The State of Democracy in the Democratic Republic of Congo

By Marissa B. Goldfaden
2011, Vol. 3 No. 04 | pg. 1/1

The problems associated with democratic reform in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) are manifold. While the name of the country surely lends itself to an assumption of regime type, in actuality, this area has experienced great civil unrest over the last five decades, resulting in an extremely tenuous so-called “democracy.” The issues that need to be resolved within the country are numerous, and span the spectrum, from ethnic strife to a weak, declining economy.

The country presently known as the DRC initially achieved independence from its Belgian colonizer in 1960. Tensions were escalating between Prime Minister Lumumba and President Kasavubu; the latter dismissed the former from office in 1960. The following year, Prime Minister Lumumba was assassinated. Then, in 1965, President Kasavubu was overthrown in a U.S.-backed coup. The infamouse Joseph-Desire Mobutu came to power, a position he maintained until 1997. The First Congo War was fought from 1996-1997, followed by a Second Congo War that lasted from 1998-2003. The Ituri conflict1 endured throughout and beyond both Congo Wars.

In January 2001, leader Laurent Kabila was assassinated and his son, Joseph Kabila, was subsequently named head of state. In October 2002, the new president was successful in negotiating the withdrawal of Rwandan forces occupying eastern Congo; two months later, the Pretoria Accord was signed by all remaining warring parties to end the fighting and establish a government of national unity. A transitional government was set up in July 2003. President Joseph Kabila and four vice presidents represented the former government, former rebel groups, and the political opposition. In December 2005, the transitional government held a successful constitutional referendum, as well as elections for the presidency, National Assembly, and provincial legislatures in 2006, the same year as President Kabila’s inauguration and the installation of the National Assembly. Prior to these events, in the early 1990’s, Mobutu suspended a National Conference that had been convened to discuss the future of his nation.

In a report dated July 20, 2006, the International Crisis Group states,

"While international attention has concentrated on elections, the other elements of a stable democracy are weak or missing, including the necessary checks on executive political parties. Parliamentary inquiries lack necessary resources and expertise to be effective. The judiciary is deeply politicised and inadequately funded. Not a single official has been tried during the transition for corruption. Presidential and legislative candidates should have – but have not – presented detailed plans for addressing corruption in customs, public finance and natural resources."2

Thus, a handful of the roadblocks to a true and efficient democracy are outlined and that which is mentioned above only refers to problems within the government itself, rather than the country as a whole. While these problems clearly have a trickle-down effect on Congolese society, there are more urgent matters that need to be addressed in consolidating and contributing to lasting democratic reform. As such, nearly a year later, the same organization published another report, which concludes:

"The way forward lies in strengthening democratic governance. The government must allow the opposition and institutions - parliament, press and courts - to do their jobs. Reform requires genuine political will to tackle impunity by vetting police and army officers and making courts independent. The government also needs to live up to its promise to review mining and timber contracts and audit key sectors, including the army, state companies and the Central Bank. Donors must stay engaged, linking aid (over half the budget) to a political framework for a new partnership with Congo's institutions to deal with peacebuilding priorities."3

History has shown that there is no cookie-cutter model for democracy and the transition period varies greatly. Since the second of the two reports discussed has been published, only one other report has been generated by this group in this particular region. Hence, one can infer that the situation in DRC has not dramatically changed in the last five months.

Other obstacles to democracy in the DRC include widespread poverty and limited or no access to clean water, nutrition, healthcare, and education. As a result, disease and starvation claim thousands of lives on a daily basis and many children end up working in diamond mines. Tribalism is still more prevalent than nationalism and decades of kleptocratic rule have sapped the public’s trust in public institutions, which are weak and ineffectual. Churches are the only civil-society institutions with popular credibility, but their influence is limited.4 However, in accordance with the findings of the International Crisis Group, Foreign Policy reports:

"Even these handicaps are dwarfed by the greed and irresponsibility of much of the political class. Corruption is endemic. Most politicians, military leaders, businessmen, and bureaucrats have spent their time in office plundering state resources at a rapid rate, following a well-established Congolese tradition. The quest for personal enrichment has triggered widespread distrust and makes it all but impossible for the different organs of the state to cooperate."5

Such reporting beggars the question of where one should or can begin. Whether one considers voting a right or a privilege, allowing people to partake in the democratic process becomes meaningless if those same people are starving to death. Last year, the New York Times reported,

"In less than a decade, an estimated four million people have died, mostly of hunger and disease caused by the fighting. It has been the deadliest conflict since World War II, with more than 1,000 people still dying each day. For many here [DRC], survival, not elections, is the milestone."6

Due to the sheer number of militias and bandits operating from bases in the more rural areas of DRC, it is very difficult for aid agencies to actually work effectively in the area. These outlaws steal the food, money, and other supplies intended to reach the masses. All of this takes place in spite of the continual presence of United Nations peacekeepers in the region, the largest U.N. peacekeeping mission in the world. But the entire mission may be in vain, due to the fragility (at best) of the “peace” these people are attempting to maintain.

Another major issue in DRC that acts as a hindrance to democracy is the subjugation of the rights of women. The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in 2006 expressed concern that in the post-war transition period, the promotion of women’s human rights and gender equality is not seen as a priority. Congolese women have registered and voted in impressive numbers and secured commitments on paper for greater roles in governance. However, in practice they remain badly under-represented and violence against them, often rape, is widespread and committed with impunity.7 Democracy is intended to be an all-inclusive process and as previously stated, having and exercising the right to vote are simply not enough to achieve such an aim.

To address such pressing needs, the International Crisis Group recommends that the Congolese Government establish commissions to apply and monitor measures related to women in the new constitution, especially Article 15 on the elimination of sexual violence, and promote equal opportunities for women; include promotion of women’s rights in the job description of all ministers, not only the ministry for women and the family; and strengthen the justice system by promoting reforms to end impunity for perpetrators of sexual violence, give legal aid to victims and establish special police and prosecutorial units to investigate sexual crimes.8

A local initiative by women in Bukavu aims for recovery from violence based on women's own empowerment. However, more needs to be done. Rather than just having a standing committee, the United Nations should implement a special task force to provide education, psychological counseling, emotional support, and medical care to the women in dire need of such provisions. This should be a collaborative effort on the behalf of relevant non-governmental (or inter-governmental) organizations and United Nations agencies.

Moreover, Congolese civil society needs to address issues of governance and corruption through pressure on national and provincial elected representatives, including by tracking their voting records; put more focus on corruption, including by conducting advocacy based on Congolese laws, as well as on the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development Convention on Combating Bribery, the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative, and the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act; and create an NGO network dedicated specifically to governance issues.9

For approximately the last five years, the government of the DRC has been meeting with representatives from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to help it develop a coherent economic plan, and President Joseph Kabila has begun implementing reforms. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund should participate in a group with major governmental donors to coordinate funding and other actions, in particular in the field of good governance. Additionally, these economic bodies should increase funding to state anti-corruption bodies.

The International Crisis Group puts forth the recommendation that donors and other members of the international community pursue a policy priority related to securing the country. They suggest,

"MONUC’s [United Nations Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo] troop level should be kept around 17,000 in 2007 and the draw-down of its brigades should begin only when there has been decisive progress in restoring state authority, particularly in Ituri, the Kivus and Katanga. MONUC’s plan to give short-term military training to the integrated brigades should be supported by donors, in connection with implementation of transitional justice measures in the security forces. Donors should insist in particular that the new government work with the EU mission and MONUC to carry out, through the joint commission on SSR, a system of vetting within the security forces, so as progressively to exclude those guilty of the most serious abuses during the war and the transition."10

While it would be unfair to the civilian population of DRC to withhold foreign aid, such money should be made conditional, as greater transparency in government economic policy and financial operations is an absolute necessity. In accordance, budgets and reports should be made available to the public, through records that can be accessed in person, as well as posted on the internet. There needs to be more government oversight and a greater emphasis placed on education and useful skills, especially since the literacy rate of the country is only 75%11. This applies to the police force as well, which should also seek to integrate more women into its ranks. To help with such an undertaking, aid should be used to provide funding and technical support to create functional institutions and competent units. The DRC should also attempt to strengthen regional ties via its membership in the Southern African Development Community and the African Union.

In order to continue to facilitate the peace process, the United States should join forces with its Western Allies, as well as with the cooperation of the United Nations, to put pressure on the Congolese government to devote the necessary resources to neutralizing the militias that are so rampant throughout the Eastern portion of DRC. In furtherance to this, the United States and other donor governments should provide the requisite funding and technical assistance for local reconciliation efforts. In order to promote the creation of a unified army, the government needs to negotiate the exact and detailed terms for military integration that are deemed acceptable by both sides of the bargaining table. With the backing of the international community, the United Nations mission in the DRC should lends itself to the role of mediator in such negotiations.

While it has already been stated that aid should not be cut off from donor governments to the DRC, it would be beneficial for both donor and recipient if the aid money were earmarked; the DRC should request that the United States increase its funding and technical assistance to reform Congo's military forces. Also, in order to enforce the existing UN arms embargo, the DRC should call on donors to help outfit the country with equipment and training. The Congolese government must strengthen military court prosecutions of human rights violations, and eradicate perpetrators at every level. This would prove to be quite an arduous task, given the modern history of the nation but the government could look to higher authorities for support, such as the International Criminal Court.

The best avenue for ensuring a peaceful and democratic future for the DRC appears to lie with MONUC. Therefore, the DRC should ask the United Nations Security Council to renew and sharpen MONUC’s mandate. MONUC should be entrusted with the duties of stopping civilian attacks, giving greater access to assistance, and helping to resettle those that have been displaced as a result of the ongoing conflicts. Not only should MONUC protect civilians from attacks, but from rape, torture, kidnapping, and similar abuses, as well. In order to bring an end to the various conflicts the country has suffered through over the course of the last half-century, peace agreements were negotiated. The signatories to such documents, including but not limited to the Lusaka Accords, must be held accountable to honoring their obligations, in addition to upholding the Geneva Conventions and international humanitarian law as they relate to the protection of civilians.

Finally, like many other countries in Africa, DRC is rich in natural resources. Rather than making DRC into a wealthy and/or stable country, such an endowment has led to illegal exploitation, both internal and external. Stricter policies need to be adopted regarding mining and other extractive processes, with punitive measures in place for those that do not adhere to said policies. Then the country would be able to use its natural resources to attract foreign investment and bolster the domestic economy. The International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) has established various protocols, on the illegal exploitation of resources, genocide, and internally displaced persons.12 Likewise, The conference has sought to assist in poverty reduction through co-ordination and implementation of various initiatives, including micro-finance endeavors.

The problems encountered in consolidating democracy in the DRC may be of a greater magnitude there than in other nations, but they are certainly not unique to the DRC. Many African nations are struggling, or have struggled, with the exact same issues. The most vital resources in such situations seem to be raising and spreading awareness and knowledge, both in the home country and abroad. One must hope that the international community will heed the call to its collective conscience and take decisive action, not necessarily in the form of intervention, but through other ways and means, such as governmental pressure and provisional aid. As Noam Chomsky said, “There are no magic answers, no miraculous methods to overcome the problems we face, just the familiar ones: honest search for understanding, education, organization, action that raises the cost of state violence for its perpetrators or that lays the basis for institutional change-and the kind of commitment that will persist despite the temptations of disillusionment, despite many failures and only limited successes, inspired by the hope of a brighter future."


1) International Crisis Group, Africa Report No. 114, Escaping the Conflict Trap: Promoting Good Governance in the Congo,

2) International Crisis Group, Africa Report No. 128, July 5, 2007, Congo: Consolidating the Peace,

3) Foreign Policy, Congo’s Implausible Democracy, Paule Bouvier & Pierre Englebert, July 2006,

4) The New York Times, In Congo, Hunger and Disease Erode Democracy, Lydia Polgreen, June 23, 2006,

5) International Crisis Group, Africa Report No. 112, June 28, 2006, Beyond Victimhood: Women’s Peacebuilding in Sudan, Congo, and Uganda,

6) International Crisis Group, Africa Briefing No. 44, January 9, 2007, Congo: Staying Engaged After the Elections,

7) Southern African Development Community, Member States, Social and Economic Indicators, Democratic Republic of Congo,

8) Central Africa: Pushing for Progress in the Great Lakes Region, Inter Press Service, November 29, 2007, Francis Kokutse,

1.) The Ituri conflict was a conflict between the agriculturalist Lendu and pastoralist Hema ethnic groups in the Ituri region of northeastern DRC.1

2.) International Crisis Group, Africa Report No. 114, Escaping the Conflict Trap: Promoting Good Governance in the Congo,

3.) International Crisis Group, Africa Report No. 128, July 5, 2007, Congo: Consolidating the Peace,

4.) Foreign Policy, Congo’s Implausible Democracy, Paule Bouvier & Pierre Englebert, July 2006,

5.) Ibid.

6.) The New York Times, In Congo, Hunger and Disease Erode Democracy, Lydia Polgreen, June 23, 2006,

7.) International Crisis Group, Africa Report No. 112, June 28, 2006, Beyond Victimhood: Women’s Peacebuilding in Sudan, Congo, and Uganda,

8.) Ibid.5

9.) Ibid., Escaping the Conflict Trap: Promoting Good Governance in the Congo6

10.) International Crisis Group, Africa Briefing No. 44, January 9, 2007, Congo: Staying Engaged After the Elections,

11.) Southern African Development Community, Member States, Social and Economic Indicators, Democratic Republic of Congo,

12.) Central Africa: Pushing for Progress in the Great Lakes Region, Inter Press Service, November 29, 2007, Francis Kokutse,

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