like so many others in sub-Saharan Africa –attempted its first democratic elections, only to undergo a period of armed conflict that brought a fierce military dictatorship into power.  As a one-man political institution, Mobutu Sese-Seko employed harsh and exploitative tactics to maintain control for a remarkable 32 years, until internal opposition and neighbouring conflicts forged a successful armed resistance movement.  However, despite victory – and the symbolic name change from Zaire to the Democratic Republic of Congo – the new state looked much like the old.  Within months, it slid back into a brutal civil war that only officially ended in 2003.  In the years that followed, widespread violence remained prevalent, and a transitional government held only tenuous control. 

In 2006, however, the DRC held its first multiparty elections in nearly 40 years.  It did so with the monetary and administrative support of the international community, many of whom were present to oversee the process.  Voter turn-out was around 80%, but the results were highly contentious and ignited violent clashes around the country.  The results were postponed, and an extensive legal process ensued.  Nevertheless, MONUC argued that they were broadly satisfied with the level of transparency and the overall results.  In December, Joseph Kabila was declared President. 

Similarly, the elections of 2011 have been widely condemned for allegations of violence and fraud.  Although much of the criticism is merited –and I condemn absolutely voter intimidation and conflict incited by politicians– we must not forget the incredible difficulty involved in democratic transition, nor the DRC’s unique, brutal history.  If we cannot expect Egypt, with its strong tradition of military neutrality, to transition without hiccups, we must also develop a set of reasonable expectations for the Congo.  Its 15 years of “freedom” from dictatorship have been marred by civil war, mass migration, and a near-lack of decent self-governance.  The simple fact that Congolese-led elections took place at all should be viewed as a significant step on the path toward democracy. 

Democratisation is a process, not an event.  It is a long, protracted, and difficult transition that involves a radical rehaul of political leadership, institutions, and culture, and a shift in societal views on political participation, deference and civic ownership.  When this occurs in the wake of long-term violence and civil war, the process is even more complicated.  In the same way that the Arab Spring has reignited international discourse on democracy’s value, I hope that the Congolese elections can spark a discourse on reasonable expectations for democratic progression.  If we view these events in their own historical context, perhaps we can develop a better gauge of whether and how things have improved, and a deeper understanding of what remains to be done.  And, if this can be achieved, we all stand to benefit.

10 comments for “Congolese Elections: Democratisation is a process, not an event.

  1. Lee Butcher
    30/01/2012 at 2:58 pm

    Great article.

    The only thing I would think worth mentioning is the role external forces have played in destabilising the DRC. Leaving aside the legacy of Belgium’s terrible mismanagement of the region, it is important to remember the role Europe and America played in the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, their first democratically elected leader, and the US’s role in propping up Mobutu’s despotic regime during the cold war. The roots of many of these problems, and their solutions, sadly aren’t just located in the DRC.

    The role of the DRC’s African neighbours in extracting resources illegally and conducting less then transparent military activities in DRC’s territory, undermining any attempts at stability in those provinces and promoting paramilitary activity, also requires urgent action.

    I agree with everything you say, but action also needs taking on those outside the country who may not be enthusiastic to see good governance and development take shape.

  2. Gareth Howell
    31/01/2012 at 3:22 pm

    I presume that a high turnout is caused by their knowledge of international financial incentives. Voting can be no less of a chore for them ,than it is for anybody else.

  3. Senex
    31/01/2012 at 5:24 pm

    Some Ice Breaking posts on Africa.

    However, there is good news and some bad news.

    As an ‘Icebreaker’, Confucius would no doubt regard you as a ‘Superior Man’?

    The bad news is:

    The ‘48 Group’ doesn’t have a category for Honorary Fellow? So you’re not to be found in the Hu’s Hu section? No mention of the strategic role China is playing in Africa? Tricky one that!

    One should also wish you 新年快乐,并欢迎到博客.

    Here is a link to:

    The Chinese New Year and Legends; the last year of the Dragon was 2000.

    I am an unquenchable fire, the centre of all energy, the stout heroic heart.
    I am truth and light, I hold power and glory in my sway.
    My presence disperses dark clouds.
    I have been chosen to tame the Fates.


    Confucius might ask: does the Dragon fear the Red Flag with five stars? Does the Red Flag ward off the creature Nian? Do the five stars represent the five Emperors: Huang-di, Zhuanxu, Ku, Yao and Shun; tricky thing statehood, melding the old with the new?

    • Gareth Howell
      01/02/2012 at 8:00 am

      I don’t suppose even the Chinese would be interested in getting involved with that part of Central Africa, Congo,Southern Sudan,Uganda.
      Nobody could make a worse hash of it than the Brits and the Belgians.

      Life is normal there once they have progressed through the very high infant mortality years.
      Vast numbers of women die in childbirth, their eighth for example,after having seven already.

  4. Twm O'r Nant
    31/01/2012 at 6:31 pm

    So many people from the FFA, or is it the BFA,(Belgian Franc Area!)
    must live in the North European conurbation by now, that for the folk back home in the Congo, voting may be seen as a sophisticated exercise to be emulated.

    Recognising that violence is to be avoided “before, during and after” elections is surely crucial to the “process”.

    The astonishing number of Tunisians, who voted from their homes in Paris in recent president elections was quite stunning!

    If the same happens in other African countries, the forked tongue of the European diplomatic services has to be split right down the middle! Ghana, for example has a huge and very dress colourful presence in London.

    Postal votes to the world!

  5. MilesJSD
    31/01/2012 at 7:10 pm

    “The Congolese Elections”
    one notes the pluralisation, inferrably for ongoing sequential-stages of (by definition) unending democratisation?.

    “Democratisation is a process not an event. It is a long, protracted, and difficult transition that involves a radical rehaul of political leadership, institutions, and culture, and a shift in societal views on political participation, deference, and civic ownership.”
    Which surely is as applicable and necessary to British democratisational-advancement as it is to a DRC or pre-democratisation nation(-state) ?
    The United Nations so-called “Human Development” Index (HDI)
    has no major component for Individual- Human-Development;
    furthermore, its formula for “evaluating” our human-development
    is a mere Aggregate-Economic one, consisting of people’s
    (1) longevity
    (2) knowledge
    (3) wealth ;

    so, as an individual-human-being,
    unless you are very-old,
    have strings of academic-letters after your name,
    and are at least a millionaire,

    you are struggling to claim that you have even one foot on the bottom-most rung of the UN “Human-Development” ladder.
    And to reiterate the point I previously made clear elsewhere in LordsoftheBlog,, neither British nor American, nor any other ‘established democracy’ has even half-completed its own “Government-By-The-People” democratisation.
    As a “class”, both World and National-Local Governance-Careerists fail to clearly define our Human-Race-Longest-Term-Needs-and-Affordable-Hows;
    and instead hedonisticly waste our ebbing human and technological energies, timeframes, possessions, geographic-areas, and potentials,
    upon deceptively-real-looking “big-issues”, that are really but “vanity-fair-sideshows” and “mechanically-infrasonic-impedances”.
    Surely it is high time our Leaders and Educators put before our eyes, and the eyes of all 7 billion human-developing individuals around the World,
    an overall Democratisation-Timeframe,

    showing how long it will or might take for the leading-democracies to complete “democratisation of their own people for Government By those people”;

    and at the other end, what timeframes can be envisaged for “pre-democracies” and for “in-progress” or “new democracies” (whatever) to complete their “arrival” at a safely-“complete” democratisation of their people for government by those people,
    isn’t it ?

  6. Gareth Howell
    01/02/2012 at 7:55 am

    I wonder how you “adjust net savings” for the DRG Miles?

    The rest of your mail, below the dashes, is hermetic junk, but that idea is a good one.(unless you can copy and paste the UN hyperlinks for me/us, step by step)

    It would certainly be useful to discuss it, in the context of the DRC.

  7. MilesJSD
    03/02/2012 at 10:38 pm

    Gareth Howell errs again:
    (1) to the point of using further ‘sneer terms’** (“…your mail (Miles) is “hermetic” “junk” “)

    but that one is separable as an oxymoron, something “hermetic” being “something perfectly sealed; made watertight”
    which, far from being “junk”, is actually quite a successful Valuable, to be conserved, and honoured, and carefully utilised.

    not appearing under a ‘red hat’ (as a consciously-deliberate Emotional-interjection)*
    becomes a knee-jerk put-down***

    (2) GH’s “wonder how Miles would “adjust net savings” [not mentioned here, nor anywhere else, by Miles]
    for the DRG (sic)
    [nevertheless Miles applies the 2nd principle, of charity, to this mysterious acronym DRG, it being possibly a mere typographical-error, actually well-intentioned to come across as “DRC”]

    (3) “but that idea is a good one”
    [which idea ?
    am expected to enumerate and further-elucidate each of the several ideas contained in, implied by, or inferrable-from, that milesjsd post ?]

    and how should I charitably interpret GH’s
    you can copy-and-paste the UN hyperlinks … step by step” ?

    I mean, are there any such UN hyperlinks ?

    and are they copy-and-paste-able step-by-step ?

    If so, i think
    should be telling

    And what is the relevance of that
    ‘need for Miles to do some slave-research for (GH and Others)’
    to the several points raised and the overall Issue discernable therefrom, as raised by milesjsd ?
    It is no longer of any use to wriggle-out of response-ability responsibility by saying or thinkin “we obviously went to different schools”
    because we are now under the unified-and-unifying expertise of the Hansard Citizenship Educators
    I mean, I’m in it to share the win-win-winning of it

    Innit ?
    * “Six Thinking Hats”(Dr Edward de Bono);

    ** “Edward de Bono’s Thinking Course” (page 99 in chapter 8 “It is frightening see how many subjects cannot be discussed becaue the very words we need to use havee been so contaminated with in-built values that whatever we say is pre-judged”)

    *** (Ibid page 12) “The intelligence trap ,,, “The quickest and most reliable way to be rewarded for intelligence is to ‘prove someone else wrong'” … This is made even worse by the absurd Western notion that ‘critical thinking’is enough”.)

  8. Twm O'r Nant
    07/02/2012 at 1:28 pm

    I mean, are there any such UN hyperlinks ?

    I gave you one to start you off. If you do not know how to copy and paste, or know what a hyperlink is, you should talk to Baroness Murphy in more detail, and in real time.

  9. MilesJSD
    08/02/2012 at 11:41 am

    Twm jumping in, to ‘rescue’ Gareth ?

    Gareth asks me to give (‘you all’) the (Necessary) UN hyperlinks;

    Twm tells ‘me’
    (one can only assume he is addressing milesjsd)
    that he (Twm) has already provided such a UN hyperlink (to me, JSDM)

    so I’ve just hunted through Twm’s above posts and
    I see no such UN hyperlink to have been ‘given’ by Twm;

    and in any case, it is not milesjsd calling for ‘specific UN hyperlinks’
    but Gareth Howell.

    overloading the already-arguably-deluded psychiatrist, Twm,

    what’s up,doc ?
    If we are to be true to the three principles of good-communication and honest-argumentation
    1. Be Clear
    2. Be Charitable
    3. Be self-corrigible
    we each and all need to include both ‘lateral’ and ‘vertical’ thinking;

    for which latter balanced-thinking-foundation I (again) recommend building some competence with
    “Edward de Bono’s Thinking Course”
    (start with the Summary three pages right at the end to get a good and cogently descriptive insight or overview)
    “How To Win Every Argument” (Madsen Pirie) is succinst about traditional formal-argumentation and Fallacy issues.

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