Uncertainty ahead of Congo vote – ISN

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Haunted by a violent and corrupt legacy, the Democratic Republic of Congo prepares for elections.

IDPs on the move in the Kivus (Photo: Bob Kitchen/The IRC)

IDPs on the move in the Kivus (Photo: Bob Kitchen/The IRC)

By Simon Roughneen in Paris & Nairobi

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) will hold presidential and parliamentary elections on Sunday, 30 July, marking the vast country’s transition from corruption, tyranny and violent anarchy. However, the elections are being held amid grave political and strategic uncertainty. Fears pervade that Congo’s conflicts could re-erupt as a result of elections that are meant to underline a transition to stability and provide a seedbed for development.

The last democratic elections held in Africa’s second largest state took place in 1960 after Zaire, the DRC’s name between 1971 and 1997, gained its independence from Belgium. The victor, Patrice Lumumba, was later assassinated, and his short tem in office was marked by an attempted secession by the mineral-rich Katanga province and a UN peacekeeping intervention. Mobuto Sese Seko then ruled Zaire with a Western-financed iron fist, from 1964-1996.

Since Mobutu’s accession to power, the past 40 years have seen the systematic impoverishment and destruction of a vast and potentially wealthy country. Gross domestic product (GDP) was US$259 per capita at independence. It is now less than US$100. Seen as an anti-communist bulwark in a region where Moscow-backed insurgencies took place in neighboring Angola and Mozambique, Mobutu had free rein to establish a corrupt autocracy, with a 1974 constitution granting him absolute power over the Zairean executive, legislature and judiciary. His patronage system incorporated cronies in the army, business and politics, and he siphoned off billions of dollars for personal use. Thus, by 1990 Zaire was over US$14 billion in debt.

However, when the Cold War came to a close, and Marxist insurgencies began fading elsewhere in Africa, Mobutu lost his currency among his Western backers, and the impermeable power structure he had built began to crumble. This was exacerbated by the Rwandan genocide, as refugees and perpetrators streamed across the border into vast camps near Goma and hideouts in the jungle. In 1996, the Tutsi Rwandan Army invaded Zaire, ostensibly to chase down the extremist-Hutu Interahamwe/FDLR – perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide who fled after the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front took control in Kigali in 1994.

This led to Mobutu’s ousting, but set the scene for a 1998-2003 war that encompassed seven regional states and myriad Congolese militias, most or all with various foreign backers. Uganda and Rwanda first backed Laurent Kabila, who took power in a 1997 coup and led the drive to oust Mobutu, before turning against the Zimbabwe/Angola backed-government and instead supporting various eastern Congolese rebel groups. Later, Uganda and Rwanda came close to outright war in eastern Congo, as both their regular forces and local militias fought over territory and resources.

The conflict was marked by lawlessness and extortion, with several UN reports detailing the involvement of foreign armies, linked to both sides of the conflict, in mineral extraction, backing rebel groups in turf wars over the DRC’s vast mineral resources, and being embroiled in tribal-ethnic enmities that added to the complexity of the Congo wars.

The loot-driven conflict exacted a monumental and ongoing humanitarian toll. Between three and five million people are thought to have died due to fighting and related disease, malnutrition and lack of health care. Tales of mass rapes, drunken orgies of violence perpetrated by militias and regular armies, and even cannibalism of indigenous Pygmies made the DRC conflict the world’s worst in terms of lives lost, and one of the worst in every other sense since the end of World War II.

Even now, over 1,000 people die every day due to preventable diseases brought on by years of violence, underdevelopment and lack of infrastructure. A study published in the British medical journal The Lancet in February 2006 put the monthly figure of deaths from treatable diseases at over 38,000. And with violence and lack of development hindering humanitarian access and threatening to undermine elections in many areas – particularly in the eastern Ituri, north/south Kivus and parts of Katanga – a humanitarian disaster that has struggled to gain the world’s attention and investment looks set to continue.

The question is: will elections make things better?

Imposing stability and facilitating disorder

The elections will cost over US$400 million and are backed by the largest UN peacekeeping force in the world (which at 17,000, is a relatively paltry number for such a vast country) and 2,000 EU military in-country as back-up to the UN force. However, despite the international interest in the elections, it is not clear whether the election process has been sufficiently well-managed so as to enhance the transition to a stable peace.

Potential for electoral fraud remains, and judicial capacity is weak. Some 50,000 polling stations are scattered around a country as large as Western Europe, but with only 2,500 kilometers of asphalt roads. Many stations are deep in the jungle or along rivers and are accessible from outside only by air.

The recent build-up to the elections has seen a number of rallies turn violent, with three reported deaths. Local feeling is that the elections are an internationally driven effort to try shore up the Kabila presidency – expressed at a 25 July rally in Kinshasa, where demonstrators wanted polls to be delayed. Chanting “Congo is for the Congolese,” protesters accused the international community of trying to engineer a victory for Kabila. He is viewed as the frontrunner out of 32 presidential candidates – but opposition forces feel that the mainly Western states paying for the elections seek to ensure a favorable result.

Etienne Tshisekedi was regarded as the challenger most likely to defeat the transitional incumbent. However, as part of a trend that now means these elections are taking place on extremely shaky ground, he at first decided to boycott the elections, before changing his mind, but by that time he was too late to register his candidacy. Now his large constituency in Kasai and around Kinshasa will be left disenfranchised when the elections take place, and powerless in the post-election shake-up. However, it is not clear what the motivation for the opposition boycott affair is. Seemingly legitimate grievances are being manipulated for subversive ends, with the possibility of civil unrest looming.

Half of the 32 candidates have argued that the elections should be postponed, which would be the seventh such alteration since the elections were first proposed as part of the DRC peace deal. The Roman Catholic Church – of which over half the electorate is a member – has urged a boycott unless irregularities are fixed. The deployment of 5,000 international observers and an EU force restricted to Kinshasa and neighboring Gabon has not done enough to offset concerns. Indeed it has exacerbated them to many Congolese.

The years before the election have been marked by a dilettantish international attitude towards the DRC. As the 1998-2003 conflict roared on unabated, humanitarian access and funding were curtailed, and UN funding appeals were met by often lukewarm donor responses – despite the vast needs and scale of human loss. And now, despite the investment in the elections, it remains to be seen whether the same international investment will be provided to build governance capacity as is necessary for Congolese institutions.

Explosive delay

The DRC’s formidably challenging terrain and underdevelopment means that it will not be possible to publish results until September, with potential for delay until November. In a vitriolic and polarized context, with widespread suspicion of political processes, such a delay could prove explosive in itself.

In a state where good governance has been non-existent, political processes are vulnerable to understandable suspicion among the population. Despite a successful December 2005 constitutional referendum, which paved the way for these elections to take place, it is difficult to convince either victims of the Congolese conflict or warlords that may lose out in a stable DRC that elections represent a viable future.

Militias backed by foreign powers during the DRC conflict have representation among the presidential and parliamentary candidates in the upcoming elections. At a meeting in London held by the think tank Chatham House, Dr Muzong Kodi, former Africa Director for Transparency International, said: “It [the election] will be fraught with risk. The government will not meet in that time, losers may protest against the results…warlords may be tempted to resort to fighting.”

Armed groups in the east of Rwandaphone background will lose much of their wealth and influence in a stable post-election DRC, and may see no advantage in giving up violence – especially if attempts are made to curtail corruption in the extractive industries.

Control of the Congo’s resources remains a hot-button issue, with allegations that corruption remains rife in the primary resource extraction sector. And this will be a major obstacle for any post-election order to overcome if the DRC is to stabilize. The DRC has 10 percent of the worlds copper, two-thirds of its coltan, as well as gold, diamonds, uranium, zinc, among others – and a river system that could electrify all of Africa.

Tackling corruption, reforming the security sectors, transparent resource extraction, and revenue increase are all key priorities for a more stable DRC. Whether elections will help or hinder these vital tasks is uncertain at best.

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