The History of Democracy in DR Congo

By Nzongola-Ntalaja, Georges | Soundings, Autumn 2006 | Go to article overview

The History of Democracy in DR Congo


Nzongola-Ntalaja, Georges, Soundings


The people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo went to the polls in July 2006 to elect a president and 500 members of the national assembly, the lower house of parliament. (The senate is to be elected indirectly by the provincial assemblies in December 2006.) As faithful organs of propaganda for the dominant interests of the contemporary world order, many international media outlets repeatedly told their audiences that these 'historic' elections were the first free and democratic elections to be held in the Congo since independence from Belgium in 1960. The elections themselves were paid for to the tune of over $500 million, and supervised by an international community with a marked preference for Joseph Kabila, the incumbent president: the major world powers were keen to legitimise their current client regime in Kinshasa, so that they could continue unfettered to extract all the resources they need from the Congo. There appeared to be a general consensus that Congo was incapable of sorting out its problems without massive outside intervention.

For the record, there is need to recall that the African independence struggle of the post-war years was a social movement for democracy and social progress, waged against colonialism in its triple manifestations as economic exploitation, political repression and cultural oppression through racism and the colour bar. In the Congo, the commitment to the ideals of democracy was so strong that in spite of the instability brought about by the post-independence crisis involving the army mutiny, the assassination of Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba and US interference through the umbrella of the United Nations Congo Mission, the rule of law and the rules of the game of parliamentary democracy were for the most part respected. In May 1965, free and democratic elections were held in the Congo, without international supervision or international observers. Out of the total of 137 parliamentary constituencies, the results were disputed in only five constituencies. Why is it then that, 41 years later, the country has no capacity to organise its own elections autonomously, and what does this have to tell us about the Congo's transition from dependent to independent status and sovereignty?

From the Belgian Congo to Mobutu's Zaire

As a popular movement for democracy and social progress, the independence struggle was a great national awakening in the Belgian Congo, as in the rest of colonial Africa, with people from all walks of life ready to shed fear in order to manifest their permanent aspirations for freedom and their desire for a better and more secure future. Given the Congo's impressive ecological diversity, with its rich mineral and non-mineral resources, there were great expectations that the country's natural wealth would now be utilised to improve the living conditions of ordinary men, women and children. Unfortunately, independence and its aftermath did not fulfil these expectations. The democratic experiment was ended in November 1965, when army chief Joseph-Desire Mobutu (who later changed his forename to Sese Seko) staged a coup d'etat, ostensibly to end a political stalemate involving the refusal of President Joseph Kasavubu to retain Moise Tshombe as prime minister.

Whereas such stalemates have been common currency in countries such as Italy, and indeed Belgium, since 1945, the situation in the Congo was decried as political chaos by the Western media. They welcomed Mobutu's takeover as the insurance needed for Western access to Congo's copper, cobalt, gold, diamonds and other resources. (This was in fact Mobutu's second attempt at a military putsch. His first venture in militarism had been in September 1960 when, under the guidance of the CIA, the Belgians and the UN forces deputy commander, he played a key role in removing Prime Minister Lumumba from office.)

After the 1965 coup, Mobutu dismantled the institutions of parliamentary democracy to set up personal rule. …

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