DRC Elections: A Bellwether for Stability in Africa

The revolution in Libya has overshadowed another scheduled event that promises an equally seismic effect on democracy in Africa - the Nov. 28 elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which the world is largely ignoring, even as a variety of experts warn this forsaken country could become the next failed state if the vote proves to be a sham.

Two weeks out, the situation on the ground is hardly promising. The DRC, which just last week had the dubious honor of being the least livable of 187 countries surveyed in the United Nations' annual Human Development Index, has no ballots prepared and almost no ballot boxes to hold them. Police charged with keeping order say they haven't been paid in weeks, even as pre-election violence swings up. As Sasha Leznev put it at a recent panel event in Washington, "The Arab Spring hasn't spread to Sub-Saharan Africa,'' he said before issuing a warning: "The (Obama) administration needs to step up now.''

I know something about Africa elections, having been directly involved in both the good and the bad. I worked for the opposition in Zimbabwe in 2008, helping a promising presidential candidate named Morgan Tsvangirai outpoll strongman Robert Mugabe in a contest that had all the earmarks of a rigged contest. And in 2011, I worked for President Goodluck Jonathan in what observers consider the freest and fairest election in Nigeria's history - and an inspiration to other African democracies.

I don't like what I'm seeing so far in the DRC, which is exhibiting the early earmarks of failure. As most Africa experts note, the bloodshed that could arise in the DRC if the upcoming elections aren't conducted with integrity could make the casualty list from the Libyan revolution look like a schoolyard scuffle. Congo is no stranger to conflict; analysts reckon that more than 5 million people perished in what is commonly called "The Second Congo War.'' Vicious fighting continues, despite an official end to hostilities nearly a decade ago and the DRC continues to be the scene of the UN's largest peacekeeping mission in the history of that organization.

There are many cruel ironies to all of this bloodletting and poverty and lack of attention on the part of international governments. Perhaps the most glaring would be the 2006 elections in DRC - the nation's first real vote - which drew substantial worldwide attention and were conducted as a result in a relatively free and fair fashion. It's often said that the second free vote in a young democracy is even harder than the first, yet it's a fact that Western governments are providing only a fraction of support they did the first time around. The US in particular remains vague about what assistance it plans to offer - a State Department official recently said it plans to spend $13 million in DRC capacity building, including $500,000 for non-lethal riot gear. But with some 19,000 candidates vying for 500 seats and even the most basic tools for conducting an election still on order, it is clear the incumbent DRC government isn't nearly up to the task.

The second and perhaps cruelest irony is that the DRC, with natural resources estimated at more than $20 trillion, should be one of the richest nations in Africa, This country is awash in mineral assets - so much so that it has become the focus in recent weeks what may be the hottest policy debate in Washington.

Section 1502 The Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation calls for companies to report the provenance of the ingredients in their products, to better help track the blood trade in commodities. While the wisdom of such legislation has been hotly debated (including here on Huffington Post), the fact is that nobody on either side of this issue will get what they want if an illegitimate government is installed after Nov. 28. The upshot: more violence, more instability and the continuation of war atrocities, such as the systematic rape by certain rogue militias that continue to prowl eastern Congo with near-impunity. Mining in the DRC, already a rather irregular endeavor that surely finances much of the ongoing war activities in the country, will surely become even more opaque.

There is no doubt that the people of the DRC have been exploited for decades - both by companies looking to profit from the country's vast mineral wealth and by corrupt officials within the Congolese government who do the same. As a stark illustration of this inequality, despite the DRC's estimated mineral wealth of $24 trillion, three out of five Congolese live on less than $1.25 a day. The DRC will need a legitimate, accountable government to turn this around. This can only start with free, fair and secure elections. And so far, things don't look so good.

The official campaigning period - which began on October 28 - has been marred by violence. Just this past weekend, 15 people were injured in a violent clash in Lubumbashi, in Congo's mineral-rich Katanga province. Clashes between opposition supporters and police have become commonplace in the capital of Kinshasa, where the opposition has staged demonstrations against the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI), which it accuses of fraud.

The CENI has become a lightning rod for criticism over recent weeks, following a leaked report from the Belgian company Zetes - which was contracted by the Congolese government to issue biometric voter cards. The report outlines irregularities in the voter registration process and raises serious questions about the integrity of the voting register - something DRC citizens have been complaining about for months. The international community - which is contributing 40% toward the cost of the upcoming elections - cannot afford to turn a blind eye to these disturbing allegations.

The DRC has tremendous potential. With effective foreign investment and accountable governance, the DRC could become one of the economic engines driving development in Africa. Without it, the country will continue in its spiral of poverty and conflict - becoming a destabilizing force in the heart of Africa.

Which direction the country takes is a matter of concern not only for the Congolese people, but for the international community as well. With only three weeks to go before the vote, anyone who cares about concerned about stability in Africa should be urging their governments to take action before it's too late.

Full Disclosure: I am providing informal advice and support to FreeFair DRC, which is an international effort to raise awareness about the upcoming elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo