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Trump administration must act now, to oppose rigged Congo election

After two years of stalling, the Democratic Republic of the Congo — the largest country in sub-Saharan Africa — is hurtling toward fraudulent, pre-Christmas elections, designed to perpetuate President Joseph Kabila’s unpopular, term-limited regime. Kabila’s appointed successor, Emmanuel Shadary, remains under European Union sanctions for serious human rights violations. Why should the Trump administration care about this?

One reason: the Kabila clique is not just another authoritarian regime; it is a monstrously predatory one. As U.N. Ambassador Nikki HaleyNimrata (Nikki) HaleyNew administration, House turnover raise prospects for more diversity on K Street Republicans need a good woman for 2024 Trump told advisers he could announce 2024 bid shortly after certification of Biden win: report MORE has put it, “The government is corrupt and preys on its own citizens.” Last week, the Congo’s 2018 Nobel Peace Prize winner for his campaign against sexual violence, Dr. Denis Mukwege, observed, “My country is being systematically looted with the complicity of people claiming to be our leaders” and called the world’s attention to the continuing contagion of rape stemming from “the regime of impunity, particularly of those in power.”

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Mukwege called for “free, transparent, credible and peaceful elections.” During an October 2017 visit to the country, Haley stated, “Every day we don’t have elections in this country, another woman gets raped, another child becomes a soldier.”

A second reason the Trump team should be concerned is the little-known fact that American taxpayers have forked over $3 billion in the past seven years to the largest U.N. peacekeeping operation in the world, due to the fecklessness of the corruption-wracked Congolese army. Even so, the United Nations has struggled to keep a lid on 100-plus armed groups, including government and rebel contingents from five of the nine bordering countries (Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, South Sudan and Central African Republic).

Meanwhile, Congolese security forces have provoked violent conflicts with citizens they are supposed to protect, leaving thousands dead and millions displaced over just the past two years. Phony elections that destroy the Congolese people’s hopes for peaceful change will fuel further violence. Wasting billions more in American taxes to give oxygen to an illegitimate government will not serve American interests.

Probably the greatest danger to U.S. interests from fraudulent elections and their bloody aftermath would be some form of recrudescence of the 1998-2002 regional war over the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which produced 3.5 million deaths and horrific levels of sexual violence. Once again, the world could face the combustible combination of a delegitimized Congo government and splintered army, and fearful or ambitious neighbors ready to take advantage of state failure.

Escalating regional violence inevitably would hike U.S. spending on security and humanitarian assistance; imperil continued participation by countries such as Burundi and Uganda in U.S.- supported, anti-terrorist operations in Africa; potentially disrupt Congolese sources of minerals that go into our electric car batteries, jet planes and cell phones; and leave a vast destabilized region more open to growing Chinese and Russian influence.

To its credit, the Trump administration has insisted upon genuine and inclusive elections. It backed up its diplomacy with targeted economic sanctions against two key facilitators of regime violence and corruption. Its threats to sanction three members of Kabila’s family helped move him to allow an election. In addition, Ambassador Haley defined key conditions for a free election: voter rolls scrubbed of deceased and fraudulent voters; release of political prisoners; end of politically-motivated prosecutions; permitting peaceful assembly and freedom of expression; and dropping plans to use untested, unfamiliar electronic voting machines in favor of paper ballots.

In defiance, government-controlled organizations have excluded two of the three top polling opposition candidates for president on dubious grounds, certified a voter roll where 16.6 percent of registrants lack identifying fingerprints, and deployed voting machines despite their potential for fraud, privacy violation and confusing voters. It has violently dispersed opposition campaign rallies. The government planned to proceed with the Dec. 23 elections even though a fire destroyed thousands of voting machines and ballots.

Unfortunately, the American government response has been to soften its conditions, and it has also failed to insist upon the accreditation of U.S. and Western expert observers to supplement domestic and African ones. An October opinion poll by New York University’s Congo Research Group suggested that one of the two major opposition candidates could defeat Shadary, if there were an honest count of legitimate voters.

With only days before the scheduled vote, the Trump administration should act to protect American interests. It should reiterate its earlier requirement for a fair vote and make clear that it will not accept a fraudulently-elected government as the legitimate representative of the Congolese people. It should declare it will greatly expand targeted sanctions and anti-money laundering measures against leaders who continue to thwart democratic change. Such policy would not lack for political support. The U.S. House recently passed a bill to this very effect by a bipartisan majority of 374-11.

Stephen R. Weissman is a member of the Congo Working Group, an informal coalition of the U.S. non-governmental groups concerned with promoting democracy in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He is a former staff director of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Africa, a former senior governance adviser on Africa for USAID, and the author of “American Foreign Policy in the Congo 1960-1964.”