Former Scottish First Minister and Labour Peer, Lord McConnell, has written about his experiences observing the DRC’s recent election.
On December 17 2010, a young Tunisian man set himself on fire. This desperate act helped to spark a political revolution in the Arab world. Images of people revolting against notoriously oppressive regimes captivated onlookers worldwide. More than a year later, the world is indeed a different place – long-term dictators have been unseated, governments shuffled or disbanded altogether, and competitive political parties formed. Leaders of states like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Yemen have managed to retain a hold on power, but only with some combination of repression and concessions in the face of powerful collective civic action.
Not so long ago, sub-Saharan Africa underwent the same sort of radical transformation sweeping North Africa and the Middle East. In the 1980s and 90s, what scholar Samuel Huntington called the “third wave of democracy” changed the continent, unseating long-term dictators like Uganda’s Idi Amin, Guinea’s Sekou Toure, and Zaire’s Mobutu Sese-Seko. Like the Arab Spring, Africa’s democratic phenomenon was the subject of intense international interest and optimism. Some twenty years later, however, the political situation is more often viewed with a mixture of cynicism and despair.
The truth is most countries in sub-Saharan Africa remain among the poorest in the world and too many are ridden with corruption and conflict. The United Nations Human Development Index – a comprehensive comparative measure that takes into consideration factors like poverty, security, equality, educational access, and political freedom – consistently ranks these countries in the lowest tier. In 2011, African states occupied three-quarters of the lowest 40 rankings. Even Ghana and Senegal – democratic standouts in relative terms – ranked 135 and 155 respectively. Dead last is the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The DRC has had a particularly difficult transition to democracy. After gaining independence from Belgium in 1960, the country – like so many others in sub-Saharan Africa –attempted its first democratic elections, only to undergo a period of armed conflict that brought a fierce military dictatorship into power.