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U.S. must help the Democratic Republic of Congo live up to its name

When most of us hear the name “Congo” we either go into eye-glaze mode, or think of politically incorrect movies we watched as kids.

However, policymakers in Washington should see the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) as a unique and important opportunity to promote democracy, economic opportunity and stability on the African continent.  But there are signs the current president might have other plans.

{mosads}The DRC is a large nation of 77 million people that straddles the equator and may have some of the richest mineral deposits in Africa or the world for that matter.   The issue facing the Congolese is a series of elections that are set to begin this October with local and provincial seats up, and in 2016 when the election for president is scheduled to be held.

When I say “scheduled” to be held, therein lies the tale.

If things go well, the elections would signify the years of political tumult and despotism have truly come to an end. Congo became independent from Belgium in 1960.  After initial instability Col. Joseph Mobutu (in a rare bit of humor in the CIA’s World Factbook) “seized power and declared himself president in a November 1965 coup. He subsequently changed his name – to MOBUTU Sese Seko (the full name of Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku wa za Banga is translated as “the all-conquering warrior, who goes from triumph to triumph ) – as well as that of the country – to Zaire.” After 32 years in power, Mobutu was overthrown in a rebellion backed by two of its neighbors, Rwanda and Uganda.

Since 2002 the president of Congo has been Joseph Kabila, the son of the man who took over after the fall of Mobutu and changed the name of the country back to the Democratic Republic of Congo and was subsequently assassinated by a bodyguard.

Under the country’s constitution, Kabila is term-limited and cannot run for re-election to a third term as president.  However he is using continuing unrest as an excuse for talking about delaying the 2016 elections and remaining in power. State security forces have moved aggressively against demonstrators.

The DRC presents the United States with an important opportunity to promote democracy and the rule of law in Africa. Legitimate governments that have public support can be a bulwark against the instability and economic disruptions that terrorists and extremists are apt to exploit.

Peaceful transitions can work in Africa.  In April of this year the President of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan, was defeated in his bid for re-election.  He immediately called the winner of the election, Muhammadu Buhari, to concede and congratulate him.

This was a move so unusual in African politics that it led U.S. President Barack Obama to call DRC President Kabila to make certain he hadn’t missed the import of establishing a rule of law, and primacy of a written and implemented national constitution.

Kabila has allowed preparations for the local elections to proceed this fall with a complete overhaul of the national election rolls. With a controversial redesign of the DRC’s states, he appears to be dismantling the electoral base of potential rivals for the presidency

Unlike China, which is making economic inroads in the DRC and other African countries, the United States has a long and justifiably proud history of fostering democracy around the world.  In the Middle East, as the result of U.S. influence, women can vote in Islamic nations like Qatar, Oman, and Bahrain.  With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the U.S. sent groups of Republican and Democratic political operatives into Eastern Europe to help establish political parties and democratic institutions.  In Central and South America and in most of Asia the principals of free and fair elections are, if not being fully established, a realistic goal.

The Obama administration is attempting to lead the DRC in the right direction.  Secretary of State John Kerry has pledged $30 million to assist in a transparent and smooth election process. It might take much more. A robust commitment from the United States could help leverage support from the European Union and international agencies and thus deprive Kabila of the excuse that the country is simply not ready for a free, fair, and open election for president.

A politically stable Congo would make it far more attractive to outside investment especially in the mining sector (copper, cobalt, gold, diamonds, coltan, zinc, tin, and tungsten) and agriculture (coffee, sugar, palm oil, rubber, tea, cotton, cocoa and wood products). The United States can play an indispensable role in helping the Democratic Republic of Congo to assume its rightful place as a leading political and economic power on the African Continent.

Galen is a long-time political strategist who has extensive experience in helping develop democratic processes overseas.  He also is the publisher of

Tags Barack Obama John Kerry

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