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.