March 7, 2007 | World Defense Review

Phantom Ministers and the Spirit of Democracy

About six months ago, writing in the lead-up to the second round of the presidential election in the rather ironically named Democratic Republic of Congo, I used this column space to note:  Notwithstanding its current official name of “Democratic Republic of Congo” (DRC), the former Belgian colony two-thirds the size of Western Europe has not had a free and fair election since independence in 1960. The July 30 poll was meant to preconize the incumbency of the 35-year-old Joseph Kabila, who became the world's youngest head of state in January 2001 following the assassination of his father, Laurent- Kabila. Kabila, a one-time protege of Che Guevara, had carved for himself a secessionist state on the shores of Lake Tanganyika with support from Maoist China. As Mobuto Sese Seko's Zaire fell apart, he shot his way into the presidency of Africa's third largest country. Eventually, a disgruntled aide cut short his reign, but not before his authoritarianism, human rights abuses, corruption, and nascent personality cult ignited a conflict that drew in five of his neighbors. With the complicity of the international community, the Kabila cabal installed the dead man's twenty-nine-year-old son in his place without even the pretense of constitutional order. Never mind that Kabila fils grew up in Tanzania and, consequently, speaks Congo's official language, French, with an English accent and does not even know Congo's lingua franca, Lingala. Never mind up to the point when his minders told him there was a campaign to run, Kabila had held a total of two news conferences and given perhaps a dozen speeches in his more than five years in power. What was important was that a campaign be run and a poll conducted. Like much at the UN, it's process over substance.

As things worked out, despite irregularities – including a quite a few extralegal attempts by the incumbent and his supporters, Congolese and foreign, to manipulate the outcome – Joseph Kabila could not secure an outright majority in the first round of balloting in July and so had to face run-off last October with second-place finisher Jean-Pierre Bemba, in which, amid overall lower turnout, he did win 58 percent of the votes cast, largely in the eastern provinces of the DRC. Thus, at the ripe old age of 35, Kabila fils finds himself master of more than half of the world's cobalt, one-third of its diamonds, and three-quarters of its coltan (columbite-tantalite, a metallic ore essential for the production of capacitors, a key component in electronic devices ranging from mobile phones to laptop computers), as well as rich deposits of gold, copper, and other valuable natural resources.


As I forewarned in my piece last year, typical of the international reaction to the “democratic legitimization” of President Kabila's inherited presidency was the statement issued at the U.S. State Department by spokesman Sean McCormack when the election results were confirmed on November 29, 2006: “The United States welcomes the announcement of presidential election results in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. These elections are an important milestone toward the successful completion of Congo's transition to democracy, and the opening of a new era for the Congolese people.”

The problem is that, aside from the question of how a democratic process could be characterized as such when a 29-year-old is allowed to inherit the presidency from his unelected warlord father and then run for the office from the advantageous position of incumbency, even if one accepts the democratic legitimacy of Joseph Kabila's election, it is surely shortsighted, if not completely delusional, to characterize that singular event as anywhere near a “successful completion of Congo's transition to democracy.”

Just how wishful such thinking is – and how far Congo is from making a “transition to democracy” – was shown by a recent bizarre episode played out in the Congolese capital of Kinshasa. In the post-election parceling out of the DRC by the winning factions allied with Kabila's Parti du Peuple pour la Reconstruction et le Démocratie (PPRD) in the ruling Alliance pour la majorité présidentielle (AMP), Honorius Kisimba Ngoy, leader of the Union des Nationalistes Fédéralistes du Congo (UNAFEC) and minister of justice in Kabila's pre-election cabinet, was worried that his party's poor showing at the polls – 1.4 percent of the vote, resulting in only seven seats in the 500-seat National Assembly – might cost him his coveted ministerial rank.

Further jeopardizing Kisimba Ngoy's prospects were the unfavorable publicity he had brought to Kabila's transitional rule last year when groups like Amnesty International denounced him by name in connection the campaign of threats and intimidation that members of UNAFEC carried out against human rights advocates in the DRC.

So when each party in the ruling coalition was required to submit to Prime Minister Antoine Gizenga, the third-place finisher in last July's voting who threw his support to Kabila in exchange for the premiership, two names for each ministerial post it was bidding to fill – there were sixty such positions, making the DRC's cabinet one of the world's largest – Kisimba Ngoy decided to submit alongside his own candidacy for the lucrative foreign trade ministry that of a 34-year-old Wunderkind (and UNAFEC party member) by the name of André Kasongo Ilunga, whom no one had previously heard of. As it turns out, Kisimba Ngoy's fears about his prospects in the Kabila regime had been correct. Now that it no longer needed his ethnic Bulabakat toughs in the critical province of Katanga and that he had become somewhat of a liability with the DRC's international supporters, the government opted to dump Kisimba Ngoy, giving the ministerial portfolio instead to his presumed protégé, Kasongo Ilunga.

The problem was between the appointment of the cabinet on February 5 and the new ministers taking up their positions on February 28, no one had seen or heard from Minister-designate Kasongo Ilunga. The local press began to dub him “le ministre fantôme” (“the phantom minister”), especially after a spokesman for Prime Minister Gizenga admitted that Kasongo Ilunga had missed every one of the preparatory meetings held for members of the new cabinet.

Finally, when the phantom minister failed to move into his office last week, the prime minister called UNAFEC headquarters to inquire as to his whereabouts only to be told that Kasongo Ilunga had resigned for “secret reasons” disclosed in a letter addressed to none other than Kisimba Ngoy, his competitor for the same position.

At this point, Gizenga finally realized something was not right and, for the first time, asked his UNAFEC coalition partners to actually produce their would-be cabinet minister for a job interview – which, of course, they were unable to do, although several Messrs. Ilunga did show up at the prime minister's office seeking to claim the job. As one civil servant told the Reuters news agency, “It's just bizarre. Nowhere else in the world could you attempt to swear in a ghost.”

All of this would be rather risible comedy reminiscent of Evelyn Waugh's wicked 1932 satire Black Mischief were it not for the deadly seriousness of these times in which we live. Hence, permit me to raise several questions occasioned by the case of the phantom minister:

First, as I pointed out in my earlier column on the DRC, a number of investigative reports by both the United Nations and European journalists have turned up evidence of significant smuggling of the light fissile isotope U-235 used in uranium enrichment processes out of the country's Lumbumbashi mines. Quite simply, can the world afford to have such potentially dangerous material supervised by a government so corrupt and incompetent that it took a month to figure out that it had awarded an important ministry to a nonexistent person? Is regard for the sovereignty of weak states to be the international law equivalent of what Justice Robert H. Jackson termed the constitution as a “suicide pact”?

Secondly, what if Kisimba Ngoy had been a tab bit cleverer with his machinations? What if instead of trying to present a phantom candidate, he had advanced the name of a real person – a puppet perhaps – who had actually shown up to work last week? Would anyone abroad have even raised questions about the credentials of this live minister in Joseph Kabila's “democratic” government, the importance to the global economy of the DRC's natural resources notwithstanding? Or would political correctness have determined that the international community, having hailed “an important milestone toward the successful completion of Congo's transition to democracy,” must now step back and pretend all is well and fine with the regime reposing quite literal blind confidence in its questionable powerbrokers? Is this the spirit of democracy?

Finally, when will we realize, not just in Africa but in every other troubled region in the world where we find ourselves involved – including the Greater Middle East – that democracies do not emerge overnight just because elections are held? As Richard Williamson, a former U.S. ambassador at the United Nations, observed in a recent Chicago Sun-Times op-ed, “It is important to be mindful that spreading and strengthening democracy is a long-term mission, not a quick fix.” Without relenting in our commitment to our own democratic principles, the U.S. and its international partners must realistically acknowledge the role played by history and culture and recommit themselves for long-term engagement, especially in those places where the national interest is clearly at stake in helping build the capacities of free, transparent, and legitimate governments.

That is a lesson that, inter alia, we in America would do well to remember as undertake the standing up of the Africa Command which, as Army General Bantz J. Craddock, head of the U.S. European Command and Supreme Allied Commander Europe, acknowledged in a media roundtable last Friday, must have a different scope than previous combatant commands, with a farsighted, integrated approach to the continent's many challenges.

– J. Peter Pham is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs and a Research Fellow of the Institute for Infrastructure and Information Assurance at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He is also an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C.