Building vibrant and tolerant democracies
On 9 December 2011, incumbent president Joseph Kabila, who had run as an independent, was declared the winner of the disputed November 28 presidential election in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) with 49 percent of the vote. His nearest rival, Etienne Tshisekedi of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) placed a distant second in the official count with 32 percent. In concurrent elections for the 500-seat National Assembly, Kabila’s People’s Party for reconstruction and Democracy (PPRD) and its allies won a total of 341 seats. The PPRD won 62 seats, the most of any single party, followed by the UDPS, with 41 seats - write Mvemba Dizolele and Pascal Kambale in Journal of Democracy.
The 2011 elections were the second democratic polls since the official end of the country’s decade-long civil war in 2003. They were the first elections of the post conflict period in which the government of the DRC, rather than the international community, drove the process, providing most of the funds and managing the technical and logistical aspects of the balloting.
Thus for both the Congolese government and the international community, the stakes were high.
Credible elections would demonstrate the government’s capacity to marshal the political and social forces necessary to entrench peace and democracy. The elections would also show the strength of international actors’ commitment to supporting democracy in the DRC after their substantial investment in peace-building.
Both the Congolese government and its international partners failed to live up to these promises and expectations. In the run-up to the elections, the Parliament pushed through ill-advised constitutional amendments and weakened political-oversight mechanisms in a clear effort to bend electoral rules in favour of Kabila.
In the face of such blatant violations of democratic principles, the usually vocal corps of foreign diplomats in the capital of Kinshasa fell silent, making many Congolese wonder if, after only five years of experience with democratic government and fragile peace, the international community had turned its back on democracy for the sake of peace and stability. Ironically, a restrictive notion of stability led international actors to look the other way while the Congolese government was sowing the seeds of political instability inherent in unfair elections in fragile countries.
By the time polling stations closed on 28 November 2011, it was clear to political analysts and observers that the DRC was headed for a major electoral crisis. Across the country, voting had been marred by irregularities and deficiencies. A substantial number of registered voters were turned away from their assigned polling stations because their names were missing from the voter list, and many polling stations did not receive enough presidential ballots, making it impossible to hold the vote on the appointed day.
In parts of Kinshasa, as in other areas of the country, violence erupted as voters protested various irregularities that they perceived to be part of a concerted effort by electoral officials to deny them their civic right and to exclude them from the process. In other areas, such as Masisi and Rutshuru in North Kivu Province, armed militiamen intimidated voters into casting their ballots for Kabila and for legislative candidates affiliated with his Alliance pour la Majorité Présidentielle, a grouping of thirty or so parties, including the PPRD, which held more than 300 seats in the 500-seat National Assembly (Parliament’s lower house) going into the election.
For several days, as both sides awaited the results scheduled to be announced on December 6, tensions between Kabila supporters and opposition partisans escalated. From compilation centres across the country came reports of improprieties—including threats to exclude ballots that had been torn or that came from polling stations that been burned down, as well as rumours of more ballots being flown in from abroad.
Thus counting took place as opposition charges of massive fraud echoed through local and international media. In light of the fraud allegations and the lack of a credible explanation from the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI), the opposition rejected the preliminary tallies.
As the questionable compilation of ballots further discredited the process, Tshisekedi became convinced that he had won the election and signalled that the only outcome he would accept was his victory over the incumbent. When CENI chairman Daniel Ngoy Mulunda, a long-time Kabila friend and supporter, finally declared Kabila the winner three days after the announcement was scheduled, Tshisekedi rejected the results, calling Mulunda’s statement a “provocation of the people” and declaring himself president-elect.
The main opposition parties rallied behind Tshisekedi and called on the international community to help resolve the impasse, but the international community shirked its responsibility, instead urging the Congolese to accept the official outcome.
Yet the opposition had a strong case. A day after Mulunda declared Kabila the winner, the Carter Center’s election-monitoring mission issued an unequivocal statement charging that the official results lacked credibility. The observers noted that the mismanagement of the vote tabulation process compromised the integrity of the election, which had been fraught with legal, technical, and logistical deficiencies from the outset.
The Carter Center cited serious irregularities, including the loss of results from nearly two-thousand polling stations in Kinshasa (a Tshisekedi stronghold), representing as many as 350,000 voters. Results from another thousand polling stations in other parts of the country, representing 500,000 voters, were mysteriously “lost” as well. Furthermore, multiple locations in the southeastern province of Katanga, a Kabila stronghold, reported impossibly high voter turnouts that in some cases exceeded 100 percent, with all or nearly all the votes going to the incumbent.
Election observers noted that locations with similarly high results for Tshisekedi did not report extraordinarily high turnout, and that rates there were within the expected norms. The Roman Catholic Church—arguably the DRC’s most influential institution, which itself deployed thirty-thousand election observers across the country—backed the Carter Center’s statement.
Speaking at a press conference, Kinshasa’s archbishop, Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo, told journalists that the electoral commission’s results represented neither truth nor justice. He stressed that the announced results posed a serious credibility problem for the election. Still, Kabila insisted that he had won a legitimate victory through a reliable process, even as he acknowledged that mistakes had been made.
The results were utterly compromised, however, and the integrity of the electoral commission was shattered. An emboldened opposition pushed for the nullification of Kabila’s win. Vital Kamerhe—the Union for the Congolese Nation’s presidential candidate (he finished third with 7 percent) and a former National Assembly speaker—filed a petition with the Supreme Court challenging the results. Meanwhile, Tshisekedi and his supporters became more vocal in their assertion that it was he, not Kabila, who was the president-elect, now referring to Tshisekedi as “President.”
On December 16, the Supreme Court, choosing to ignore the credibility gap, blatant irregularities, and opposition allegations of massive fraud, issued a ruling that certified Kabila’s victory on narrow technical grounds. Four days later, the incumbent was sworn in for a second five-year term in a heavily fortified compound.
Except for Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, no other head of state attended the ceremony. Dismissing the validity of Kabila’s inauguration, Tshisekedi held his own swearing-in. Because security forces denied him access to Kinshasa’s Stade des Martyrs (the national stadium in Kinshasa) for the ceremony, the 79-year-old opposition mainstay took the oath of office at his home on December 23.
Thus the country was thrust into a crisis that local civil society groups called a “two-headed leadership crisis,” in which there was a legal president without legitimacy and a legitimate president without legality.
Kabila and his government reacted forcefully to the brewing unrest, resorting to violence and intimidation to quash opposition protests and suppress the growing popular discontent. The Limete neighbourhood of Kinshasa—home to Tshisekedi and UDPS party headquarters—became the target of a police siege. Kinshasa, home to 9.5 million people (more than a sixth of the DRC’s population), became a ghost town as the heavy deployment of security forces kept citizens confined to their homes. The government cut off text-messaging services and limited Internet access for several days, severely curbing communication for most Congolese.
Opposition supporters’ movements and activities were curtailed by state security agents, who harassed and manhandled them at checkpoints, often provoking them into violence.
Attempts by the opposition to demonstrate peacefully in various parts of the country—Kinshasa in the far southwest, Bukavu and Goma in the east, and Mbuji-Mayi in the south-central region—were met with swift responses from the government, which unleashed armed antiriot police and members of the elite presidential guard into the streets to confront Tshisekedi partisans.
On 16 February 2012, the Catholic Archdiocese of Kinshasa held a march commemorating the twentieth anniversary of a Church-sponsored march in protest of the country’s long-time dictator Mobutu Sese Seko and in support of the Sovereign National Conference. The 1992 demonstration had ended with the military and police firing upon the marchers and killing scores. Twenty years later, the government deployed hundreds of policemen to surround churches and suppress the commemoration march. Security agents arrested priests, nuns, and human-rights activists, and shut down three radio stations affiliated with or sympathetic to the march.
Further underscoring the magnitude of the legitimacy crisis was the government’s increasing sense of insecurity and fear of the people—a fear that spawned uses of excessive force to prevent or suppress protests and acts of civil disobedience. In the month following the elections, the government’s campaign of violence and intimidation in Kinshasa killed 33 people, wounded 83, and led to more than 265 being detained.
Equally telling, the legitimacy crisis has left the president and Parliament unable to lay out an agenda, implement reforms, or, in short, behave like normal elected leaders in a democracy. While Parliament was arguably the most active of the elective institutions stemming from the 2006 Constitution, the 2011 polls have produced a body weakened by the vote-fraud suspicions that haunt so many of its members.
It is so crippled that, at the time of this writing five months after the elections, Parliament has yet to elect its own permanent leadership, much less approve a full-fledged government. Meanwhile, the provisional government has failed to implement Kabila’s campaign pledges.
The electoral fraud of 2011 has inflicted its deepest wounds on the democratic institutions and check-and-balance mechanisms established after the 2006 elections. For instance, the Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel et de la Communication, a constitutionally mandated body tasked with media regulation, behaved in so partisan a fashion during the campaign period and elections that it has lost the moral authority to enforce its own decisions on media institutions.
Donors, civil society groups, and major opposition parties are now demanding a complete overhaul of the CENI and a thorough audit of its operations before any further steps are taken toward holding the local and provincial elections that are scheduled for later this year. Yet delaying them would deprive Parliament of its upper chamber, whose members are elected by provincial assemblies. The Senate has traditionally exercised the most thorough oversight of the executive branch.
Moreover, the successive attacks by the executive branch on the judiciary through a series of illegal manoeuvres, such as the sacking without due process of presidents of the Supreme Court, and the political perversion of the Supreme Court in the weeks running up to the elections have undermined the courts’ capacity to adjudicate electoral disputes.
The post-election legitimacy crisis stems from more than corrupt and fraudulent electoral practices. The conditions that led to the 2011 electoral disaster had been building during the half-decade since the 2006 elections, as the government launched a systematic attack on democratic mechanisms and check-and-balance processes. In the immediate aftermath of the 2006 elections, Congo made meaningful political and economic progress. The 2006 Parliament and its members enjoyed institutional and individual independence, which they used aggressively to exercise their constitutional power to oversee the presidency.
By 15 June 2009, MPs had asked government officials and representatives of state-owned firms more than 43 “oral questions with debate” on a range of issues, including air-travel safety, border disputes with neighbouring countries, mismanagement, and lack of transparency and accountability, that prompted heated parliamentary hearings and the establishment of 24 investigative committees by the lower house (the National Assembly) and four by the Senate to examine specific situations and verify allegations against the president.
Beginning in 2007, Vital Kamerhe, then the newly elected speaker of the National Assembly, encouraged vigorous policy debates, allowing both the majority and the opposition access to the floor. Parliamentary commissions held hearings on sensitive matters, such as the Chinese mining investment of US$9 billion that sparked a national debate about how to balance sovereignty with economic development. But the positive momentum in Kinshasa began to fizzle as early as 2009, when Kabila forced Kamerhe out of Parliament after the two disagreed over joint Rwandan-Congolese military operations in eastern Congo. With Kamerhe gone, the open-debate system closed, and the president’s majority muzzled dissent.
Nonetheless, the DRC continued to make economic gains. The country coasted through the global financial crisis relatively unscathed. In 2010, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank approved a debt-relief package worth $12.3 billion to help alleviate financial burdens left over from the Mobutu years. And largely because of investment in the country’s mineral wealth, particularly copper, the World Bank expects the DRC’s economy to grow at around 7 percent annually for the next several years, one of the fastest economic-growth rates in Africa.
After Jean-Pierre Bemba, former presidential hopeful and Kabila’s main challenger in the 2006 election, was arrested by the International Criminal Court in 2008 for crimes committed by his soldiers in the Central African Republic, Kabila’s re-election in 2011 seemed all but certain.
Tshisekedi, who had boycotted the 2006 election, was old, sick, and seeking medical care in Europe. No other potential candidate, it seemed, would have the stature or the funds to compete with Kabila.
All that changed when Tshisekedi returned home in December 2010 and announced that he would run for president. With thousands of supporters turning out to greet him at the airport, his convoy took eight hours to travel ten miles to the UDPS headquarters in Limete. Kabila’s advisers panicked, and within the week, his parliamentary coalition had scrapped the existing two-round voting process for the presidency. Without the possibility of a runoff, the incumbent—with his ten years in office, an organized network of parties, and substantial government funds not available to the opposition—gained a disproportionate advantage.
This constitutional revision meant that the president (or any of the other ten candidates) needed only to gain a plurality rather than a majority of votes in order to win. Thus the root cause of the crisis can be traced back to bad policy making by the pro-Kabila majority in Parliament.
The deliberate lack of proper planning and the poor management of the elections also stoked the crisis. Parliament waited until March 2011—four years after the date required by law—to establish an electoral commission to carry out the vote. The delay undermined the commission’s ability to handle the complex operations ahead. Just days before the election, there were still polling stations waiting for their ballots and urns.
In July, Tshisekedi’s UDPS sounded the alarm about the problems that were plaguing the process and filed an official complaint with the CENI charging massive fraud and corruption of the voter registry. The UDPS alleged that the CENI had packed the voter rolls with potential Kabila supporters and that more than two-million voters listed in Kabila strongholds were either redundancies or phony names.
For its part, the CENI repeatedly rejected the UDPS’s call for an independent and transparent audit of the voter lists. As grievances and disputes over the electoral law arose, the CENI failed to provide an adequate forum for dialogue with the opposition, holding meetings on an ad hoc basis, driven by events or crises rather than by a set schedule. The UDPS began staging weekly street protests in Kinshasa to demand that the integrity of the electoral process be restored through an independent audit of the voter registry. Police and security services cracked down on the protests and intimidated members of the opposition.
The CENI consists of four members from the majority, including Chairman Mulunda, and three representatives of the opposition. But the independence of even the opposition commissioners has been called into question as the CENI regularly showed bias against the opposition. Other than the chairman, who is close to Kabila, the commissioners rarely took a public stance on the electoral debate.
The responsibility for managing a successful electoral process that is fair and trustworthy in the eyes of most citizens rests with the country’s leaders. The failure of the 2011 voting, like the legitimacy crisis that stemmed from it, is their failure. Yet a measure of blame must also be meted out to various international partners of the DRC.
Immediately after the 2006 elections, the DRC made remarkable progress in reviving democratic institutions. In 2007, for instance, Speaker Kamerhe encouraged meaningful televised policy debates. The free press blossomed. Those early gains, which did not last long, led the European Union, long the country’s largest international patron, to congratulate itself for having fostered democracy in what the world had seen as a failed state.
Considering the DRC to be a “mission accomplished,” Brussels has largely stepped aside since 2007, allowing the parliamentary majority in power to undermine checks and balances and roll back those democratic gains. By 2009, nearly all liberal-democratic safeguards had collapsed under the tyranny of the majority.
So the 2011 elections were a Congolese affair. Kinshasa underwrote most of the cost, estimated at nearly $900 million to date. The high price tag is the result of a combination of bad planning and logistical challenges that border on the absurd.
First, the CENI had planned for about 63,000 polling sites spread across a country that has roughly the same land area as the United States east of the Mississippi but just 1,700 miles of paved roads.
Second, there were eleven presidential contenders, and 18,855 parliamentary candidates representing more than 250 parties. The CENI claimed that the country lacked the capacity to produce voting materials, so everything from ballots to voting booths had to be imported from China, Germany, Lebanon, and South Africa.
From the outset, however, the international community refused to act as an honest broker safeguarding the integrity of the electoral process. Instead, the Western diplomatic community showed substantial bias in favour of the status quo and the incumbent. Donors invested little or no serious effort in ensuring the integrity of the process, often echoing the government’s claims rather than demanding transparency, credibility, and fairness.
Diplomats from Belgium, Britain, France, and the United States have praised the CENI for enrolling 32 million voters, no doubt an impressive feat considering the enormous logistical hurdles that had to be cleared. But signing up voters is only the first step in the electoral process—not the last. These same international actors remained silent about the allegations of fraud and irregularities, even as Congolese and international human-rights organizations denounced the violence and abuses.
The silence of these Western governments has helped to spawn a crisis that could have easily been averted. Equally disturbing was the passive stance of MONUSCO, the United Nations peacekeeping mission in the country. A UN team of political and technical experts worked closely with and advised the CENI throughout the electoral process. Yet MONUSCO consistently rejected opposition groups’ pleas that it should act as an intermediary between them and the CENI, insisting that its mandate was only to lend logistical support to the electoral commission.
In a country such as the DRC, the integrity of the electoral process as well as the credibility of the results are inextricably tied to the response to logistical challenges. Thus the UN’s demurral was problematic, to say the least: In a country with an ill-planned electoral process and little in the way of modern transport or communications, applications of more logistical support here and less there could presumably tip the entire political balance.
Opposition parties repeatedly demanded a thorough audit of the voter register and asked to be involved in cleaning it up. But international donors expressed satisfaction with the CENI’s handling of the registration process and sided with the commission in its refusal to allow an audit.
In mid-September 2011, MONUSCO and UNDP experts assigned to a CENI electoral-support program told a civil society delegation that thoroughly auditing the register would take at least three months and delay the elections in violation of constitutional deadlines. The law required that the results of the presidential polls be declared by December 6, the date that marked the end of the incumbent’s term.
The DRC’s Western patrons believed that the need to hold elections on time trumped the need for a clean voter register that would generate popular confidence in the process. They were also more concerned with the institutional credibility of the CENI, which they thought would be damaged by a public audit of the voter registry, than with the need for a transparent process.
Their strategy backfired, however. The obsession on the part of some international actors with guarding the CENI’s reputation encouraged a lack of transparency and a culture of secrecy that enabled the exclusion of more than two-million voters (mainly from opposition strongholds) from the register.
During the weeks following the elections, members of the diplomatic community in Kinshasa exhorted Tshisekedi’s supporters to refrain from violence, but failed to condemn abuses by agents of state security. Throughout the process, MONUSCO and major international actors behaved as though election-related violence could come only from the opposition.
At a pre-election meeting in Brussels about security issues, an EU representative expressed satisfaction with the “relative stability in the East [of the DRC]” and normalized relations with Rwanda, but added that the UDPS was “a source of concern and may not accept elections results.”
This gross misreading of election-related security issues led the international community first to ignore the threat that the state-security apparatus posed during the campaign period, and then to side inadvertently with the Kabila government as its forces violently repressed the opposition during and after the elections.
For example, MONUSCO’s human rights monitors failed to condemn the violent repression on 20 October 2011 by a MONUSCO-trained police squad of a peaceful UDPS march to CENI headquarters to demand transparency of the electoral process. After the demonstration, UDPS secretary-general Jacquemin Shabani told a press conference that more than a dozen UDPS members had been arrested, with several injured as a result of police brutality.
Martin Fayulu, a prominent Tshisekedi ally and member of the Provincial Assembly of Kinshasa, had to be hospitalized for injuries he suffered at the hands of the police. While MONUSCU remained silent, political observers and civil society organizations strongly condemned the excessive use of violence by the police.
Ironically, this incident occurred as donors were announcing initiatives to support “reform and capacity building” in the Congolese National Police (PNC).
On October 10, just ten days before the brutal repression of the UDPS march, the Interior Ministry used funds from Britain’s overseas-development agency to host a workshop on securing elections. On October 12, the government organized a training session for five-hundred PNC officers in Oriental Province. That training was funded by a $2.5 million grant from the Japan International Cooperation Agency and received logistical support from MONUSCO and the UNDP.
The international community’s public and financial backing of the DRC’s security forces certainly did little to encourage change and may even have been interpreted by members of security institutions as an implicit carte blanche for continued repression. In a September 26 press conference, General Charles Bisengimana, inspector-general of the PNC, could not find the words to express the depth of his satisfaction with the role and support of MONUSCO and of France in training PNC units to handle election security.
Far from resulting in the stability that many in the Congolese government and international community were hoping for, the 2011 elections have created conditions ripe for the further weakening of state institutions and democratic mechanisms.
The potential of the unfolding postelection legitimacy crisis to engender instability is increasingly evident. Urgent actions are needed to reverse these trends.
Despite these alarming signs, the international community seems to be focused on quick fixes that at best will work only in the short-term. Stopgap initiatives, such as the push for a government of national unity or a consensual agenda for the next government, may salve the consciences of foreign diplomats but they do not address the root causes of the crisis and are bound to fail in the long run.
As they did before the elections, Kabila and his majority coalition, along with Western diplomats, continue to disregard Tshisekedi and to dismiss the opposition’s grievances. The elections have nonetheless shown that the aging leader—he will turn 80 in December 2012—is more than just an elderly icon from the independence era. Rather, he represents a groundswell of popular discontent that cannot be safely ignored.
The DRC government and foreign diplomats have made huge efforts to co-opt opposition leaders, including some of Tshisekedi’s cohort, such as Timothée Kombo Nkisi, in order to weaken the opposition. While such tactics may bring about a temporary compromise, they will only delegitimize those opposition leaders and further exacerbate the crisis that is crippling the government.
The strategy of bolstering the second Kabila administration and isolating Tshisekedi and the UDPS is unlikely to resolve the electoral impasse or to restore faith in the possibility of a democratic future for the DRC among its citizens. Local civil society organizations instead recommend a simple strategy for salvaging the elections and healing the nation, beginning with the immediate establishment of an independent commission of national and international experts that would conduct a thorough audit of the CENI’s electoral operations and financial records.
Such a measure would help to restore the public’s eroding confidence in the electoral process. The audit commission would make recommendations for restructuring the CENI and ensuring the independence and moral integrity of its members. The new commission should include nonpartisan representatives from civil society who would operate above the political fray. This would allow for better and more transparent planning of the local and provincial elections and ensure that a more competent and credible process is put in place.
At the same time, a genuine assessment of the role and conduct of international donors is needed.
In light of the human-rights disaster and the brutality of DRC security forces, the international community’s decade- long, multimillion-dollar support for security-sector reform must be reviewed and rethought. The assessment should also examine the effectiveness of donor support to key democratic institutions, including the judiciary and law enforcement. If the DRC is to rebuild its democratic institutions and economic infrastructure, it must have good and transparent governance.
Restoring the integrity of the electoral process is a critical first step.
Original article in Journal of Democracy - co-authored by Mvemba Dizolele and Pascal KambaleShareThis