Remarks on the Democratic Republic of the Congo and African Democracy Trends

Maria Otero
Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs 
The Brookings Institution
Washington, DC
October 14, 2011

Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here this morning. I want to thank Tony, and Brookings, for inviting me, and for hosting this important discussion.

I just returned from a trip to Africa -- my third this year and seventh as Under Secretary of State. On this past trip, I visited both Burundi and the Congo, so I appreciate your timing this event perfectly for me!

A week ago today, I was at the D.R.C.’s Election Commission Headquarters in Kinshasa. I saw stacks of paper everywhere, copy machines working overtime, the Dell nerve center with all 35 million voter names. The scene was emblematic of both the opportunities and challenges that the D.R.C. faces for its elections that are less than two months away.

Today, I want to speak about some of those opportunities and challenges. But first let me provide a bit of context.

Fragile states around the world can only grow strong through their own political will to do so. No matter how much support they receive from outside partners, they must secure the mandate of their people to govern. I want to make that point at the outset, because I think it underscores the intrinsic significance of elections. They are the primary vehicle through which the people can determine the future of the a country. And they play a crucial role on the path to stability and growth -- not just in the Congo but everywhere.

The recent trend of elections and democracies in Africa is promising: We welcome the recent peaceful transfer of power in Zambia and the successful elections in Guinea, Niger, Benin and Nigeria. The foundation of democracy is holding strong in each of these countries, and their societies are more stable and prosperous for it.

This is why the United States is deeply committed to supporting the continued progress of democratic development of the Congo. This includes not only elections but respect for human rights, civic participation, government services, and strengthened rule of law and accountability. Each of these aspects of a stable democracy reinforces the next. And they all hinge on a consistent, intentional dialogue between a government and its people.

The outcome of the next election must represent the will of the Congolese people. It’s an opportunity for the Congolese people to select leaders accountable to their needs. And that includes a process where the Congolese -- both men and women  -- are able to participate fully and without intimidation.

We are offering support of the upcoming elections in two principal ways:

  • First, through programs that build capacity and lay a clear path for credible elections
  • And, second, through high-level engagement coupled with visible support for civil society and youth who will drive election results through their participation.

First, the United States is committing approximately $13 million in election assistance through USAID. Funding supports The Carter Center ($4 million) and the International Foundation for Election Systems (IFES) ($9 million). The projects support civic and voter education, international and national election observers, and capacity building of human rights organizations to observe the elections.

Separately, we are contributing just over $500,000 for non-lethal defensive equipment (body armor and gas masks) to the MONUSCO trained Congolese National Police units charged with election security.

We are also working with citizen journalists to train key opinion-makers (non-journalists) in local communities to report on key domestic issues, including elections. Ten “coordinators,” including two women, recently completed training in the editorial and technical aspects of citizen journalism for the purpose of then training 100 others around the D.R.C., of which 50 percent will be women. By using inexpensive mobile phones, the citizen journalists can post text, video, photographs or audio directly to the “100 Journalistes” Facebook page.

We are encouraging the government to hold transparent, free, and peaceful presidential and legislative elections at the highest levels of diplomatic engagement and with by visibly supporting civil society groups who will play a role in the election. In addition to my visit, Assistant Secretary Carson and Ambassador Entwistle have also engaged at the highest levels. All of the stakeholders recognize the challenge they face in meeting the deadlines and the importance of achieving a credible outcome.

The biggest challenge remains the massive logistical exercise facing the CENI and its partners in the international community. There are 500 legislative seats up for grabs, over 19,000 candidates, increasing the already formidable logistical challenges and ballot printing of any election in D.R.C. with its 32 million voters.

We have publicly condemned and will continue to condemn all election-related violence and encourage constructive dialogue among the candidates, particularly in the resolution of electoral disputes. We call on all candidates to publicly denounce violence and electoral fraud. There is no place for violence in the democratic process or in the D.R.C. elections.

It is the role of Congolese institutions, with the support of other parties and actors, to conduct credible elections. We urge them to focus all their efforts on seeing that the elections are held in a credible and peaceful manner.

And finally, let me end by returning to an opportunity: the youth of the Congo.

Young people play a critical role in electoral processes in any country, especially in the D.R.C., where they comprise more than half of the Congolese population. In my meetings with youth groups from the Congo over the past several months, it is clear that the economy, social conditions, gender equality, and peace and stability all matter to them. From sexual violence and child soldiering, to high unemployment, they have borne a disproportionate amount of the suffering in the D.R.C., particularly in the east. Policy makers and officials should actively engage youth and ensure their voice is heard. And we should actively remind youth of their power as political agents of change in their country. Their vote will mean a great deal to the future of the Congo, so we should work to be sure they are informed and engaged in their own political process.

So those are just a couple of my observations from my recent trip. And I’m happy to take questions.