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Rwanda is the African country whose genocide the world ignored, and that failure still haunts us. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is Rwanda's fragile, powerful next-door neighbour. It has just held its first free elections in four decades, with substantial international security and support. It could become another African success story -- or another haunting failure.

In a runoff presidential election on Oct. 29, interim leader Joseph Kabila won 58 per cent of the vote. The result was challenged in court by his opponent, Jean-Pierre Bemba, but, last week, the Supreme Court upheld the victory. Mr. Kabila, son of the murdered Congolese leader Laurent Kabila, will be sworn in today. Mr. Bemba said he would carry on his "fight" within a strong opposition, and it is not yet clear what that means.

Two serious threats remain. One is that violence will still trump voting, and that depends largely on how Mr. Kabila and Mr. Bemba treat one another. The greater risk is that, with the voting over, the international community will not support the hard work of governing Congo as thoroughly as it supported the election process itself.

Congo (formerly Zaire) has been brutalized for generations -- first by the Belgian colonial regime, then by Mobutu Sese Seko, who was protected and courted by the West as a Cold War ally, and, more recently, by a civil war in which four million people died -- the largest death toll in a single conflict since the Second World War. Yet, more recently, Congo has taken two unprecedented steps.

First, in the Sun City accord of 2002, it agreed to stop the civil war, stop the killings, and draw the opposing militia leaders into a "transitional government." Second, that "transition" government delivered on its two priorities: It changed Congo's constitution significantly and organized free elections.

The constitutional reforms were ratified by a referendum, with 84 per cent support. Complex elections -- for president, the national parliament, the provincial legislatures and local authorities -- were remarkably efficient, and relatively fair and peaceful.

Violence did erupt periodically, and that is what the Western media reported. The most serious event was an August attack on Mr. Bemba's home (during which he, and the Canadian and other ambassadors who were meeting him were, in effect, held hostage overnight). But, in a country that was a killing field just four years ago, the more significant story is how rare was the recourse to violence in this transition period. The international community played a critical role, with troops, training and other help, at a cost of millions of dollars.

The elections themselves were remarkably well-run -- surprising in a country that had virtually no direct experience with elections in four decades. All international observers reported a consistent professionalism and efficiency in conducting and counting the vote, particularly in the second round.

But what will really count is the new political system introduced by the constitutional changes. Making that work won't happen without significant international help.

Usually, in Africa, the focus is the president -- because, traditionally, that is where power has concentrated absolutely. Elections have been "winner take all." That has now changed significantly.

Constitutional amendments established new elected provincial assemblies, and gave them the power to pick their own governor and the national senators from their region.

The amendments also gave each province a constitutional right to 40 per cent of the total public revenues generated in their province, a significant asset in a country as resource-rich as Congo.

At the same time, free elections confer a new legitimacy on the elected members of the national parliament and the provincial assemblies. They won election in their own right, so will feel loyalty to their electors as much as to their leaders and parties.

Managing that radically new system will be an immense challenge.

Congolese experience in governance is thin, and no one has thought much about how these new institutions and powers will mesh together. Voters, having done their job, will look for results and, given Congo's history, failure could lead quickly to disorder.

The international community is overstretched everywhere. A dollar spent in Congo is denied to Darfur. So, there is a universal temptation to step back, just a little. Yet, the cumulative impact could put everything at risk again.

It is idle to pretend that the United Nations, the European Union and other international actors can maintain their financial and military contributions at existing levels. The challenge is to keep contributions as high as possible, and then repeat the kind of ingenuity that, at Sun City, stopped the civil war, and started these remarkable steps toward peace.

Like other countries, Canada should be considering urgently how we might help. Given current priorities in Ottawa, our strength would be our experience, not our budget. In other crises (Suez, famine, apartheid, the International Criminal Court), Canada's ingenuity, reputation and ability to work with others have made a real difference. How might we have an impact now -- working, for example, with the African Union, the UN, the EU? Moreover, we have distinct assets, and a French-language capacity, that are needed in Congo.

Consider just three of the most urgent issues: how to govern a complex, virtually federal state; how to instill discipline and professionalism in the military and police forces; and how to strengthen the reputation and impartiality of the courts.

Among Canada's resources is a deep pool of retired military and police personnel, experts in governance, judges and lawyers. Why not call them into temporary service? Many are bilingual, all have practical experience, several would welcome the challenge.

This is a classic issue of prevention over cure. We have too many examples of the world stepping back when it should step forward. For years, Congo was a tragedy; now, suddenly, it is an opportunity. We should not turn away.

Former prime minister Joe Clark,

a professor at the McGill Centre

for Developing-Area Studies,

led the observation team from

the Atlanta-based Carter Center

in Congo for both the July 30 and Oct. 29 elections.