The DRC’s uncertain election

The DRC’s uncertain election

Political tensions are increasing in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) as concerns over a December election spread among the political opposition and the international community.

It seems likely that the presidential election set for 23 December 2018 will be delayed or disrupted and President Joseph Kabila’s People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy (PPRD) will retain power. Three factors are likely to cause the renewed delay or severe disruption of the DRC’s elections, namely: lower public faith in Kabila’s ability to maintain regional peace; political instability; and fraudulent elections.

At the core of these concerns is the rivalry for power among DRC’s political elites, some of whom do not provide a more democratic alternative to Kabila. Among the political opposition, the most prominent contenders are Vital Kamerhe, leader of the Union for the Congolese Nation; and Eve Bazaiba, Secretary-General of the Movement for the Liberation of Congo. Both Kamerhe and Bazaiba have expressed their interest in re-negotiating their partnership with Kabila’s government, in an attempt to avoid marginalization by the PPRD’s closest coalition partner, the Unified Lumumbist Party (PALU).

The role of political violence in election delays

Since late 2016, elections in DRC have repeatedly been delayed. One of the biggest threats to credible elections in DRC is President Kabila’s dismissal of the Saint Sylvester agreement of December 2016, which mandated the holding of presidential elections in December 2017. These failed to materialize and the government appears to be making no concerted effort to organize fresh ones. The international community is concerned that Kabila is trying to retain power by such tactics, among others, including a deadly government crackdown on December 31, 2017, in which Congolese protesters met state-sponsored violence when they demanded democratic elections and better governance.

Burundi’s history of political and ethnic-based violence against political dissidents has inflamed an already dire humanitarian situation, undermining the public faith of ordinary Burundians in democratic institutions’ ability to quell political violence. This is particularly disturbing, given the role that democratic institutions can play in rehabilitating communities that have experienced war-related trauma, and underdevelopment due to inter-ethnic conflict. This has lead to a growing sense among ordinary citizens that Kabila is a divisive political figure. Since 2015, the DRC’s government has violently cracked down on political activists and civil society actors who have questioned the legitimacy of his regime. During demonstrations in Kinshasa in January 2015, government security forces killed an estimated 36 people. Forcible disappearances and kidnappings are other methods used by the government to coerce citizens into accepting the regime.  Additionally, with the escalating violence in the region since 2015, an estimated 4.5 million individuals had been internally displaced by December 31 2017, according to OCHA, the UN’s principal refugee agency.  

The Council on Foreign Relations and Human Rights Watch have both expressed concern at the severity with which political dissidents are punished by the government. Should the December elections be deferred, political violence will continue, increasing political tensions. This will certainly be an outcome of government failure to reach an equitable peace agreement through coalition-building across ethnic lines, and to address the overrepresentation of the Tutsi minority group, leading to continued civil unrest in opposition areas.

Inter-ethnic conflict as an obstacle to regional peace

Security concerns in the DRC’s eastern region have risen, now that numerous armed groups are perpetrating large-scale attacks on civilians, such as ethnic cleansing, pillage, rape, and the recruitment of child soldiers.  A report by the Center on International Cooperation found that at least 70 armed groups are active in eastern Congo, and that an estimated 1.6 million people are displaced as a result of persistent  violence in the region.

Since 2011, the DRC’s government has refused to negotiate with armed groups, not wanting to give them a political platform. But it has made exceptions of two of these – the Yakutumba Mai Mai and the Patriotic Resistance Front of Ituri (FRPI); otherwise, this policy has mostly resulted in further political fragmentation as paramilitary leaders have lost their position as intermediaries between armed groups and the central government. Political elites have seized the chance to exploit the armed struggles over land and customary succession, adding to the communal tensions and ethnic rivalries that impair the cohesion of civil society. Ethnic conflict in Congo’s eastern region has a long history of increasing the political marginalization of the country’s small but powerful Tutsi community, which sees itself as under-represented in government. One of the most widely-known armed groups, the March 23 Movement (M23), is mostly made up of ethnic Tutsis and is allegedly supported by the Rwandan government.

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM), the United Nation’s refugee agency, recently expressed alarm over increasing violence in Congo’s eastern region. Amid political tensions, and the government’s inability (or unwillingness) to manage inter-ethnic conflict in the region, the humanitarian crisis in Congo has worsened significantly. According to Babar Baloch, Senior Communications Officer for UNHCR in East Africa, some refugees from the region flee not only to escape the abuses by armed groups, but also in anticipation of military operations. These pressures on security require the government to pay more attention than it does at present to communities hit by inter-ethnic armed conflict. It has so far been reluctant to address the issue by failing to take a strong stance against the use of ethnically divisive rhetoric. This is perhaps due to Kabila’s interest in retaining power and in buying time for his regime before presidential elections prove him incapable of handling inter-ethnic conflict in the eastern region.

Election fraud through new voting technology

The remaining source of public concern is election fraud, mostly following the introduction of electronic voting machines in the region in September 2017. U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley told a UN Security Council meeting that “[using] an unfamiliar technology for the first time during a crucial election is an enormous risk” but the CENI hailed electronic voting technology as a cost-reducing means of reducing election fraud.

The Catholic Church, which is a big political player in the DRC, has asked the CENI to employ technical experts to ensure that votes cannot be rigged, before 60,000 voting machines are distributed around the country. Opposition candidates have expressed concern, stemming from Kenya’s 2017 election , when  Raila Odinga, the presidential candidate of the National Super Alliance (NASA) coalition, claimed that hackers had stolen and altered information in the electoral body’s electronic database to manipulate the outcome of the presidential election of August 8th.

Some opposition groups and diplomats from the UN have warned that the voting machines could contribute to election fraud. The International Crisis Group has added that using new technology in a region beset by poor infrastructure and a lack of reliable electricity poses a risk to the credibility of results. Finally, the CENI’s introduction of electronic voting technology comes at a moment when its impartiality is being called into question, because its president, Corneille Nangaa, failed to schedule an election before November 2018, leading to suspicions that the CENI is not an independent body.  

The challenges of inter-ethnic conflict, state-sponsored violence against political dissidents, and the potential for election fraud due to a misalignment between new voting technology and domestic infrastructure, will test Burundi’s electoral readiness. Whether President Kabila will respect the Saint Sylvester Agreement and step down as president to allow for a peaceful political succession, will depend on his determination to use credible elections as a tool to address political challenges. Failure to hold elections can, however, come about if any of the above challenges undermine the ability of the CENI to host transparent elections. Additionally, the security concerns in eastern Congo which have exposed the weakness of Kabila’s administration in dealing with armed groups, have exacerbated an already dire humanitarian crisis. These tensions will only escalate in the absence of credible elections.

About Author

Kwadwo Boateng

Kwadwo A. Boateng is a Ghanaian graduate student at the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University who grew up in Johannesburg. He holds an Honors Degree in History, from Trinity College Dublin, and has worked with a number of organizations including the International Rescue Committee, International Crisis Group, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, UBS Wealth Management, and Rolling Stone Magazine. “Youth is never a handicap, but a new vantage point from which we can hope to inspire the good in others."'