08/28/2013 01:25 pm ET Updated Oct 28, 2013

Only a Government With Democratic Legitimacy Can Bring Peace to Congo

When Congo gained its independence a rumba tune "Independence Cha Cha" was a hit across the Continent. The lyrics spoke of Congolese political parties setting aside their differences and combining to win freedom, and of strong leaders who liberated the nation from foreign influence. If a country could be created by a song, then Congo would be one of the most united on earth. But today, because of a dysfunctional state and weak leadership, it barely exists at all.

With "Independence Cha Cha" no doubt ringing in their ears, today's political parties will meet this week in Congo's capital Kinshasa to discuss how they can bring unity to a country wracked by instability since its birth. Indeed, many of the challenges that faced Democratic Republic of Congo at independence remain the same today: How can government be made legitimate and so ensure profits from our natural resources are shared equitably and are not the cause of armed conflict? And how can political disagreement be managed through democracy and debate, not the bullet?

Discussing solutions to these challenges will be easier than delivering on them, not least because the authority of the national government of President Joseph Kabila does not extend much beyond the capital Kinshasa. This dysfunction means the rule of law and the dispensing of justice does not come with the acquiescence of the majority of the population and dissipates the further east of Kinshasa people live.

Respect for the rule of law is further undermined when the legitimacy of the national government is in question. Recently the elected terms of the senate as well as provincial parliaments were just left to expire without renewal, with no care for the consequences. Too often the Kabila administration seems satisfied just to act as if were one of Congo's many armed militias, with no pretense to being a national government at all.

This democratic deficit has consequences, and it is unsurprising some political and military groups in the east prefer to seek backing from Congo's neighbors rather than listen to a government far away in Kinshasa.

As a way to address this challenge, Kabila has attempted to co-opt armed groups in the east then "re-brand" them as part of the national army. Buying off groups, both political and military, has been a hallmark of this government. But this is how one militia group might come to a truce with another, not how a national government might best extend its control across a nation. Attempts to bring stability by proxy have mostly failed.

We would do better with a national army where all major units contain from men from across the country, not co-opted ethnic militia groups. Yet to realize this change the government in Kinshasa must engage with communities across the country so they believe they have a stake in a national army, rather than resorting to defend themselves. And the best way to engage with any community is through its fairly elected political representatives.

This is why ultimately the key to future peace and stability in Congo depends on how we bring legitimacy to all elected politicians, and therefore also to future Congolese national governments. And this depends on what structures are in place to ensure political disagreements are defused through debate and the law, rather than by the gun and machete.

The foundations for a peaceful future are falling into place. A regional peace plan signed in Addis Ababa in January between all of the countries of the Great Lakes of Africa is the first step. Armed activities by our neighbours now come at serious cost through the withholding of international aid. It is less likely now at any time for the last 30 years that Congo will be subject to a major foreign military intervention from within the region. At the same time an international military deployment in eastern Congo mandated under UN Security Council resolution 2098 is now empowered to disarm militias by force.

Yet agreement by everyone else apart from the Congolese people will not bring stability to the Congo. We must work out how to create a legitimate government by ourselves. Sadly the last election of 2011 shows how this should not be done. Then, the process of people casting ballot papers and for those then to be counted to the satisfaction of international observers passed off well enough. Yet casting and counting ballots took place in the Soviet Union.

Democracy is more than this: it is knowing the election has been managed by an electoral commission representing all parts and parties from the country, not just those loyal to the President; it is knowing that election results can be appealed in court, and if found to be incorrect reversed or re-run. This creates legitimacy and means people do not feel the only way to fight for their fair share is through resorting to armed conflict. We need these checks and balances in Congo.

We also need to ensure that in future election timetables are stuck to, so democratic mandates do not expire and become illegitimate. The senate and provincial parliaments are only two examples. The 2011 election took place well after the original planned date and almost at the government's leisure. The next election, planned for 2016 must not be allowed to slip, nor should there be any constitutional changes introduced to try and extend the President's term.

In order to address this democratic deficit, we need all representatives of Congolese society around the table. This includes former presidential candidates as well as armed groups. Only if they can all play their part in shaping the Congo of the future can any dialogue be truly representative of all of the Congolese people.

There is a chance this national dialogue can be the start of the recovery of Congo. We have a regional peace agreement that aims to stop the encroachment of Congo by stronger neighbouring powers. The international community through the UN is dealing more forcefully with militia groups in the east. Now we need a national agreement on how Congo can be governed in the future with the consent of its people. All Congolese know the words of unity and peace praised in "Independence Cha Cha" were not borne out by the reality that followed. This time, as our political parties come together, we must play another tune.