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U.S. Can Help Democracy Thrive in Zaire

By Jimmy Carter

This article appeared in the May 20, 1997, edition of USA Today.

Rebel leader Laurent Kabila's forces took over Zaire's capital, Kinshasa, over the weekend and Kabila announced that he had assumed the presidency of the country, which he renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo. After 32 years of dictatorship, Zaire now has the potential to join the wave of democracy that has swept a number of African countries in the past decade.

Kabila's public statements, thus far, seem to indicate a desire to establish a democratic transition. I join the international community and Zaire's democratic neighbors in the sincere hope that he will fulfill these promises to lay the foundation for democracy. At the same time he must simultaneously address the existing humanitarian emergency and its immediate consequences. Because of Zaire's importance in the region, the course that it charts for itself will be pivotal to the continent's democratic future.

Bordered by nine nations, Zaire's future will impact all of central Africa. Its sheer land mass and mineral riches of gold, diamonds, copper, cobalt, and zinc give it geopolitical clout. During past years, when devastating wars and rebellion wracked neighboring Uganda, Sudan, Rwanda, Burundi, and Angola, millions of refugees found a haven in Zaire. Consequently, a nexus of cross-border ethnic alliances has evolved, creating complex political webs in the region that affect the country. Indicative of this, Zaire's neighbors, some of whom had scores to settle with President Mobutu Sese Seko, have given strong assistance to Kabila's rebellion.

Zaire now has the historic opportunity to take its place as a regional leader based on democratic rule and respect for the law. The global community needs to support with concrete action the long-frustrated appeals by Zairians for freedom, peace, and human rights.

The Country faces enormous challenges. The military gains of Kabila's ADFL forces came relatively easily as they occupied the nation. But as head of a transitional government, Kabila will face far more difficult problems. Zaire's future leadership will have to maintain the unity of the country, deal with an infrastructure devastated by corruption, and neglect, and re-establish functioning institutions that benefit all ethnic and geographic groups, not just a chosen few.

Although democracy cannot happen overnight, the frustrated promises of the past can be replaced by a focused national effort leading to free and fair elections. Building an adequate consensus means working with, not muting, political opposition to allow an inclusive slate of candidates from civil society to emerge. Kabila has been quoted as favoring a one-year transition followed by elections. Some have suggested a longer period, to allow development of an infrastructure based on universal suffrage to be followed by acceptable procedures.

During the transition, the government needs to achieve clearly defined targets while honoring human rights and creating a framework for justice and reconciliation. Under difficult conditions, Zaire's people have demonstrated a consistent desire for political choice and the rule of the law. The country's vibrant civil society, which has sustained itself in spite of the unfriendly environment, must be part of any transition process.

Zairians themselves will set this timetable, but constructive influence and support of the international community will be needed to prevent unnecessary delay - which could result in the emergence of another de facto dictatorship.

Progress to democracy and the observance of human rights will require the united efforts of both the Western world and Zaire's neighbors. In summit conferences convened by The Carter Center during the last two years, the leaders of Rwanda, Burundi, Zaire, Uganda, and Tanzania have all committed themselves to resolve the ethnic and refugee crises in the region and to move toward peaceful resolution of disputes.

Leaders of these same nations and their neighbors now will have a new opportunity to honor such agreements to foster regional stability, and also to divert scarce resources from military programs to internal reconstruction that will improve the quality of life for their own peoples.

The United States is now facing an unprecedented leadership role, one that should be carefully considered and based on a new understanding and a more sustained interest in the region. This role must far exceed and be more constructive than that of the few opportunistic U.S. corporations that have rushed into rebel-held areas in search of lucrative mineral deals with little regard for the future of Zaire, its environment, or its people.

As a pre-eminent democracy, the U.S. government should act quickly and forcefully to demonstrate its commitment to the basic principles of democracy. We citizens should support assistance -- both monetary and technical -- that will be required to help Zaire develop an economy and a governmental system that will benefit its people and the international community alike.

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