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The U.S. and Europe Should Stand With Congo’s Voters

The Editors
The U.S. and Europe Should Stand With Congo’s Voters

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- After a long-overdue election marred by irregularities and a delay in reporting results, opposition leader Felix Tshisekedi has been provisionally declared the next president of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Under happier circumstances, cheers might be in order for Congo’s first peaceful transition of power since independence in 1960. A particle of good news is certainly overdue: The DRC’s recent history is dire. Congo was the battleground for one of the world’s deadliest recent conflicts, and is still host to its biggest United Nations peacekeeping force, as well as the locus of some of the worst Ebola outbreaks, epic corruption, and immiseration that ranks it 176th out of 189 countries in the United Nations Human Development Index.

Unfortunately, the election news is tainted. Tshisekedi’s win defies pre-election polls and tallies by credible independent election observers that reportedly gave the contest to front-runner Martin Fayulu. It also follows rumors of a backroom deal with outgoing President Joseph Kabila, whose hopes of installing his handpicked successor, former interior minister Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, were scotched by Shadary’s third-place finish.

Quicktake: Congo’s Bitter, Chaotic Election

This suspect tally is likely to trigger street protests and legal challenges. The United Nations Security Council plans to discuss Congo today, and shouldn’t recognize the election’s outcome until after a thorough investigation. Its members should also make clear that any people found to have interfered with the election or to have suppressed subsequent legal challenges and dissent will be held accountable.

Congo could be one of Africa’s richest countries. It holds an estimated $25 trillion in mineral reserves, including most of the cobalt on which a clean energy revolution depends, enough hydropower for much of Africa, and rich agricultural land that has barely been cultivated.

This election, for all its flaws, casts light on other growing strengths. Kabila didn’t run because he couldn’t muscle a constitutional change through Congo’s parliament to allow him a third term. Another obstacle in his way was a more energized civil society. Despite attempts to suppress voting and tamp down the opposition, all signs suggest that voters still registered their strong dissatisfaction with his rule.

Angola and South Africa (which is now on the UN Security Council) and other members of the Southern African Development Community helped persuade Kabila to hold the vote. If they waver in ensuring that the outcome reflects the will of Congo’s people, they will squander that progress and risk the return of greater regional instability.

The U.S. (Congo’s biggest aid provider) and EU are limited in the leverage they can apply without hurting the country’s poorest. But they can apply useful pressure, as the EU did last month by extending asset freezes and travel bans on Congolese officials (including Shadary) for cracking down on protesters and other offenses. The U.S. Senate should take up the bipartisan Democratic Republic of the Congo Democracy and Accountability Act that the House of Representatives passed in November. Building on sanctions that the U.S. imposed on Israeli billionaire Dan Gertler for his allegedly corrupt mining deals, the U.S. should target other individuals and firms who abet or profit from illicit deals with Congolese officials — something that the Global Magnitsky Act will make easier to do.

The U.S. can also help Congolese and citizens of other African nations hold their officials to account by rejoining the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative and issuing new rules requiring extractive companies listed on U.S. stock exchanges to disclose the payments they make to governments.

Congolese voters who braved violence and disorder deserve support and respect. They are also the ones ultimately responsible for driving real and lasting political change — to ensure, for instance, that Congo’s riches benefit the many over the few. The least outsiders can do is to stand with them, not with predatory leaders seeking to preserve their power and wealth.

—Editors: James Gibney, Clive Crook.

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