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Published: Wednesday, 2/8/2006

Congo in transition

ONE swallow does not a summer make but the Democratic Republic of Congo may be on the way to stitching itself back together after about a decade of intermittent civil war. If this turns out to be true it will be very good news indeed.

The DRC is as big as the United States east of the Mississippi, with borders on nine countries in the central African region and a population estimated at 50 million. Its problems have spilled over into its neighbors' territory for years.

As a country, the DRC is a victim of major challenges that have always been beyond the ken of the governance that it has had. Its colonizer, Belgium, employed at times almost unthinkable cruelty to sit on top of it until independence in 1960.

After a period of relative chaos, the Congo was ruled from 1965 to 1997 by one of Africa's truly larcenous tyrants, Mobutu Sese Seko. In 1998 it blew wide open: An estimated 4 million Congolese have died since then, through acts of commission and omission.

The so-called Sun City agreement, signed in 2002, set out a framework for putting government in the DRC back together again. Some 17,000 United Nations troops, currently including Pakistanis and Guatemalans, have been in the country since 1999, seeking to maintain peace while a new government is constructed.

Late last year perhaps as many as 25 million Congolese registered and voted at some 40,000 polling stations to approve a new constitution by as much as 80 percent. The constitution provides for somewhat decentralized government for the huge, diverse country.

The next steps are local, provincial, legislative, and two-round presidential elections that should take place in March or April. The whole transition process is supposed to be completed by June 30, the 46th anniversary of Congolese independence from Belgium.

There is considerable international support for a successful completion of the process. The European Union, the U.N., Belgium, and the United States contributed to the constitutional referendum, which cost $422 million. The U.S. provided $2.5 million, less than 1 percent of the cost of this effort at democracy. Sens. Sam Brownback (R., Kan.) and Richard J. Durbin (D., Ill.) paid a visit to show interest.

In the meantime, trouble continues to flare up like firecrackers on the borders of the DRC with Uganda, Rwanda, and Sudan.

Prospects for a successful transition are fair; the Congolese should be very tired of war and its terrible costs in hunger, disease, and lack of education by now. Its long-standing problems are awesome, but the place is far too big and centrally located for the world to give up on it.

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