43 years ago, on April 4 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed. The night before he died, he delivered a speech titled, "I've Been to the Mountaintop". In in, he said:
"Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop... And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land."
Three years ago, I stumbled into Congo. There I found adventure, wonder and motion living side-by-side with war, death and exploitation.
Alongside musicians blending rumba with afro-pop, women wearing technicolor and volcanic soil producing three harvests a year, were warlords who justify mass graves with poetry and 14-year-old kids more familiar with guns than soccer balls. Five of these former child soldiers told me of boys -- too small to carry weapons -- being sent to the front lines, armed with only a whistle.
I flipped out, and wrote a blog called Falling Whistles that my friends forwarded around the world. People wrote back, asking "why is this happening?" "what can we do?" "how do we help?" We were all in our mid-20s when the questions rolled in, so our first instinct was not to manufacture answers or shop around policy papers.
Instead, we hitchhiked and rode bikes from sea to shining sea, asking people to be whistleblowers for peace. Our message was "We don't have all the answers, but we won't be quiet while people are dying. The first step toward peace is speaking up. Join us." We built a campaign for peace in Congo, began supporting local leaders in their rehabilitation of hundreds of war-affected women and children and gathered into a disruptive coalition.
Then six months ago, we realized Congo was having an election. November 27, 2011. This will be their third in history, and the second since the "official" end of the war that left 5.4 million dead, 200,000 women raped and a generation of children stuck in cycles of violence.
Our Congolese partners kept telling us that they want peace, and that to get there they need reform. That happens with elections. You've got to make sure they are FREE and they are FAIR.
Got it. Protect the process. Elections bring about public debates, expose corruption and illuminate dysfunction. Elections open the door to reform, provoking visionary leadership and rewarding long-term thinking. As power changes hands peacefully, people learn that their voices are a more potent force for progress than their fists.
In the long term, democracy brings peace.
The thing is, elections don't organize themselves, and without scrutiny from the inside-out, there is far too much incentive for the Big Men to rig, corrupt or disrupt them. In a place like Congo, voices of dissent are silenced without outside pressure.
When our President was a freshman Senator, he tried to pass 156 pieces of legislation. A single bill passed. The bill was co-sponsored by Secretary Clinton, passed with bipartisan support, and was signed into law by President Bush. In it, he demanded the appointment of a special envoy to the Great Lakes region of Africa.
We want President Obama and Secretary Clinton to fulfill their own law.
Getting an envoy appointed would be a game changer. Currently, the U.S. government doesn't have a coherent strategy for ending violence in Congo. Instead, Congo policy sits on the back-burners of various undersecretary, ambassador and deputy portfolios in a mix of federal agencies that don't always like working together.
In the middle of this tangled web, Congo's upcoming elections are getting lost. Congo's current president has been in charge for 10 years -- since taking over from his assassinated father, who invaded the capital to overthrow a dictator, who stole power by assassinating the father of Congo's independence movement. (In other words, the Democratic Republic of Congo has never experienced a peaceful transfer of power.) Then in January, the incumbent's political party orchestrated a constitutional power grab while we were distracted.
A special envoy could stop the foot-dragging. Reporting directly to the Secretary of State, an envoy would coordinate U.S. and international policy, push for electoral reform, empower local leaders and ensure that the polls are properly monitored on voting day.
This week, Falling Whistles is uniting with seven other organizations in a global call for free and fair elections and a special envoy for the Great Lakes region. Our goal is 200,000 signatures.
So now you know. And everyone you know must know what you know. Most days being a whistleblower for peace is about educating your community person by person. But every special now and again there are other days. Bigger days. More important days. When the single sound of your voice matches the sounds of other voices and together we create a crescendo so loud, so deafening, that the halls of power reverberate with our sound.
This is that day. We've never done anything this big before. And the chances of failure are sizable.
But if we succeed, this win lays a foundation for the historic -- a free and fair election. The experts tell us it's not the first election that matters, it's the second. America began its path, not just with the overthrow of colonial powers, not with election of George Washington, but when Washington peacefully passed power to John Adams. Let's make sure Congo has that same opportunity -- a path to the promised land.
On the anniversary of King's assassination, let us celebrate his dream by working to fulfill it. Free and fair elections toward peace in Congo.
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