Choosing Between China and the West Is No Joke for DR Congo

11/24/2010 05:10 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

There is a political joke in the Democratic Republic of Congo -- where elections are rarely a laughing matter -- that goes like this: if the electoral commission proclaims you have come first in the election you become President, if it proclaims you third you are appointed Prime Minister and, if you come second you get to go on trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. This week, Jean-Pierre Bemba, former Vice-President and leader of the largest parliamentary opposition grouping in DRC was put on trial in The Hague. And yes, Bemba was declared second by the electoral commission in the last Presidential election. Many in the DRC oppose the charges against him, believing them to be politically motivated.

There are many in the West, particularly amongst center and center-left politicians, who believe that regardless of whether former Vice-President Bemba is in the end found guilty or innocent, what is ultimately important is that the process of international law is upheld. Here is an African nation whose recent history has been written in total disrespect for international agreements, finally abiding by them. This is proof, they say, that all the pressure from the West over rights and responsibilities is paying off. Now, encouraged by the "success" of bringing a leading African political figure to trial, some in the West talk of acting vigorously against money laundering and other financial abuses widespread on the continent.

There are very few who would not agree -- including many in the DRC Government -- that it is very helpful for the administration of President Kabila to have the ICC trial of former Vice-President Bemba at this time. The trial is a very fortuitous way to make him potentially unavailable to contest the Presidential Election slated for next year. Compared to those who believe that the trial is the beginning of a new era where the application of international law becomes the norm, to those of us who know the politics of central Africa more personally, it looks more like the apogee of the DRC Government's respect for international laws than its beginning. Because now there is an alternative to having to listen to the West, and that alternative is China.

China's increasing investment in Africa is a great cause of concern to many. European and North American Governments are rightly concerned that the years of work towards the development of democratic institutions and respect for human rights in Africa will be undermined by Chinese investment that does not come with western demands for democracy and freedom of speech. They should also be concerned that positive moves towards transparent governance and good business practices may be rolled back if the West's influence declines.

Many African leaders have hailed the rise of China in Africa. Competition from investment sources, they say, can only be good -- it drives down the costs of investment, and frees Africa from its continued reliance on funds from its former colonial masters. In the case of some African nations such as South Africa, Ghana and Kenya, competition from investment sources is undoubtedly good news. But these nations now have solid democratic roots: they are leaders in Africa in the respect for human rights including the right to freedom of speech. They have the robustness in their legal systems to ensure financial competition can be just that, and not used to ignore the need to develop democratic institutions and respect for human rights as prerequisites for sound investment.

The Democratic Republic of Congo is not, unfortunately, in the position that South Africa, Ghana and Kenya are in being able to withstand this power play between rival sources of investment. Democratic institutions are weak after many years of dictatorship and civil war. Legal rights, and not just those of individuals, are rarely respected. Indeed, in a worrying trend, a North American mining company First Quantum earlier this year had its assets confiscated by the government and handed to a rival. The matter of the seizure of the assets is now before international arbitration. Up until that point Western companies, buoyed by the initial success of companies such as First Quantum were beginning to pour into the country, believing the investment and legal climate was improving, despite the DRC's sclerotic World Bank Doing Business rankings.

But it would appear that some in the Government of DRC believe it may no longer be necessary to listen so carefully to the West and its demands. China does not call on anyone to be sent to The Hague -- it is not a signatory to the ICC treaty. Nor does it call on African nations to respect international conventions on corporate contracts, rights for workers, defend free speech or hold free and fair elections.

So many African nations now have a choice. Why listen to the West with its rules and regulations and demands if you don't have to? Western companies and Governments must now speak in unison as never before to increase the pressure on the Government of DRC and others in Africa to ensure that international norms are abided by. They can offer additional support that can never be provided by the Chinese -- supporting educational, medical and capacity-building services in addition to investment; they need to use techniques familiar in business in the West -- lobbying local communities to rally their support for investment projects and speak on their behalf and against their competitors; they can offer joint ventures with knowledge transfer, something the Chinese would not likely do. The West can raise its game in the continent, meet the Chinese challenge and help to build a more transparent and content Africa. If this does not happen it may turn out there is a joke about politics in DRC that is even less humorous than the one about elections, and one that is ultimately at the expense of best interests of the Congolese people.