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Whither the DRC’s ‘unattractive’ democracy?

Despite lingering uncertainties, the citizens of the DRC are scheduled to go to the polls on 28 November 2011 to elect a new president and members of the national legislature. In the context of the country’s democratic transition, the November polls should ideally serve two overarching and related purposes – assist in assessing the degree of democratic maturity that has been attained after seven years, and serve as a mechanism for renewing what was thought to be a collective commitment to building a peaceful, democratic and prosperous society.

The preliminary phase of the current electoral process has been quite successful in meeting these expectations, even if the reality it has exposed is an uncomfortable one. It has brought to the fore a significant deficiency in the Congolese polity as it relates to the fundamental values of openness, tolerance, inclusiveness and the propensity to dialogue, which are central to the good health of every aspiring democracy. Perhaps more disturbing is the observation that this dearth in democratic culture in the DRC has little to do with the missteps that are commonly associated with emerging democracies. It is for the most part a reflection of the insincerity of Congolese politicians to the democratic project itself, a dishonesty that is partially sustained by the absence of a vibrant and committed civil society that is capable of bringing the democratic spirit in the country out of its current obscurity.

After decades of autocratic rule, combined with dire socio-economic conditions and other legacies of violent conflict, fashioning a democratic system of governance was always going to be an enormous challenge for the DRC, as it would for any other society with the same attributes. But, if today the DRC is struggling with the basics of constituting an egalitarian society, the problem could hardly be blamed entirely on this legacy. My reading of the situation points to a general lack of appetite for, and genuine commitment to democracy among the country’s political elite even at the time of the transition. The promise of democracy that ensued from the Sun City and Pretoria talks may have been heartily welcomed by ordinary Congolese, but it is increasingly becoming evident that this system, with its inbuilt restraints on the acquisition and exercise of power, has remained largely unattractive to the DRC’s political class, which not too long ago thrived on brute force and does not seem to be keen on completely severing ties with its belligerent past.

The current state of the DRC’s democracy could better be appreciated through the lens of the agitations for change that swept across the continent in the 1990s. As the Nigerian scholar, Said Adejumobi, correctly points out, there was never a genuine commitment to democracy in most of the African countries that were later to adopt the label. Adejumobi is also accurate in his observation that during this period, most African leaders embraced the democratic discourse not because of its intrinsic value, but because they were confident in their aptitude to use it as a smokescreen to foster their power ambitions.

Seven years into its transition, the DRC is exhibiting the same attributes that have since forced many fervent advocates of democracy in other African countries into political hibernation. Already in the seat of power, Joseph Kabila and his ruling cohort have acknowledged no restraint, save for the limits of their political acumen, in carefully managing political processes in the country so as to have complete control over their outcomes. On the other end, the opposition, equally self-seeking, has provided very little evidence, if any, of its disposition to conduct itself differently should the roles be altered. With this insight, it is not difficult to see why the unfolding electoral process in the DRC has been largely ripped of any democratic value and is increasingly headed for an impasse.

The efforts of the many local and foreign agencies working tirelessly against all odds to save the ongoing electoral process cannot be discounted, especially if due regard is given to the incrementalist approach to change. However, I do not think the conceivable outcomes of this process hold much for the democratic project on which the hopes of ordinary Congolese are anchored. The prospects for the consolidation of democracy in the DRC may very well depend on the extent to which Congolese of all walks of life are prepared to take charge of their destiny; actively participating in the political processes that affect their lives and demanding full accountability from their political representatives. This active citizenship will not come naturally to a country with a struggling civil society and a largely illiterate population but could still become a reality with the continuous support of the DRC’s partners.

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