11/28/2011 08:49 am ET Updated Jan 28, 2012

Congo at a Crossroads

The Democratic Republic of Congo, in the heart of Africa, is not filling the world's headlines, but it is at a crossroads. Today's elections and the kind of governance that ensues could take Congo and Central Africa towards peace and realizing its potential, or -- the terrifying alternative of allowing it drift into more violence and instability. For the people of Congo, for regional stability and global prosperity, the world community needs to support Congo's efforts over the long haul.

Congo staged its first election in 2006 after decades of war. In the 5 years since, there have been regular and uneven steps towards good governance. Often, the right kinds of laws are passed. Too often, particularly in Eastern Congo, the rule of law does not exist. This is especially true in the Congolese Army. In a country where over 5 million people have died in war since 1994, the last 5 years have seen real progress. This election and what follows offer both promise and real risk.

Both of us have traveled in Congo. It is blessed with an enormous cultural diversity of 250 ethnic groups, a land mass a quarter the size of the United States and more people than the United Kingdom. It borders 10 countries. It has half of Africa's forests and contains staggering mineral and agricultural wealth. Despite these riches, Congo suffers from chronic violence in the East and as a country has the lowest development index on earth according to the United Nations.

On the eve of this election, it is far from certain the balloting will be free and fair. There is clearly strong support for democratic elections and a yearning for the process to be free and fair. Over 30,000,000 Congolese have registered to vote, around 19,000 of whom have put themselves forward as legislative candidates for just 500 electable positions - in itself a triumph for democracy.

Yet there have been substantial setbacks. The registration of voters has been deeply troubled. There have been calls to violence by some candidates. The election stations and other processes are not fully in place yet. During the voter registration period, parts of South Kivu could not be accessed by election officials; it was just too dangerous. So the Congolese most in need of expressing their choice will be silent this election.

As in the rest of the world, sound political leadership and open participation are the keys to Congo's success. The DRC's legal system has made progress, but enforcement of those laws is uneven at best. For example, while the DRC constitution extends voting rights to Congolese women, the reality is this basic right is not respected. Speak to anyone on the ground in the Congo these days. Compared to the 2006 elections, there has been a noticeable decline in the number of female voters, while the number of female candidates has dropped by a fifth.

Often the biggest mistake made in peace-building is the belief that, when emerging from conflict, a good election will solve everything. But regular and sound elections are only a first step. Free and fair elections are crucial, but it is what happens between elections that is most important. Rule of law, an absence of corruption, access to clean water, health and education services--these are the basic essentials. If this is important for all Congolese, it is absolutely vital for Congolese women and girls many of whom have suffered terrible violence. Without all this , good elections matter little.

This election represents a pivotal moment, not only in the history of the DRC but also in Central Africa--and the US and UK governments recognize this. Both countries are investing heavily in the Congo's future. The UK will invest £800 million until 2015 and support the deployment of election observers as a part of the European mission, as well as supplying the national police with additional equipment. Meanwhile, during the year 2009-10, the US contributed $900 million and this year it will deploy observers via the Carter Centre and other NGOs. This is in addition to the long-term UN presence - the biggest operation of its type in the organization's 66 years of existence.

In these elections and in the ensuing years, the international community must emphasize governance, and especially full reform of the security sector. Without this, especially in Eastern Congo, progress and stability will not flourish.

Failure to help the Congolese people consolidate their democracy would put the modest but important gains of recent years at risk and also send a message that we are indifferent to the pursuit of justice and security. A well-governed Congo would save millions of lives, be a boon to regional and global security, create new economic opportunities and solve one of the world's greatest tragedies. In these difficult times it would be easy to be distracted, but there could not be a more important time to be supporting Central Africa.

Congressman Jim McDermott represents the City of Seattle and was a lead author of the U.S. conflict minerals transparency law for central Africa passed in 2010. Jeremy Lefroy is Member of Parliament for Stafford, UK. He and his family lived in Tanzania where he worked in the coffee industry. Since returning to the UK, he has worked assisting smallholder farmers in East Africa.