Sanctions against the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are exactly the wrong answer at exactly the wrong time.
The European Union and the United States have recently issued sanctions against a number of officials in my country’s government. In their view, the EU and United States are punishing the government for outbreaks of domestic violence in the DRC’s capital of Kinshasa earlier this year. But if the EU and the U.S. really want to help the DRC as they claim to, and not hurt it as they appear to, they will offer my country a carrot, instead of continuing to bash it with sticks.
The DRC is at a critical moment. On Dec. 19, the second elected term of President Joseph Kabila ended. However, the nation is not ready to hold national elections. Because of the damage caused by years of civil war, voter roles are outdated and democratic institutions are just growing. If a national election had been held Monday, as many as many as half of all eligible DRC voters would have been disenfranchised, unable to vote.
No one — not the DRC, not the United States, not the EU — wants this. All parties want fair and free elections and a continuation of the stability Mr. Kabila is building. Twenty-five years ago, the U.S. sanctioned then-Somali President Mohamed Siad Barre and a number of military members, which aided the government’s downfall and Somalia’s descent into bloody anarchy. Please do not repeat that mistake in the DRC.
The election delay is no surprise. The DRC’s independent electoral commission has said the country cannot stage a free and fair election now. Mr. Kabila has spoken about the need for a delay for months. He has promised new elections no later than 2018. And per the constitution, he cannot run for a third term. He is not seeking to be president-for-life.
Yet, our Western friends are punishing us because we are holding our elections on our timetable, not theirs. This smacks of the sort of colonialism that the DRC left behind when it won its independence in 1960.
Kabila did not step down on Monday, or on Tuesday. He is going to finish what he started. At Mr. Kabila’s suggestion, the Catholic Church is now reaching out to the radical opposition that refused earlier dialogues in a renewed effort to build social accord. And soon, we will name an interim government that will take center stage until elections can be held.
We fear more domestic unrest when the end of Mr. Kabila’s term comes. The nation’s citizens need to know they will be safe, and that rule of law will be maintained. However, the sanctioned DRC officials are all from the security and law enforcement sectors of our government, and include the minister of state security, the minister of interior and various generals. In other words, they are precisely the people who in any government anywhere in the world would be most responsible for maintaining public order and peace in challenging or tumultuous times.
At age 29, Mr. Kabila became president due to the assassination of his father. Counter to the stereotype of an African strongman, he committed himself immediately to ending a bloody war in our country that had cost more than 5 million lives, drafting a constitution that is widely seen as one of Africa’s most democratic and organizing elections, which he proceeded to win.
Sixteen years later, it is quite possible that the time for change has come. But to honor the nation’s democracy, it should come in a peaceful, orderly fashion and from the ballot box — not in response to the demands of a provocative group of street protesters and Western powers. No one who cares about the DRC could possibly disagree — unless they have already chosen a political side in our country.
In government, our task is relatively straightforward: We must maintain a functioning and orderly state until elections can be held. So how exactly is our task helped by sanctioning our top security officials?
Since our independence in 1960, the Congo has known too much disorder, too much violence, and too much interference from other countries. Despite this we have managed to tame the monsters of war, mass targeting of women by combatants, disease and poverty. Our work is nowhere near done, but our progress — despite the massive obstacle we have faced — cannot be understated. What we need, and deserve, is help. Yet the recent statements from Brussels and Washington are long on criticism and short on any offers of assistance.
The recent sanctions are disproportionate, counterproductive and, in our view, mistaken. We hope they are overturned. Targeting security officials in a fragile environment is not an approach for peace, but it could be understood as a pressure campaign rooted in the goal of regime change. We hope this isn’t the case, because each time a foreign government imposed regime change on the Congo, millions died and our situation only became worse.
Going forward, we can only hope that the bearers of sticks will consider the wisdom of their recent policies and strive instead to work with us as partners and friends in achieving our democratic dreams.
Jean-Claude Mokeni is the chairman of the Democratic Republic of Congo Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee.