The man who offers hope to blighted Congo pleads for the world to stay and help

The man who offers hope to blighted Congo pleads for the world to stay and help

December 22, 2018

A top Congolese opposition leader has urged nations including Australia not to abandon his country as it struggles to take a massive stride with its first democratic change of government after years of civil war and dictatorship.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo faces perennial conflicts, corruption and struggles with the ebola virus, which led to the country being dubbed this week the world’s most neglected crisis hotspot.

Men and women at their stalls in a market on the streets of Kinshasa. General elections have been delayed for a week amid unrest.Credit:Kate Geraghty

It was poised to hold a presidential election on Sunday, but amid protests and violence, this has been pushed back a week.

Speaking ahead of the election delay, which could spark more fighting and chaos, leading opposition presidential candidate Felix Tshisekedi said his country needed “now more than ever” the United Nations peacekeepers whose numbers and budget were last year slashed.

Under pressure from the Trump administration, the United Nations agreed to cut the size of the mission known as MONUSCO in the west African country despite ongoing internal conflicts that are often fought by child soldiers and lead to mass rape of women.

“It is not the moment to abandon an organisation like the MONUSCO,” Mr Tshisekedi told The Age and Sydney Morning Herald in Kinshasa recently. “When we take stock of their presence in the DRC, it is thanks to MONUSCO that the country has enjoyed stability all these years.”

Leader of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress Party and Presidential candidate Felix Tshisekedi in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo.Credit:Kate Geraghty

What peace the country had managed was not thanks to the army or security services, which often attacked civilians, he said.

“We need to reflect on that. It is not time to decrease [support for MONUSCO.]”

Mr Tshisekedi, who according to a recent national poll is well ahead of other candidates including the hand-picked successor to the current leader Joseph Kabila, said if he were elected one of his first priorities would be to reform the corruption-plagued and poorly trained military. He would need the international peacekeepers to manage that, he said.

Mr Kabila has been in power for 18 years. If the election goes ahead freely and fairly – which is unlikely according to Mr Tshisekedi and many international observers – it would be the DRC’s first democratic transition of power.

Mr Tshisekedi, the son of legendary opposition figure Etienne Tshisekedi, leads the Union for Democracy and Social Progress party.

But the election, which is already two years overdue, was pushed back another week on Friday because the election commission said it was not yet ready. A warehouse fire last week reportedly destroyed about 7000 of the controversial electronic voting machines that opposition parties have said they fear will be used by the Kabila regime to cheat.

The cut by the UN to the maximum number of MONUSCO peacekeepers from about 18,000 three years ago to 15,000 this year has meant Australia’s financial contribution to the mission automatically fell from about $40 million in 2015-16 to $34 million this year.

Felix Tshisekedi sits next to a memorial to his father, former Premier Etienne Tshisekedi, the founder of the UDPS party.Credit:Kate Geraghty

Michael Smith, a retired Australian army major-general who is now national president of the United Nations Association of Australia, said the UN was struggling to properly resource crucial peacekeeping efforts in places such as the DRC.

“Peacekeeping, particularly since President Trump came to power, is being denuded of resources,” he said.

This had forced UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to launch a new drive to get the world to “step up”, Mr Smith said.

“What he’s saying is they no longer have the resources to do these huge missions because the international community is not stepping up to the plate to fund them.”

He said the DRC was unquestionably better off for the MONUSCO mission, which remains the largest UN peacekeeping operation in the world.

Australia paid its peacekeeping financial contributions on time, but when it came to providing peacekeepers on the ground, its efforts today were “woeful,” Mr Smith said, with only about 40 military peacekeepers abroad, mostly in South Sudan, and no police

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