Democracy of sorts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Joseph Kabila
Joseph Kabila
By Andrew Macdonell in South Africa

On Tuesday 20 December 2011, Joseph Kabila is scheduled to take the oath for a second full term as president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The huge country in Central Africa has just completed its second democratic election since the end of the civil war in 2002, a war which claimed an estimated four million lives.

The conduct of the 28 November poll has been heavily criticised by both local and international observers – but, according to the official results, Kabila was re-elected president with 49 per cent of the vote, ahead of the veteran opposition leader, Étienne Tshisekedi on 32 per cent.

Following this year’s “Arab Spring” in North Africa and the democratic change of government in nearby Zambia, the election should have been another example of democratic progress in Africa. Unfortunately, the integrity of the election has been called into serious doubt by accusations of ballot-rigging, or what are euphemistically called “electoral irregularities”.

The Carter Center’s observer group has said the results “lack credibility”, while the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Kinshasa, Laurent Monsengwo, said the results “comply with neither the truth nor justice”. The US government has also added its voice by calling the process “flawed”, while the EU has called the election “deplorable”.

Given that election monitoring outfits typically issue bland pronouncements to the effect that the elections “broadly reflect the will of the people”, or are “substantially free and fair”, the blunt, outspoken statements by observers such as David Pottie – the Carter Centre mission manager in Kinshasa – are worth repeating:

“Carter Center observers reported that the quality and integrity of the vote tabulation process has varied across the country, ranging from the proper application of procedures to serious irregularities, including the loss of nearly 2,000 polling station results in Kinshasa. Based on the detailed results released by [the DRC electoral commission], it is also evident that multiple locations, notably several Katanga province constituencies, reported impossibly high rates of 99 per cent to 100 per cent voter turnout with all, or nearly all, votes going to incumbent President Joseph Kabila. These and other observations point to mismanagement of the results process and compromise the integrity of the presidential election.

“In our conclusion, we find the irregularities are significant enough to undermine the credibility of the election results. But having said that, we don’t have a smoking gun to reveal 1.5-million votes [Kabila’s winning margin], and to reverse the order of the final results.”

The criticism from the Carter Center and the Catholic church is in marked contrast to the view of the African Union (AU) and the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC). To the disappointment of many – but to the surprise of few – in the Congo, the AU moved with unseemly haste to pronounce the elections free and fair.

This willingness of African observers to endorse dubious elections is, of course, nothing new. Followers of recent polls in Zimbabwe will have noted how South Africa and the other leading AU countries have regularly endorsed polls despite clear evidence of electoral fraud. This perception of automatic support for incumbent parties may explain why South Africa and the AU are viewed with such suspicion in Kinshasa. It may also explain why the motorcade of the South African minister of defence, Lindiwe Sisulu, was stoned on her recent visit to the capital, Kinshasa.

No election is perfect, of course. Recent elections in the US and the UK have shown that even developed democracies can struggle to pull off complaint-free elections. And the DRC presents logistical challenges of a whole different magnitude to those faced in the west.

The country is two-thirds the size of Western Europe and almost completely lacks tarred roads or other transport infrastructure. It has no democratic tradition to fall back on and – with 11 presidential candidates and thousands of parliamentary candidates – a completely trouble-free election was always going to be unrealistic. Nonetheless, it is the scale or extent of any irregularities that counts.

In the recent poll, the identified irregularities include the loss of voting returns from nearly 2,000 polling stations in Kinshasa (seen as predominantly pro-Tshisekedi) and unfeasibly high turnouts in pro-Kabila areas such as the Katanga province.

While not electoral fraud, Kabila has also been criticised for changing the electoral law to remove the need for a run-off in the event that a candidate fails to get 50 per cent of the vote. In the previous election, minor candidates dropped out after the first round and a second ballot was held between the two principal candidates. Such a second ballot would inevitably boost the chances of the main challenger as most of the reallocated opposition voters would be expected to swing behind the remaining challenger. With hindsight, this change would appear rather fortunate for Kabila, given that he polled 49 per cent to win.

With the pressure put on by the Carter Center and the Catholic church, even Joseph Kabila has been forced to admit that “mistakes” were made in the conduct of the election. Quite which “mistakes” Kabila was alluding to is not clear, but his admission does highlight that rigging an election is not always straightforward. Put simply, how much rigging is required and how can the process be controlled? There is also the risk that the irregularities may cast doubt on an election that may (as is possibly the case here) have been won anyway.

The two main contenders in this election could not be more different. Joseph Kabila has had a relatively smooth ride to power. Born in a rebel camp in the eastern DRC (or Zaïre, as it was then known), he spent much of his childhood in exile in Tanzania. He assumed the presidency in 2001 when, aged just 32, his father Laurent Kabila was assassinated. Joseph Kabila subsequently won the first free DRC election in 2006 to become president in his own right.

In contrast to Kabila, Tshisekedi is a veteran opposition figure. At 79, he is almost twice the age of Kabila and since the 1960s has had a long, and largely honourable, role in Congolese politics. Three times he was briefly appointed prime minister by Mobutu Sese Seko, but has also spent numerous spells in prison for his opposition to Mobutu. However, many feel that Tshisekedi showed poor judgment when he boycotted the presidential election of 2006. Certainly, given his age, 2011 is probably his last realistic chance of becoming president.

Journalistic prediction is hazardous at the best of times, but this is especially true in relation to the Congo. The country is rarely described without the word “chaotic”, and almost anything is possible. However, what happens next may largely depend both on the reaction of Tshisekedi and his supporters and on the pressure applied by external governments. Tshisekedi has considerable support in the capital, Kinshasa, and if his supporters take to the streets with the implicit backing of western powers it could be a difficult time for Kabila. But the Congolese are not Egyptians, and it is not clear that such pressure will be sustained.

The worst case scenario is that serious conflict breaks out. With ten close neighbours and numerous others eyeing-up its vast mineral wealth, such a conflict could suck in combatants from across the continent. The last major civil war (documented by Jason Stearns in Dancing in the Glory of Monsters) involved soldiers from at least ten African countries, and a repeat would be catastrophic.

A more optimistic alternative is that some sort of compromise deal will be hammered out. South Africa is increasingly looked to for leadership in the region – and, if its track record in Zimbabwe is a guide, may push for some sort of government of national unity.

Tshisekedi is, after all, not a young man and, despite his belligerent post-election rhetoric, may ultimately accept a deal that gives him a meaningful role. But whatever government emerges, most Congolese appear resigned to the fact that their country’s immediate future will be mapped out at the expense of both ordinary people and the truth.

Nonetheless, alternative – and marginally more optimistic – views do exist. Singing in Lingala, the popular Congolese singer, Koffi Olomide, has lyrics that capture this optimism:

“Lokuta eyaka na ascenseur, kasi vérité eyei na escalier mpe ekomi.”

“Lies come up in the elevator, the truth takes the stairs but gets here eventually.”

For the sake of both the DRC and Africa, it is hoped that truth’s climb up those stairs does not take too long.

For those with an interest in the Congo, the following books are well worth a read.


King Leopold’s Ghost, by Adam Hochschild.

In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz, by Michaela Wrong.

Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa, by Jason Stearns.


Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad.

The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver.

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