One of Africa’s largest, poorest and most violent countries will have its second election – presidential and parliamentary – on Nov. 28, after overcoming a dictatorship, a coup and two brutal civil wars. The Democratic Republic of Congo, independent since 1960 from Belgium, remains a glaring paradox, however, with enormous mineral wealth plumbed alongside extreme poverty. It is also still in the grip of a lingering conflict that has claimed more than five million lives since 1998.
In 2006, with massive assistance from the United Nations, Congo, formerly called Zaire, held its first elections after ousting the longtime kleptomaniac leader Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997. This time around, the UN’s peacekeeping mission is training election officials, meant to be led by the Congolese themselves. Amid a cholera outbreak, continuing violence, allegations of misuse of mining revenue by President Joseph Kabila and calls for demonstrations and fighting by a leading opposition candidate, this election round will struggle to solidify a viable democracy in the heart of Africa.
As one UN official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity, even if the election goes relatively smoothly, it is not a “hinge moment” for Congo. Monday’s vote for both presidential and parliamentary seats, nevertheless, is a first for the country. The elections – orchestrated by a newly created electoral commission – are logistically difficult, given that the country is home to more than 71 million people, including about 450 tribes, and is the size of Western Europe. There are 11 presidential candidates and 18,500 parliamentary candidates vying for 500 spots channeled through 63,000 polling stations.
Some media reports suggest that President Kabila will be the likely victor since he enjoys a considerable advantage over the opposition, which is splintered among 10 other candidates. Kabila will also probably gain from a new law that eliminates run-off elections, a situation that plagued Côte d’Ivoire’s presidential election a year ago. In the past, Congo had a two-round voting system, but now the candidate with a plurality in the first round wins.
Moreover, the leading opposition candidate, Étienne Tshisekedi, has alleged that Kabila paid Parliament members $25,000 to $50,000 to vote for the new law.
The parliamentary elections may not be as clear cut as to winners. Twice as many candidates are running than in 2006, which also means that shifting political alliances are vying for each party’s seats.
Dark Picture on Human Rights
Even if the elections are pulled off without tremendous chaos, the country has far to go toward normalization. A report released this month by the United Nations Joint Human Rights Office, a cooperative effort between the peacekeeping operation in Congo and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, found many rights-related shortcomings. Covering the period from November 2010 to September 2011, the report cited incidents that contributed to a “climate of intimidation” up to the elections.
The incidents include threats against opposition members, arbitrary and illegal detention, prohibiting public demonstrations through the presence and violent activity of riot police and seizing campaign material. The report also said that at least four people were killed during political demonstrations since November 2010. Details of intimidating and detaining journalists were additionally noted.
One incident in September involved four men discussing the election in a barbershop. The men were then arrested and beaten by government forces. Supporters of political parties have also been arrested for wearing opposition related T-shirts. Another event involved a person being arrested for possessing a journal that questioned the nationality of President Kabila. The third main presidential contender, Vital Kamerhe, held a rally that was dispersed by police firing weapons into the air.
While Congo has protections of civil and human rights enshrined in its 2006 constitution, including numerous international human rights norms, many of the activities compiled in the UN report have been justified by the Congolese government under legislation Order No. 300. This law, banning insults against the head of state, was invoked in the 2006 and current pre-election by security forces during many of the arrests, the UN report says.
Stuffing Offshore Coffers
President Kabila is the son of the country’s only other president, Laurent-Désiré Kabila, who ousted Mobutu in 1997 but was assassinated in 2001. Joseph Kabila won the 2006 election promising to end the country’s war in the east, a vow that has failed, and has been accused of plundering Congo’s resources. Reuters recently reported that the government has allegedly siphoned revenue from national mining projects into offshore bank accounts. Yet that news has had little effect on Kabila’s standing in the pre-elections.
An official from the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations said, “not a whole lot of campaigning has occurred” in Kabila’s camp and that “people vote according mostly to longstanding family traditions.”
The main opposition leader, Tshisekedi, has hardly been upstanding either, making such inflammatory comments as he would kick out Rwandans and their sympathizers and his imprisoned supporters should break free from jail. Tshisekedi has said that the statements were not meant to cause violence but to mobilize people.
Despite sporadic violence and the corruption surrounding the elections, UN officials say that until now it has hardly been the train wreck that many expected. Election-related supplies, for example, have arrived in time for the vote. Yet relative calm on Nov. 28 does not indicate that all is well for the country, as eruptions may occur after results are announced, a UN official warned. The main problems – conflict in the east and severe underdevelopment – will be far from solved.