Democracy in the Congo

Democracy in the Congo

Martin Bentz '85

By Robert Ast

This summer, when the Democratic Republic of Congo held its first democratic elections in over 40 years, Martin Bentz was not only present while history was being made—he was part of the team that made it happen. As a Regional Administrative Officer for the United Nations, Bentz (’85), an alumnus of the School of General Studies, helped to organize and oversee what he has called the "most challenging electoral endeavor ever undertaken by the UN."

“We registered 25 million eligible voters in a country the size of Western Europe, through which there are no passable roads. We had to set up 3,000 voting stations, to which almost all electoral materials were flown or taken by river.”

Congo RiverThe elections were conducted peacefully, with a 70 percent participation rate. “To most observers the elections were free, fair, and transparent,” Martin remarked. “The Congolese people participated in the registration process and elections with a great sense of pride. For the first time they could actually select their leadership.”

Democracy is a new concept for the Congolese people, most of whom are too young to remember when the country first gained independence from Belgium in 1960 after nearly a century of colonial rule. In 1965 Joseph Mobutu seized power and remained in control of the country (renamed Zaire) until being ousted in 1997. The leader of that revolution, Laurent Kabila, was assassinated in 2001 and succeeded by his son Joseph, who won the recent election.

Initially Kabila received 45 percent of the vote, while his closest competitor, Jean-Pierre Bemba, head of the opposition party, received 20 percent. Because a majority is needed to form a new government, a runoff election was held in late October. Kabila obtained 58 percent of the vote, but Bemba challenged the results, alleging fraud, and his followers attacked the Supreme Court, where the results were certified. UN peacekeeping forces intervened, as they also did in August, when fighting broke out after preliminary election results were announced.

Martin chairing a regional meeting of MONUC, the UN Peacekeeping Mission in the Congo.“Had UN troops not been present, the exchange of fire between partisans of the two strongest camps could have spiraled into another civil war,” Martin said, referring to the fighting in August.

Sadly, violence of this sort is too familiar in the DRC, which is one of Africa’s most beautiful and resource-rich nations, as well as one of its most troubled. Years of civil unrest and corruption have left the country, which is divided ethnically, linguistically, geographically, and politically, with very little infrastructure or security.

“Risk permeates the country; from roving bandits in the East looking to plunder as much gold, diamonds, and food they can extort from the villages, from undisciplined soldiers, ex-combatants and militia seeking to score easy cash, from forces loyal to the political leaders who pay their wages quick on the trigger in any confrontation or moment of disrespect, from street gangs without work menacingly demanding handouts, from citizens angry that their candidate did not win,” Martin said.

“The ministers nominally in power eke the most out of their positions before they are forced to leave. There is no taxation system, hence no investment in schools, hospitals, roads, air or rail transport, or bus systems. To paraphrase the late President Mobutu, ‘Every man for himself.’”

In this challenging, constantly changing environment, Martin manages operations and support activities in the capital Kinshasa as well as eight field offices for UN Peacekeepers in the western half of the country. “The worst shortfall in peace-keeping is the shortage of personnel in the field,” he said. “It is hard to attract skilled people to work in such isolated hard conditions, with electricity provided only by generator, clean water in short supply, very basic plumbing, clouds of mosquitoes, high chance of getting malaria, little food stuffs, no supermarkets, and no entertainment. Being able to make life a little easier for someone willing to live and work in a remote outpost is the most satisfying part of my job as an administrator even though I know that, as a result, we will have to juggle with limited means back at headquarters. Sometimes, though, the message to our field staff is that we just do not have in stock what they so desperately need.

“And yet, working for the UN and Peacekeeping, we feel that explaining due process and the rule of law to those who will listen and training police forces and military forces to these principles is very rewarding.”

A lifelong commitment to peaceful solutions—crystallized in his youth by his personal opposition to the U.S. policy in Vietnam—is one of Martin’s strongest motivations. “I was frustrated then, and am still frustrated, that nations and groups feel that their self-interest can only be expressed through war or violence,” he said. “While not politically or historically naïve, I think there is much more that can be done through education, awareness, and negotiation, the cost of which is much lower than military force.”

This commitment ultimately led Martin to GS, though, like many GS students, his path was hardly straightforward. After earning his high school diploma from the American School of The Hague in the Netherlands, Martin traveled through Europe and Turkey before returning to the U.S. He studied at Colorado College and the University of Connecticut and worked in hospitals and as a horticulturist on private estates. “As interesting as this might have been, it did not really match my worldview, so I decided to apply to GS to study geography and international affairs,” he recalled.

While at GS, Martin also landed an entry-level job at the UN. “The discipline of commuting each day from the United Nations and my apartment on the east side to Columbia to attend class, spending hours in Low Library drafting research papers, and then accepting the incisive comments on the papers by my Columbia professors, left an appreciation for efficient time management, and precision,” Martin said. “The professors at General Studies were my mentors, especially my political geography professors and Miklos Pinther, a professor at Columbia and the head of the UN Cartography Unit. I had hard lessons to learn and needed some serious fine-tuning along the way. Without the coaching and support of many teachers at Columbia and senior managers at the UN, I would never have garnered the wherewithal to be a manager today.”

After graduating, Martin took a sabbatical from the UN, working in textbook publishing, managing foreign athletes for the New York Road Runners, and producing a television fundraising program for UNICEF. He rejoined the UN in 1993, working in peacekeeping in the Western Sahara.  

“When I joined the United Nations, I sensed that it was possible to play a part in making people's lives somehow better. I believe working in the administration overseeing the logistical operations, along with all the administrative support, contributed to the successes in the Congo so far. I and all my colleagues feel a great sense of accomplishment despite the fatigue, stress and danger. Contrary to the advice of some, I do have my family here. They remind me that we have responsibilities both global and personal.”

The extended online version of the story featured these excerpts from the interview.

The Owl: You probably never have a typical day, but what kinds of things do you do on a regular basis?

Martin Bentz: In peace-keeping accidents happen with statistical regularity. We are expected to drive from site to site over rutted roads or tracks. All of us, military and civilian, are driving in a foreign country, a country where traffic laws are not yet enforced, where vehicles have no lights, where up to 24 passengers pack into or hang onto a van to get a lift, where drivers think nothing of driving in a lane against opposing traffic if that appears to be a short cut. And each peacekeeper brings a different set of driving skills from home, be that Brazil, China, France, India, Nepal, Pakistan or the United States, to name just a few. We all have to adapt, but it is hard to adjust to anarchy. You have to be especially vigilant and even that does not always work.

A typical day involves some sort of unforeseen event, a crisis; workers or soldiers protesting wages that are overdue by three months and the long awaited pay flight cancelled due to bad weather, construction projects stopped due to a shortage of cement, a vehicle required urgently to drive a visiting diplomat because the designated one needs a spare part that has not yet been delivered, an office too small for three staff who have just arrived unannounced, a platoon that needs rations urgently to track down a band of rogue militia who have taken hostages from a village, a letter that needs to be drafted to a government official who wants to rescind an agreement, and whatever happens to be what we call the “flavor of the day.”

A typical day at my headquarters office involves several meetings to resolve the issues of the day, a battery of emails to follow up, several confirming memos and a few dozen financial documents that need to be certified. Much more gratifying are trips to the field where decisions have to be taken on the spot to help get a project on track. A few quick calls to headquarters release supplies or funds to continue the distribution of ballot boxes or to build a security perimeter around a camp. The worst shortfall in peace-keeping is the shortage of personnel in the field. It is hard to attract skilled people to work in such isolated hard conditions, with electricity provided only by generator, clean water in short supply, very basic plumbing, clouds of mosquitoes, high chance of getting malaria, little food stuffs (no supermarkets and no entertainment). Being able to make life a little easier for someone willing to live and work in a remote outpost is the most satisfying part of my job as administrator even though I know that, as a result, we will have to juggle with limited means back at headquarters. Sometimes, though, the message to our field staff is that we just do not have in stock what they so desperately need.

What can a person in the developed world do to help?

First and foremost is to become more informed about what is happening in the world other than what is seen on television. An informed electorate is more likely to support or tolerate investment in shoring up a delicate peace, or backing a costly election, or assuring a nascent democratic government is not destabilized. Secondly, those who can put aside comfort and preconceptions can work in peace-keeping, electoral planning, logistics, and observing. People skilled in negotiating and who are versed in international law can assist with nation-building, give advice on legislation and good governance. 

A young lady from Belgium who sat next to me in the plane recently had just started work in a firm specializing in cross-border contract law. I urged her to think about working in the UN purchasing offices sometime in the future since the UN relies on well-drafted multimillion dollar contracts with companies throughout the world. The budget for MONUC alone is over $1 billion U.S. dollars, with aviation and fuel contracts running in the hundreds of millions. Of keen interest to all contributing countries is that these funds are well-managed. We need good budget officers, buyers, contract managers, skilled accountants, and finance clerks to process the payments on a timely basis. We need experienced fuel, rations, stock, and fleet managers, with an eye to reduce the risk of fraud, which is so tempting in developing countries. 

The demands of UN peace-keeping require personnel with skills and experience. On the job training comes with the territory, but for the most part we need to send people to their assignments alone, with the ability to assess situations, report back and make decisions on their feet, with minimum back up. Those interested in working in peace-keeping can look up available vacancies (http://jobs.un.org). The pay, for instance, of an information technology specialist is not competitive with a company in Oregon, but skilled staff are vital to keep our satellite links running, and the work is gratifying in other ways. We also turn to volunteers through the United Nations Volunteers, based in Bonn, Germany (http://unv.org).

In 1981, I applied to the Columbia School of General Studies with a view to study Geography (then a department) and International Affairs. I also was able to get an entry level job in the Purchasing and Transport Service of the UN while going to SGS. Some would say I had a couple lucky breaks, but what convinced those in control of the job and school application process was their belief that I truly wanted to achieve the goals I had articulated. As a manager now I realize that theirs was a considered risk, one that I now take from time to time looking at applications.

Giving back and mentoring are ways of helping some other sincere person get just that kind of break. I could never have afforded a Columbia University education on a clerk’s salary alone. The loans and grants helped. I like to think my small contributions are giving a chance to another Columbia student. Without the coaching and support of many teachers at Columbia and senior managers at the UN, I would never have garnered the wherewithal to be a manager today. I learned to set goals and visualize achievements. I expressed those goals to my mentors and superiors, who helped me take steps to realize them. I find that mentoring is still an effective tool to developing additional skills and providing opportunities.

After the elections, what needs to be done to help the DRC make the next step toward stability?

We feel gratified but know the Congolese people and those who would help them have a lot more to accomplish over the next few years. The first step is to respect the election results and to establish a viable government that also has the respect of the population and security forces. The national army and police have to be trained in standard law enforcement conventions and loyalty to the nation. Salaries have to be paid to troops, police, teachers, government employees, and medical professionals. Investment in basic services has to start immediately. Sources of revenue have to be set up and respected. The funds from taxes and customs have to be invested fairly and transparently.

Before working as Regional Administrative Officer, and Chief General Services in Congo, Eritrea and Western Sahara, I worked as a political affairs officer advising the Special Representative of the Secretary General in Western Sahara on voter registration. While over 150,000 voters were successfully registered, that conflict is still not resolved. We realize that coming to a peaceful settlement is not easy, but it must be better than continuing conflict in which civilians are the primary victims and the costs are not just calculated in armaments.