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Published: Friday, 7/15/2005

Churning Congo

AS THE world's leaders reflected on the situation of Africa at the G-8 summit in Scotland, they were confronted by one important question: Which African countries are in the best position to absorb and make effective use of increased international aid?

Unfortunately, there is another category of African countries, not coincidentally the ones where need is most severe and economic development almost beyond the pale, which is apart from those which might profit from additional assistance.

Perhaps primary among these is the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the former Zaire of Mobutu Sese Seko, who was president for 32 years and made his country the epitome of the kind of African corruption and economic ruin that puts donors off to this day.

The Congo is now running with a transitional government, cobbled together from competing regionally and tribally based groups. The government represents an effort on the part of African and international leaders, reinforced by the United Nations, to try to keep the country's strong centrifugal forces from bringing about its breakup. That has been an issue for the nation since independence from Belgium in 1960.

The basis for the current rules is the Sun City agreement, reached in 2002. There were supposed to be national elections by June 30, although two six-month postponements were permitted in the accord. The Congolese parliament has approved one of those already. Voter registration began in Kinshasa, the capital, on June 20 at a rate of about 100,000 per day, and it's an enormous task, given the state of insecurity, particularly in the east.

That problem includes serious fighting, despite the involvement of the few thousand U.N. peacekeeping forces, some of whom have been killed and their bodies mutilated.

A recent incident involved rebellion and looting by Congolese government troops in Mbandaka, a provincial capital.

The highest-priority challenge faced by the United States in the Congo is providing support to make the electoral process function. The Bush Administration has promised help, but has yet to deliver on its promise.

It would make very good sense at this point to be sure that some of the money that President Bush promised for Africa at Gleneagles be provided promptly to make the Congolese elections work.

A Congo with 60 million people, borders on nine countries, an area the size of the United States east of the Mississippi River, and a disorderly society rooted in grinding poverty makes no sense at all, for its own people's sake, for Africa, and in terms of U.S. global interests in security and development.

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