Congo Elections Could Be a Date with History

Jason Stearns, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, talks with Renee Montagne about why elections in the Congo matter so much to African democracy.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We turn now to Jason Stearns. He's a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group. He joins us from Rutshuru, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Hello.

Mr. JASON STEARNS (Senior Analyst, International Crisis Group): Hello.

MONTAGNE: These are the first, I guess you would say, real democratic elections since the country got its independence from Belgium in 1960. Given Congo's troubled history, these elections are quite significant.

Mr. STEARNS: They're not only significant because they mark the end of a very brutal Seven Year War, but they also mark the beginning of finally the democratic Rule. The end of the 1990s, the dictator of many years, Mobutu, began a democratic process that was interrupted by the war. So many people see this as the end of the democratic process and the beginning, finally, of democracy in the Congo.

MONTAGNE: Well, let's look back just for a moment to Mobutu and his 32-year reign, to see, in a way, how hard this is to pull off in terms of transforming the country.

For one thing, I believe the term kleptocracy was coined to describe his style of governing.

Mr. STEARNS: That's right. Mobutu perfected the predatory rule. He made the state into a predator. It was a state that provided - towards especially the latter years of his rule - provided almost no social services for the population. So there was no education or healthcare. And even the army was not an army that protected people, but it was there to extort money and to harass the people.

So even now, today, most people see the state, as a predator. There was a World Bank survey that was done, I think a couple of years ago, and they asked the people here what would they do if the state were a person, what would they do to this person. And many people's answer was we would kill him, or we would take him to justice.

MONTAGNE: Well, does that bode terribly badly then, though, for this election, or the aftermath of this election?

Mr. STEARNS: Well, it bodes badly for the elections in the sense that the institutions that are supposed to organize the elections suffer from this weakness that has been inculcated in them through this 32-year history of predatory rule. So I think that, yes, it's a flawed process. Many people are very upset. But many other people, I think, are glad to get that over with and to try to start a new page.

MONTAGNE: Is it the case that the future security of the Congo will affect the overall security of central Africa?

Mr. STEARNS: Well, yes. I mean, if you look at the war - in 1996 the war began here, and it lasted until 2003. At the height of the war it involved nine African countries. And I think it destabilized many other countries in the region. It certainly destabilized Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi. And I think that many people see elections in the Congo as a step towards stability.

Not only in the Congo, but seeing a stable Congo could also provide security to the rest of the African countries - and especially in the east of the Congo, where I'm speaking to you from, has been used as the rear base for many militia to attack neighboring countries. So the idea is, if we can create a stable Congo, and not only can we create an economic engine for a central Africa, cause it's a very, very - it's a country that's very rich in natural resources - but we can also prevent militia from using the Congo as a rear base to destabilize neighboring countries.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. STEARNS: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Jason Stearns is a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group, and he joined us from Rutshuru, in the Congo.

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