Tensions high as DRC awaits poll results – ISN

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With votes being counted in the second round of presidential elections in DRC, peace pledges by both candidates have not allayed fears of post-result violence.

Kanila supporters (People's Daily, China)

Kabila supporters (People's Daily, China)

By Simon Roughneen

As votes are being counted after a second round of presidential elections in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), observers and citizens are hoping that the country’s first democratic polls sine 1960 will finally renounce bloodshed and mark a transition from conflict to peace.

Observers and the country’s Independent Electoral Commission reported that the second round of presidential elections had gone well, save for a couple of incidents in the northeast, but there are fears that a narrow victory for either candidate could result in violence.

Sunday’s run-off came after none of the 32 candidates registered an overall majority in the 31 July first round. DRC interim President Joseph Kabila won 44 percent of the vote, but fell short of a majority by just 900,000 votes out of 18 million cast.

In the Assembly elections also held on 31 July, Kabila’s Alliance for Presidential Majority took 300 of the 500 seats, while Bemba’s Union of Nationalists won 116. Provincial elections were held simultaneously with last Sunday’s second round.

This election is meant to mark the vast country’s transition to peaceful politics and what is hoped will be an era of socio-economic development and post-conflict reconciliation – after 3-5 million people died and 5 more million were displaced by fighting and related health/security issues since 1996.

Kabila – son of assassinated president Laurent, who took power after rebels aided by the Rwandan and Ugandan armies chased out former dictator Mobutu in 1996 – is the favorite to defeat Jean-Pierre Bemba, a former Ugandan-allied warlord who was given one of four vice-presidential slots in the interim administration formed by the Global and Inclusive Agreement signed in 2003.

Kabila and Bemba fought each other in the course of the Congolese wars, and observers fear that the election results will be disputed and lead to more fighting between groups allied to the two men.

Both candidates have cited security as a priority for a successful transition, and representatives of both signed a pre-election declaration that the loser would renounce force and would appeal to supporters for calm in the event of unrest.

However, violence is possible if either candidate loses. Violence is perhaps more likely if Kabila loses, and if the margin is narrow, observers fear.

Reportedly frustrated at his failure to gain an overall majority in the first round, Kabila has the manpower to contest the outcome of the election by military means, with almost 15,000 men reportedly assigned to his own presidential guard, and loyal to him in person, rather than to his current office, which is meant to be an interim transitional post.

Bemba also has a private army, though it is not as potent or as large as Kabila’s. Should Bemba lose the election, he may be mollified by a likely offer of a ministerial post by Kabila. However, Kabila has reportedly already offered the powerful post of prime minister to Antoine Gizenga, the candidate who came third in the first round of the voting.

Voter participation in the second round was relatively low, though estimates range from 30 percent to 50 percent, according to Rigobert Minani, chairman of the National Network of Observers. In the first round, voter turnout was at around 70 percent.

The Kabila-Bemba voting trend in the first round showed a clear east-west split – with the Swahili-speaking east largely behind Kabila, while the Lingala-speaking west voted for Bemba.

Between rounds of voting, both candidates sought to build decisive coalitions, with Kabila courting Gizenga, who won 13 percent of the vote in the central-western provinces of Kasai and Bandundu – where Kabila will need support is he wins the presidency.

In turn, Bemba sought an alliance with Etienne Tshsekedi’s Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) – which commands significant support in and around Kinshasa – but boycotted the electoral process.

Bemba ran a vitriolic campaign citing Kabila’s alleged foreignness, conflating this issue with the depredations of foreign armies and militias in the Congo during the post-1996 era. Bemba campaigned on a slogan of “100 percent Congolese,” referring to the fact that Kabila was raised in Tanzania.

Kabila’s new wife Olive also took to the campaign trail, showing herself to be a confident orator in Lingala, the western Congolese language that Kabila does not speak.

However, the xenophobic allusions promoted by Bemba’s campaign are explosive in a context where ethnicity and identity has been politicized, and after a recent history of foreign intervention in the DRC.

Bemba has said that if elected, he would disband all remaining Congolese militias and expel all foreign fighters from the country – a move that may not be feasible given the challenge of confronting some 15,000 Rwandan Hutus believed to have carried out the 1994 genocide, and who are still at large in the DRC’s vast eastern rainforests. Since 2002, nearly 17,000 mainly Rwandan fighters have been repatriated, but nearly as many are believed to have remained behind.

Despite being ravaged by war and lacking physical infrastructure or commercial viability – beyond corrupt and poorly-managed natural resource extraction – the DRC has a prolific and outspoken media, with 119 radio and 53 TV stations, and more than 170 newspapers. Almost all are politicized, owned by presidential candidates or colleagues. Mutual accusations of electoral fraud have been bandied about by rival TV stations, while others announced election results prematurely, without having the actual figures at hand.

Given the wait before the decisive second round vote is counted and result announced, such rumor-mongering could prove incendiary in what is a volatile winner-takes-all situation.

While the hate speech emanating from these organs has not matched the infamous Radio Mille Collines in Rwanda in the run-up to the 1994 genocide, the level of vitriol and propaganda has been marked, inciting ill-feeling between rival camps at best, and contributing to the violence that broke out in Kinshasa after the first round. More than 30 people died in Kinshasa in August during three days of riots, while a Bemba meeting with the head of the UN mission and 14 ambassadors came under sustained fire from Kabila-allied militias.

Despite being almost as large as Western Europe, the DRC has only about 300 miles of paved roads. Conducting the election proved to be a massive logistical challenge, and the vast size, inhospitable jungle terrain, lack of infrastructure mean that results will not be available for up to three weeks.

The waiting game could prove explosive in itself, as rumors and counter-rumors may provide candidate-allied militias with the motivation to launch pre-emptive attacks on rivals. In the tense atmosphere in Kinshasa after the first round, numerous attacks and reprisals took place between Kabila’s guards and Bemba’s retinues.

International interests are hoping for a margin of at least 10 percent between the two candidates, so as to undermine any justification for use of force to contest a narrow victory that could be claimed as fraudulent.

International interest in the elections is, in the face of it, quite high – but the investment in securing a stable transition for the DRC has been underwhelming, the past decade taken as a whole.

The DRC transition is backed up by an 18,000 strong UN peacekeeping force known by its French acronym MONUC. The largest such force in the world today is in reality stretched thinly over the vast terrain of the central African giant. To illustrate, a similar peacekeeping force in terms of troop numbers was deployed in tiny Sierra Leone until 2005.

MONUC has been reinforced for the electoral period by an EU force (EUFOR), which has 1,100 troops stationed in the capital for the period, with another 1,300 in neighboring Gabon, and a reserve force of 1,700 in rapid deployment mode in Europe. Of the troops present, only a few hundred are combat-ready, with a Spanish special force unit and Polish contingent of military police representing EUFOR’s effective vanguard.

The elections cost the international community around US$500 million. However, humanitarian appeals for the country have fallen short. A February article published by the respected UK medical journal, The Lancet, stated that over 1,000 people per day die of curable diseases brought about by conflict, and because of the reversal of development caused by years of corrupt rule under Mobutu, and the violence that ensued after he was deposed.

So as the votes are counted in these landmark elections, long-suffering citizens are counting on a clear result and agreed accession of power by whoever wins. Otherwise, another election in Africa will be nullified by military power, with old fears about winner-takes-all electoral politics negating the consensual process and bargaining that should characterize electoral politics. After 3-5 million deaths and the virtual destruction of much of the country, the DRC cannot afford such a relapse.

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