The Congo: Working to Rebuild a Failed State

Lead story from March 2006 Centerpoint

Mar 01, 2006

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) lies at a crossroads. After a five-year civil war, and the resulting humanitarian crisis that has claimed as many as four million lives, government and rebel groups signed a peace agreement in 2003 in Sun City, South Africa that would begin a difficult and still fragile political transition. Recently, a new Constitution was approved overwhelmingly by public referendum, and the three-year political transition launched in Sun City is scheduled to conclude this June with the country's first national democratic elections since 1960.

But the Congolese transition remains uncertain. The pending elections-—designed to establish a newly legitimate, popularly elected government—-could just as easily exacerbate unresolved political tensions, intensify the violence in already volatile regions, and produce a period of extended political instability.

It is difficult to comprehend the logistical complexity of mounting a national election in a country the size of all of Western Europe that lacks the most basic communications and transformation infrastructure. Against this backdrop, the national registration of almost 30 million people and a successful Constitutional referendum are nothing short of miraculous.

Logistical election hurdles, however, are probably the least of the challenges the DRC faces. Over decades, the dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko produced a bitter legacy: a collapsed state unable to protect its own borders or to ensure the physical security of its population. Mobutuism also yielded a fragmented and corrupt political system. While the yearning for democracy runs deep in the Congo, as does the desire to end more than 100 years of humiliation and exploitation by outsiders, the Congolese have had little opportunity to build a common vision of their future or to develop the skills of political collaboration essential to democratic governance in a culturally plural society.

The growing concern about the fragility of the political transition led members of Kinshasa's diplomatic community and a number of Congolese leaders to ask the Wilson Center's Africa Program, in partnership with the Paris-based ESSEC Institute on Research and Education in Europe (IRENE), to launch a two-year leadership training initiative designed to assist the Congolese in strengthening the cohesion and capacity of the state. This request was inspired by the success of the Wilson Center's leadership training workshops begun in neighboring war-torn Burundi three years earlier with the support of the World Bank's Post-Conflict Fund.

With the initial backing of the United Nations Development Program, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the United Kingdom's Department for International Development, and the European Commission, the new initiative aims to facilitate the development of a cohesive national Congolese leadership network whose members are able to collaborate effectively notwithstanding their ethnic, regional, and political diversity. The project's long-term objective, as in Burundi, is to establish conditions for a positive post-election political and security environment.

The DRC Leadership Training Initiative
Held in January, the first of several planned leadership retreats involved 36 key Congolese leaders, drawn from diverse social and institutional sectors, who were identified through extensive consultations as critical to their nation's future. The diversity and rank of the participants exceeded all expectations: a vice-president, the president of the National Assembly, key advisors to the president, and parliamentarians representing every major political movement in the DRC. The group also included several key actors from the country's most turbulent regions. In addition, participants included several religious leaders, a well-known television journalist, prominent businessmen, leaders of women's organizations, distinguished academics, and an artist.

Under the direction of trainer and IRENE Director Alain Lempereur, the five-day workshop featured simulations and other interactive exercises designed to build trust, break down interpersonal barriers, and strengthen the skills of communication, negotiation, group problem solving, and conflict analysis.

While participants were invited in their individual capacities, not as representatives of their organizations and institutions, the group was, by design, a microcosm of the nation's diverse regional, political, and institutional interests. In subsequent months, however, targeted training workshops are planned for key leaders within the new national army, and for the leaders of belligerent factions in the most volatile provinces. In every instance, the initial five-to-six-day training retreat will be followed by periodic shorter training events, designed to reinforce skills learned and to strengthen personal relationships.

Planning for this training initiative began almost a year ago, when Africa Program Director Howard Wolpe and Consulting Project Manager Steve McDonald were invited to Kinshasa to describe the strategy, training techniques, and results of the Wilson Center's successful Burundi Leadership Training Program (BLTP) to key Congolese players and to the diplomatic community. The BLTP, which has received broad-based support from Burundian leaders, is credited for making a significant contribution to the consolidation of Burundi's peace process and democratic transition.

Wolpe and the project's Country Team Leader, Michel Kassa, former head of the United Nation's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the DRC, consulted with numerous Congolese leaders from all sectors. Contrary to the expectations of some observers who predicted that Congolese leaders had little political will to advance their transition and would therefore have little interest in an initiative designed to strengthen their collaborative capacity, Kassa and Wolpe found these leaders to be receptive to the new training initiative. Wolpe observed, "What some diplomats and others analysts were interpreting as an absence of political will, Michel and I saw as simply an expression of the mistrust among leaders, and the absence of any sense that they could relate to one another in more constructive ways."

Building Skills, Establishing Relationships
"If we entered here as adversaries, we must come out as brothers," said one participant, capturing the spirit of what has become known in the DRC as the Nganda process, named after the retreat center that served as the initial training venue.

Training workshops are designed to help participants recognize their interdependence so they come to see collaboration with others as a matter of self-interest. At the same time, they learn to view each other as individuals and not merely as members of hostile groups, and to put themselves into the shoes of the other. They learn that effective communication can develop or destroy trust; that it is dangerous to act on the basis of untested assumptions; and that the lines of conflict in any society are a function of the distribution of resources and power, and of the structure of decision-making.

Participants and trainers alike use only first names with each other, to foster an informal atmosphere and to reduce the distance that ranks and titles tend to create. In the workshop, "Mr. Vice President" becomes, simply, "Azarias."

Through one simulation, "The Price of Gasoline," participants learn that collaboration rather than competition will often produce higher returns for both parties. Another exercise—an elaborate game of "telephone"—demonstrates the challenges of communication: messages are often distorted either because people do not speak precisely or listen carefully, or because stereotypes and inaccurate assumptions serve as communication filters. In another perceptions exercise, participants learn how different conditioning can lead to different individuals viewing the same reality in very different ways. Consequently, both parties to a conflict can be wrong; both can be right. It's all a matter of perspective.

Finally, one exercise—a full-day simulation of a real-world society— deepens participant understanding of the causes of conflict and of the importance of inclusive political processes for developing durable solutions to social problems. Exclusion and discrimination almost always cause suspicion and conflict. In the words of one participant, "Without cohesion, there will never be peace."

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