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For Iraq, a Lesson from Africa

by Derek Charles Catsam and Tom Bruscino on Aug 23, 2006

No one's looking, because no one's inclined to look in such an unlikely place. But it turns out that there's much to learn about how to handle the Iraqi quagmire by looking to Africa — and, of all places, to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

The lesson is simple and yet has been almost universally ignored by American politicians and military planners alike: If you focus too much on security and the mere appearance of democracy and do not work toward fostering the development of the full panoply of liberal institutions, strongmen will take over, as has happened in Africa. Security and elections are necessary but not sufficient conditions for Iraq's ultimate success. Winning hearts and minds is fine, but creating a vibrant civil society and stable institutions enables true democracy to flourish.

Fifty years ago, Africans were euphoric after they threw off the shackles of colonialism. Sober reality soon set in as many of their leaders succumbed to what we now refer to as "Big Man Syndrome." Rather than use the resources of the nation to develop infrastructure and strengthen institutions, leaders chose to provide patronage and line the pockets of an elite. Nowhere was this noxious trend more pervasive than in what was then known as Zaire.

For generations, Zaire's president, Mobutu Sese Seku, utilized the vast natural resources and potential wealth of his nation to enrich himself, to buy off potential foes and to run the army as his own Praetorian guard. Because Mobutu was a Cold War ally of the United States, a succession of American presidents turned a blind eye to the devolution of the Congo. Rather than build roads and bridges and railroads and airports for the betterment of the Congolese people, Mobutu utilized a dual strategy of anarchy and tyranny to maintain control.

Before long, Mobutu's terror filtered down to the lowest levels of society to the point where the military and police became infamous for stealing from the people, often at gunpoint, and civil servants refused to carry out even the most rudimentary aspects of their jobs without demanding bribes. Things did not improve, and in some cases got worse, under Mobutu's successors.

Like Iraqis under Saddam, the people of the Congo came to believe that rampant power and kleptocracy were the way of things. The only way to survive, never mind prosper, was to acquiesce in a system that before long came to feel natural. Generations grew up believing that Mobutu's way was the way things inevitably had to be.

But now, nine years after the overthrow and death of Mobutu, the people of the DRC, for the first time in nearly five decades, await results from a democratic election, and the possibility of historic change.

Iraqis look forward to their own independence from tyranny. But before 9/11, astute commentators warned about grandiose calls for democracy to heal all the world's ills. Democracy is but one aspect of free, stable societies. Fully developed systems require the rule of law, independent courts, guarantees of individual liberties and, especially, open economies. Ask the coalition forces in Iraq today or the people who celebrated the end of colonialism in Africa half a century ago: Voting is the easy part; the rest is where it gets hard.

That is especially true when the people who would be free have spent their entire lives under an authoritarian system. Saddam Hussein provided stability, but only through tyranny. He dealt with local unrest through terror and bribes, undermined rule of law, controlled the courts, violated individual liberty and dictated the economy. The degree to which Iraqis enjoyed freedom and wealth was based solely on the whims of Saddam and his cronies. All of this hampered the ability of the Iraqi people to embrace the fundamental institutions of free systems when Saddam was ousted. They lived their lives at the pleasure of the state. They know no other way.

Unlike the Congolese, who lived under a system that had already seen liberation go awry, the people of Iraq have an opportunity to develop a society with liberal institutions, where the rule of law governs, and where with democracy will come responsibility for the political classes and the masses alike. In recent days in the Congo, violence has set in between supporters of the two remaining candidates for the presidency, revealing how far that country has to go and reminding the world of the consequences of decades of disregard for establishing democratic institutions.

The people of Iraq and the Congo both face a historic opportunity, and one that the rest of the world should welcome. People who have their own property have a vested interest in their economy. People who have political rights have a vested interest in their political system. Having such interests means people have the motivation to maintain the institutions that protect that property and the freedom to run that economy.

Success in Iraq and Congo will come when the new leaders of those countries understand that their service in government is not simply an opportunity to enrich and entrench themselves. Success will come when instead of simply expecting some sort of government assistance, the people develop their own power and their own rights protected by leaders who respect the rule of law. The Congolese have been waiting for nearly half a century; the Iraqis are just beginning. They need patience; so do we.


Derek Catsam is an associate professor of history at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin and a writer for the History News Service. He is the author of "Freedom's Main Line: The Journey of Reconciliation and the Freedom Rides"

Tom Bruscino is a military historian.