In 2006 the world asked whether the first democratic elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo for 40 years could prevent the country from returning to violence. Following four decades of dictatorship, the bloodiest regional conflict since WW2 and having earned the ignominious title of ‘rape capital of the world’, it was deemed essential that the DRC elect a President who could build a broad coalition in an attempt to consolidate peace and create infrastructure throughout the country. Relations with neighbouring Rwanda and Uganda, which were instrumental in previous rounds of violence, would also need to be carefully managed.
Whilst progress on the latter point has been made, internal development, implementation of the 2006 constitution and coalition building have been much harder. For the time being, the upcoming elections on November 28th represent the best chance for the Congolese people to retain a check on the excesses of their leaders and to pursue reform. Without domestic opposition to call for transparency, repression and abuse are likely to increase in Congo and any ensuing frustration may tip over into more violent forms of protest.
The last election was deemed to be transparent. The challenges faced this time mean that the DRC risks sliding backwards. The international community will be contributing fewer observers and training too few police officers to oversee the elections. The second round ‘run-off’ phase used in 2006, essential to ensuring that the President has majority support, has been replaced by a single round competition – not only does this favour the incumbent, but according to some experts, the winner could govern with as little as 20% of the vote.
There is an oft-repeated phrase heard in certain parts of Congo: “Si Kabila perd, c’est la guerre”, or ‘If Kabila loses, there will be war’. Whilst few expect the outcome of the Congolese poll to result in heightened and sustained violence, there is every reason to feel anxious, and therefore every reason to demand free and fair elections.
Discussions with Congolese political parties have taken place in neighbouring states in a bid to avoid clashes. Yet, like so many elections across Africa, the November ballot in the DRC is centred on the personalities of the contenders. This implies that these elections are about power, not policy. Indeed, President Kabila’s power resides in a series of ad hoc alliances with leaders at various levels throughout the country and policymaking is conducted through a small clique of advisors, rather than via the politicians in charge of the relevant ministries.
Despite having five years to prepare, the government is failing to coordinate enthusiasm for these elections effectively, risking insecurity. There is one legislative position which has attracted 1,500 candidates, meanwhile, six weeks from the proposed election and the polling cards were still to be printed. In a country the size of Western Europe, which has just a few thousand miles of paved roads and 62,000 polling stations, the logistical challenges alone are daunting. Yet the independent election commission, CENI, had failed to provide a detailed operational plan; the fact that the head of the commission, Daniel Ngoy Mulundu, is an old ally of Kabila’s entourage speaks for itself.
Another critical consideration that affects elections across Africa is the role of the young – the average age in the DRC is just 18. Whilst the government has done little to further voter education since 2006, young people care passionately about issues such as violence in the East, rape, child soldiers and unemployment, so their significance in these elections cannot be ignored. One needs only look to the role that young people have played recently across North Africa and the Middle East: a failure to engage with the youth of Congo will have a serious impact on the country’s future.
Despite the Congolese elections being only a short time away, there are many uncertainties and the socio-political environment remains tense. These elections will have a defining impact on the future of the DRC and Central Africa, and represent an opportunity to overturn many years of neglect and dysfunction. The International Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell, recently stated, “We will never have a stable Africa, unless there is a stable DRC”. Reflecting this sentiment, DfID is projected to increase its spending in the DRC to £198 million per year from now until 2015. In sending such a high volume of aid, the UK has a responsibility to the UK taxpayer as well as a moral obligation to the Congolese people to ensure this money is used effectively and does not end up in the pockets of corrupt elites.
Free Fair DRC is a non-partisan organisation who have been working alongside NGOs, Congolese Diaspora and politicians around the world to coordinate attention on the elections in Congo. Accountable and responsive governance is needed in order to overcome the debilitating cycle of poverty and violence and unlock DRC’s potential. This election is a key step toward that goal. You can help by writing to your MP and MEP and asking them to support free and fair elections in the DRC; finding us on Facebook or Twitter, and by going to www.FreeFairDRC.com and signing our supporters’ pledge.