Interview with Ross Mountain, Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General, United Nations Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC)

Ross Mountain, a national of New Zealand, was appointed Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General in November 2004. In this capacity, he also serves as Resident Co-ordinator and Humanitarian Co-ordinator in charge of the reconstruction of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and the preparations leading up to the election that has just taken place.
For more than twenty-five years, Mr Mountain has gained experience in the fields of economic and social development and humanitarian affairs around the world — in Iraq, Lebanon, Haiti, Liberia, Afghanistan. On his short visit to Geneva before heading toward the DRC again, he kindly accepted to answer some questions.
Q: You said that you have three different aspects to cover. Which is the most urgent: the humanitarian crisis, the rebuilding of the country or the elections?
Unfortunately, everything is urgent. These elections are the first multiparty elections that Congo has had in over forty years. DRC is a country the size of Western Europe and has borders with nine neighbours. Sadly, it also has virtually no roads, so practically everything has to be done by air.
For these elections we have gone through a very intensive process. The role of the United Nations is to support the Independent Electoral Commission of the DRC. This is carried out essentially by MONUC and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). This is the biggest electoral operation that the United Nations has ever undertaken.
The first challenge was to register the voters. The political class estimate that 15 million was a reasonable target, we hoped to reach 20 million; and we ended up with 25.7 million people across the country using even one of the more complicated processes of registration. Most people had no identification, so to register a person needed five people to attest that they were who they said they were. The registration process involved equipment that weighted 85 kilos, including a computer, digital cameras and means of taking finger prints. To this, of course, you had to add a generator and fuel for the generator. If you ran out of ink for the printer or of cards for the voters, you could not run down to the local store to buy some more. Everything had to be airlifted in. We were very pleased with the result and we felt that this exemplified the enthusiasm of the population to move ahead after so many years of misrule.
We were first involved with a nation-wide referendum on a Constitution that few people in the country had ever seen, but they did know that they had to adopt the Constitution before going on to the next phase — the election. Over two-thirds of the population turned out and an overwhelming 82% voted in favour of the Constitution. The first election then took place at the end July 2006 to decide two things: the choice of president; and the composition of the National Assembly. The presidential election had thirty-three candidates, and the National Assembly had 9,700 candidates for 500 seats. In Kinshasa the ballot was six pages long with some 800 candidates for seventeen seats. The voting took place at 50,000 voting stations across the country in 12,000 different localities.
From a United Nations perspective, to support the Commission we obviously needed to find the resources, to provide the technical support and, indeed, on the actual day to pay some 260,000 electoral workers and some 74,000 police in a country which has no banks and no reliable means of payment. So it was quite a logistical exercise. For this operation the mission had the use of 100 aircraft, including helicopters. The results of these elections have just been announced. For the presidential elections, which everybody had been concentrating on, no candidate obtained the required 50% + 1. It is essentially based on the French electoral system, which means that we now have two candidates in a run-off that will take place at the end of October.
For the National Assembly, we are receiving the results at the present time. I think that over 60% have now been elected and will be announced in the course of the coming weeks. We are moving ahead well.
Meanwhile, however, there is no doubt that at the moment the DRC represents one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes anywhere in the world.
A study carried out by the American NGO, the International Rescue Committee, published in the British medical journal The Lancet, shows that there are 1,200 people dying every day in DRC, beyond what would be the normal expectation of mortality. So that means a loss of life equivalent to the Asian Tsunami every five months. You cannot build or rebuild a country on the basis of dead bodies, and that remains a very important dimension.
The DRC has been for so long a « non-place ». Unfortunately, with the exception of a couple of countries and institutions, nobody believed that anything useful could be achieved. We hope that the elections, and the enthusiasm shown by the population for the elections, will encourage the international community to be more forthcoming both on the humanitarian and, indeed, the reconstruction side. We have launched an humanitarian appeal for some US$700 million, of which we have received about US$240 million at the present time. Much more is needed to address these needs.
But we must add to the range of things to be done. The DRC, after so many years of neglect and misrule, is in a situation where the army and the police need to be completely reformed. We have been involved in training programmes in both of these areas, where the rule of law needs to be re-established. A reliable and effective public service also needs to be put back in place, as well as, of course, employment opportunities, a health system and so on. We are in the process of working with Congolese counterparts and donor organizations to see what kind of immediate results can be achieved by the government. We are concerned that the population will have too great expectations after these elections, and it is therefore important that the government can demonstrate that there is value in the democratic process. It must show the population that theirs lieves will be improved.
Having said that, the DRC is not a country that will need assistance forever. It has immense mineral and timber wealth. The dilemma has been that, on this huge and extremely rich land, we find one of the poorest populations of the world. The benefits of those resources have unfortunately only accrued to a very few people, both within the country and abroad. One of the challenges of the new government will be to tap these resources and this enormous wealth for the benefit of the population. And that will require the support of the international community for some years to come.
The peacekeeping force, MONUC, remains the largest UN force at present. It has played an absolutely vital role in the overall process, not only in dealing with the military difficulties resulting from foreign armed groups in the East and the militia, but also in providing security and support throughout the election process. This has been invaluable to the whole enterprise. The future of the mission needs to be reviewed by the Security Council and the new government. We regard it as important that stability be maintained, not just through the next round of elections but subsequently. The new government facing these great expectations will require continuing support to ensure stability in the country as it gets on its feet.
Q: You said that the country has tremendous wealth. Who does this wealth belong to?
There have been a number of international deals done with foreign companies, some of which may well need to be reviewed by the new government when it comes into power. This will be their decision. But it is imperative that it is an equitable sharing and a transparent process in the extraction of these mineral resources, which range from diamonds to gold to cobalt — practically everything. The richness is amazing.
Q: As soon as there is a hot spot in Africa, you can be sure that there are minerals and other wealth behind it. That’s the reason why people are fighting.
Alas! That has been the case in so many countries. That has been the downside of it. The upside is the potential that this presents for a suffering population to be helped by the resources that are available inside the boundaries of their own country.
Q: Do you personally think that the worst is over?
I’m certainly optimistic, but I do believe that the international community needs to be prepared to continue supporting the new government that will emerge from these elections, to sustain the population following this whole electoral exercise. We regard the election as being an essential but not sufficient condition for stability. The development of a level of prosperity, at least looking after the basic needs of the population, demands a continuing international commitment. It will obviously require the new government to play its full role in making sure that those who are currently dying and outside of the whole development process are reached as a matter of priority.
Q: You said earlier that there are no roads, so perhaps the most urgent thing to be done is to rebuild the infrastructure.
There are many very urgent things to do, and rehabilitating the roads so that they are passable is important. It is also very important to keep the population alive, and to put in place the mechanism of State.
Perhaps the priority requirement at this moment is to ensure that the security forces — particularly the military — become a mechanism for protecting the population rather than preying on them. With the police and the army, the payment of their salaries and their training and so on are very important aspects. Many of those lacking food, health care and clean water may well think that this is the number one priority. This is because they may want to stop the men in uniform attacking the civil population, taking their food, raping their women. This is a phenomenon that has to be brought under control very rapidly. I think it is one of the top priorities, even compared to the humanitarian side.
Q: Would you consider this operation as one of the success stories of the United Nations?
I am a little hesitant to declare anything as a success story. However, if you look back some fifteen months, when we started to work with the Independent Electoral Commission to organize these elections, very few people gave us much chance of success. You may now see what has been achieved over that period, including the work of the 17,000 soldiers that the UN has in the country. They have been very useful in helping the humanitarian organizations to protect civilian lives by being deployed into places so as to offset the threats that are often posed by men in uniform — be they the militia, the national army or foreign armed forces. We are certainly pleased to see the progress that has been achieved. Much more needs to be done, of course. We realize that the road ahead is very hard, but I do think that over the last year we have seen very positive result. In this rather inhospitable country, the progress that has been made is something we are certainly not ashamed of.
Q: Where would you like to see the country in a year or two?
We would all like to see the country reach the stage where we can say « pull out the international troops » because the country is self-sustaining. Nevertheless, it will require an international effort continuing for a number of years before new institutions are established to serve the population, that exploit the resources for the benefit of that population.
The DRC has the potential to be the motor of central Africa, and it is frankly unthinkable not to solve the Congolese dilemma, the internal conflicts, etc. After all, three years ago, the country was the scene of six external armies fighting, and it was called Africa’s First World War. That, fortunately, is now largely the past, with some limited remnants of foreign armed groups. So we would welcome continual progress to the point where we can begin to reduce the major United Nations force in the hope and belief that stability will be maintained. Having said that, I think it would be unfortunate if there was a premature departure of the UN before the security forces in the country have been developed to the degree necessary enabling the government to maintain stability on its own.
Q: On a more personal note, after fifteen months in DRC, how do you manage the stress and all the hard work?
The work is obviously fascinating. It is an enormous challenge and it is possible both to achieve and to see the results of the work. From my perspective, this compares very favourably with my previous assignment in Iraq, which was rather more difficult because of the security situation. In the DRC we do have security, logistical and financial problems, but not on the same scale. We have a number of very good colleagues in various fields who are putting in the extra efforts that are required to make such a large and complex operation a positive experience for the country.
Q: Don’t you ever become discouraged?
I am dealing with the elections and other things. I work on the principle of Murphy’s Law which states that: « If it can go wrong, it will ». I keep saying that Mr Murphy is a member of my team and he never misses a meeting. We constantly have to deal with the most unlikely developments at the worst times. You have to develop something of a sense of humour in order to keep going. It is also useful in these circumstances to have some experience of emergencies.
Q: Do you have any particular message to the international community here in Geneva?
For so long the DRC has been regarded as a completely hopeless area, a sort of black hole on the map. We have been impressed by the extraordinary enthusiasm shown by the population during the whole electoral process. As the election approached, some of the political leadership were not as enthusiastic about moving into a new era. We hope donor will now take another look and recognize what is required on the humanitarian and the reconstruction side to support DRC. The country has a remarkable population with a capacity for resilience. This is shown by how they have endured more than forty years of mistreatment. Donors will hopefully now recognize the country’s potential and provide the continuing international support allowing the people to achieve that potential.