The BLOG: Politics

The African Great Lakes region: How to save democracy and stop violence — and why you should care

My name is Joseph Mulala, and I grew up in Goma, in the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo. I am the first Congolese graduate of West Point Military Academy, and I look forward to being one among many. I have lived through the turbulent years of Congo’s recent past, and I am concerned by the repeated and synchronized violation of constitutional term limits by heads of state in the African Great Lakes region, which threatens our democracy, freedom and stability. In an already fragile region, these actions raise the specter of increased instability and human rights violations, destroying the small progress achieved thus far. Burundi’s growing instability could extend into the DRC and Rwanda, as it frequently has over the past 25 years, eventually engulfing the whole region in chaos — again.

The palpable tensions among various groups of people in the region should not be ignored. For instance, many Congolese expressed their dissatisfaction with President Joseph Kabila’s recent State of the Union address by demanding he leave office at the end of his current term in 2016. I disagree with the claim that Western democratic principles should not be applied to Africa. These claims are excuses to distract from political mistakes, incompetence and an unjustified hold on power. The failure of democracy in Africa is less about a cultural mismatch and more about the lack of will of African leaders to ‘do the right thing’ for their countries. They have failed to perceive public service as an honorable and noble calling and have fulfilled personal ambition rather than embracing the larger cause of securing the hope in the eyes of generations yet to be born.

Granted, democracies are rarely perfect. Most are works in progress. However, progress towards democracy falters when constitutional terms are extended at will. Nelson Mandela — the first president of a post-apartheid South Africa and father of the rainbow nation and first black president — knew this. He stepped down after eight years though many would likely have supported extending his term as president. In this act of trust in his people to steer their course towards a bright future, even though it may be through some choppy waters, he left a legacy of hope for South Africa, and a good example not only for his country but for all of Africa.

The politically extraordinary does not expediently redefine constitutional terms. Consider that Abraham Lincoln — despite the uncertainty of a civil war jeopardizing a fledgling union — surrendered to the will of the people by running for reelection. He did not use the war as a pretext for suspending elections, even though the variance of opinion and divisive nature of the cause of the Civil War meant a high probability of losing the re-election. A slight political miscalculation could have broken the Union. However, Lincoln understood that it was the people from whom he derived legitimacy and the just power to justify authority over the people.

Regardless of challenges, constitutional terms must be respected, and institutions should not be centered on the will of individuals. History repeatedly shows that those who clung longer to power became tyrants, abusing themselves and their fellow men, and leaving their societies to fall into chaos after the departure of their leader. We see this fallout today in Iraq, Syria and Libya. Staying in power is not the answer to long-term stability in countries like Rwanda, where democracy yet remains fragile. Instead, the foundational groundwork for open societies that can perpetually sustain themselves needs to be laid.

Respecting constitutional terms is a great step toward implementing the rule of law, good governance, and building strong democratic institutions, because it builds trust in the democratic process. Respecting African constitutions as the supreme laws of nations and the compass for nation-building, rather than decorative documents held hostage by African presidents, and altered at will for personal gain, is unacceptable.

It is naive to presume that extending constitutional terms will maintain the fragile peace in the region. The Burundian and Rwandan Parliaments already extended their presidents’ terms, and the Congolese President Kabila has made similar attempts through recent political maneuvers that betray desperation. People are dying in Burundi and political negotiations are stalled. Currently, the prospect of democratic progress in the Great Lakes region is slim because, historically, disagreeing political groups have tended to use violence to resolve conflicts. Negotiations tend to merely provide a platform to further corruption and political trade, and satisfy personal ambitions.

The historical background of the Rwanda genocide, and subsequent military confrontation led by the insurgent Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and Major General Paul Kagame, illustrates the lack of due political process. Rwanda’s Arusha Accords ultimately failed due to the murder of President Juvénal Habyarimana and Burundi’s President Melchior Ndadaye. Since the 1960s, when Congo, Rwanda and Burundi gained independence, third parties have been necessary to reach fragile political agreements. After the country’s leaders proved either incapable or too apathetic to resolve regional conflicts, the Arusha peace negotiations and the Congolese political dialogue in South Africa in early 2000 finally led to the first democratic elections in DRC in 2006.

Without extensive pressure from the international community, led by U.S. Ambassador, William Swing, it is unlikely that Congolese leaders would have signed the peace accords and organized elections. These examples demonstrate the region’s propensity to use violence as a tool for solving political disputes and their inability to assume responsibility to fix their own problems. Unless trust in the democratic process is developed, violence will remain the default response to grievances.

Beyond creating political instability, an alteration of constitutional term limits undermines economic growth. According to the World Bank, African Development Bank, and the African Panel Progress, the African Great Lakes region has one of the fastest growing populations in the world, of which about 50 percent will be living in urban areas in the next 25 years. On the one hand, this presents a huge free market opportunity that will change the lives of African people and boost the African and world economy. On the other hand, if African governments do not have clear, short- and long-term strategies to create economic growth, jobs and sustainable cities, and most importantly maintain stability and promote good governance, it will exacerbate challenges such as unplanned urban expansion, corruption, unemployment and eventually violence. A further destabilized Congo represent the waste of an enormous economic potential. The Congo — the size of Western Europe with great natural resources — could play a crucial role in driving economic growth for the entire continent. Instability in this country cannot be afforded.

The Great Lakes region has made significant democratic progress during the past 25 years, but this is just the beginning. We have the capability to prevent renewed violence; we must exercise the political will, and use the tools necessary to keep the democratic process on track. For instance, the legacy of the Rwandan people, under the leadership of their current president can be better preserved if they strive to pass along the story of their achievements and failures for future generations to learn from them, struggle with them and find out how to fix them. This will teach them to assume their responsibilities, reduce the perception of indispensable and providential leaders; and most importantly, will further strengthen institutions building and keep — incrementally — changing the culture toward adherence to rule of law and good governance and substantially mitigate the propensity for rooting dictatorship.

Here are couple measures that can be taken to avert this crisis from happening, maintain stability in this region and save democracy:

First: The United States, along with the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Belgium – all nations with influence in the African Great Lakes region – should clarify to leaders that modifying constitutions for self-serving purposes will be met with sanctions.

Second: China and Russia, along with other regional powers such as South Africa, Nigeria and Angola, need to be mobilized to assist this initiative. These countries have enormous economic interests in the Congo and it is in their best interest to support democratic institutions that promote the rule of law, accountability and good governance and not undermining them. Building this coalition will send a clear and strong signal.

Third: The governments of the Great Lakes region should be given financial, political, technical, and logistical assistance in organizing elections. Providing such resources will encourage others to support the process and give hope to million and will further boost the enthusiasm to organize elections. Additionally, it will deter other leader to use the lack of resources as an excuse to sabotage and postpone elections.

Fourth: The efforts and leadership of the current U.S. Special envoy — Congressman Thomas Perriello and in synergy with the UN Envoy — needs to be supported. His presence in the region put regional leaders — together — to focus on finding solutions and serves as symbol of dissuasion and pressure to keep saboteurs of the peace process on track and accountable.  Leaving these regional leaders alone — history shows that — they will never go anywhere. They need to be put — constantly — on pressure to find solutions and reduce the suffering of their people. However, it could have been helpful if the special envoy plays a much more engaging and active role. For instance, he can seize the initiative, set up deadlines, and facilitate conversations among different parties and constantly reminding them of their responsibility to serve their people and find concrete proposals to affect positive outcomes. Failure to do that, political negations will go for eternity.   And this will end up being a pure waste of resources and time.

Fifth: Political opposition parties should be assisted with professional training to lead an opposition that eschews violence and adheres to a reasonable political process consistent with democracy. Defending and promoting freedom democracy is our individual, collective and universal responsibility as a free society and man. It is not the responsibility of certain people or countries alone. Unshakable confidence in our values, convictions and principles should be our sources of inspiration to leadership. It is my personal hope that the African Great Lakes region will finally stabilize after a generation of bloody conflict, stay on the course of democracy and freedom of its people. It can be done!

Joseph Nguramo

Joseph Nguramo

Joseph Nguramo is a Congolese native who graduated from West Point Military Academy in 2014. He now lives in Washington, D.C., and is pursuing graduate studies.