2011- 2013 elections in DRC: Background and challenges

By Onesphore Sematumba, Pole Institute, July 2011

1. As long as the towns are calm…

On Tuesday 19 July 2011, the population of Shabunda, in the province of South Kivu, eastern DRC, committed an act that was unusual in Congolese culture. Exasperated by the insecurity it has been exposed to over the past few years and the de facto slavery it is subjected to by the Rwandan rebels of the FDLR, the population tried to prevent the return to Bukavu of an important delegation which had come to their area for a brief visit. With inadequate means, men and women from this martyred town blocked the road and threw stones to try to prevent the visitors from leaving. The delegation included Roger Meece, United Nations Special Representative and Head of the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO), and Marcellin Cishambo, the Governor of the Province of South Kivu. The delegation was only able to leave thanks to the police firing to disperse this manifestation of long contained anger.

By daring to attack two symbols of power, the population expressed that they were sick and tired of insecurity and in despair about being abandoned by those who are supposed to ensure their safety.

Two days before, it was the fishermen working on Lake Tanganyika who issued an ultimatum - or strike notice - if the harassment they were suffering from a local Maï Maï group did not cease. "General" Yakutumba's Maï Maï group had in fact threatened to board any fishing vessels that did not pay them a monthly fee of $500. These fishermen also expect a minimum of protection from the government to be able to shuttle between Uvira (South Kivu) and Kalemie (Katanga) to ensure their livelihood.

In Beni territory, in the northern part of North Kivu, whole villages are being abandoned by the population because of an attack warning delivered to them by Ugandan rebels from the ADF- NALU. Further south, in Lubero territory, men in military uniforms abducted Doctor Paluku Mukongoma from his consulting room at Oïcha hospital in broad daylight. He disappeared at 16:00 on 1st July 2011 and has not been seen or heard from since.

As for the crossing of Virunga National Park from Rutshuru territory to Lubero territory, travellers put their lives at risk; the road is frequently blocked by highway robbers who operate with impunity on a route that is important for the economy of the province of North Kivu. The perpetrators of these acts are often attached to the Rwandan FDLR, but very poorly paid soldiers of the regular army and idle youths in search of subsistence also operate under this label.

This is unfortunately not an exhaustive portrait for entire areas of the Kivus and Eastern province in particular are under the heel of foreign rebels who escape practically all government controls. More details? 7 of the 8 territories in South Kivu for example. This fact is nonetheless usually obscured as if there were an unspoken consensus that, as long as everything is calm in Kinshasa and in the other major towns, the rest of the country and the population is of no importance!

Given this situation, speaking of elections is something of a provocation for the men and women who live with their worldly goods in bundles on their heads and whose life expectancy is literally "a renewable term of twenty four hours".

This being said, the elections will be held and must be held not only because, as Ivoirian writer Ahmadou Kourouma wrote in his novel Pending the vote of the wild beasts: "the croaking of frogs does not stop the elephant from drinking" but also because the representatives elected in 2006 have reached the end of their terms of office, which must be renewed or new representatives elected for 2011-2013, otherwise the attractive democratic front erected with the International Community will be in danger of crumbling.

2.  The CENI's millions

If we are to believe Mr Daniel Ngoy Mulonda, chairman of the National Independent Electoral Commission (CENI), all the lights are green, just over four months from D day, 28 November 2011, when all Congolese citizens of voting age will once more slip their precious ballot papers into the ballot boxes to choose the future President of the Republic and members of parliament.

In less than four months from its effective installation, the figures produced by the CENI, it must be said, are quite impressive. It has succeeded in exceeding its self-assigned target of 31 million voters, including 3 million in Kinshasa, which represents almost 6 million more than in 2006. Another achievement, to be chalked up to the Congolese government, is the $110 million in funding found for the CENI to date. If we add to this the funds assigned to the CENI's predecessor, the defunct Independent Electoral Commission (CEI), the government's share in the funding of the 2011-2013 electoral cycle amounts to $190 million, the DRC's ambition being to contribute 60% of the budget instead of the 10% in 2006. Another sizeable contribution: France has just trained a first contingent of 500 Congolese policemen out of a total of 1,000 to be assigned to policing the elections, for a budget of 2 million Euros. In exchange for these phenomenal sums, the CENI promises irreproachable elections - free, transparent, democratic and on schedule.

3. The stakeholders and the issues at stake

By definition, at an election, "the population concerned transfers, by a majority vote, to chosen representatives or agents, legitimacy for holding the power assigned to the function occupied, through the intermediary of a political contract." [1] The population therefore plays a key role and constitutes the main actor in the electoral scenario, whereas the candidate seeking election negotiates legitimacy, a term of office, and tries to sell a social project which, if it is accepted by the voters, constitutes the basis of a contract. What about the Congolese experience?

First let us remember that, contrary to broad opinion, the 2006 elections were not the first to be held in the Congo. There were others, before that, under the country's various regimes and successive denominations. As journalist Marie-Soleil Frère observes, "… even before independence, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Republic of Zaire between 1974 and 1998) held municipal elections in 1957, communal elections in December 1959 and legislative elections in May 1960. After the country gained independence on 30 June 1960, the Congolese people were called to the ballot box to ratify the constitutional referendum in 1964, for the legislative elections in 1965 and the constitutional referendum in 1967. Then elections were held under the single party system - MPR - in 1970, 1975, 1977, 1982 and 1987, and for the referendum on the new constitution of Zaire in 1973. Mobutu Sese Seko, the sole candidate, was elected by the citizens in 1977 and 1984."

The DRC therefore does have a history of elections, but this has evidently not left an indelible impression on the collective memory for two main reasons. The first is that elections around the time of independence happened before most of today's Congolese voters were born; the second is that elections in the time of Mobutu were so farcical they were a joke and the voters forgot all about them as soon as they stepped out of the polling station. For more than forty years, the population has been swindled and their power confiscated by elites who quickly reversed the roles, turning the voters into beggars and the elections into a big market for fools where votes were exchanged for crates of beer, yards of cloth and scarves with the portrait of the candidates on them as well as other similar trivia.

The same people are voted in again and business runs as usual!

The 2006 elections were an opportunity for the Congolese "Primary Sovereign" to win back the power that had been taken from it by repositioning itself as mandatary instead of beggar. This was not the case. The candidates, all imbibed with the Mobuto culture that the majority had helped to implant, flooded the people with crates of beer, sacks of flower, bales of cloth, headscarves and other trinkets against a background of empty rhetoric and speeches that were often demagogic, sometimes inflammatory. The day after the elections, the population realised, a tad late, the extent of the damage: for a few short-lived gifts they legitimised, for five long years, those same men and women who had been defrauding the country since 1960; fathers sitting in the Senate while their children debated in the National Assembly, a minister removed from office who gave his place in the government to his wife. Lastly, an East-West spilt was remarkable according to the votes gained by the two challengers in the second round of the presidential elections, Jean-Pierre Bemba having collected all the votes in the west and Joseph Kabila in the east.

This fragmentation at national level barely concealed the more insidious divisions, at the level of the communities, consequences of a vote that was ethnic in several regions. In fact, in a situation where the State has failed in its traditional missions of ensuring basic security and minimum services such as health care and education, the bonds between families, clans and ethnic groups operated as protective structures for individuals and regulated social life and, in a way, political life. The candidates largely played on the ethnic fibre, inviting the populations to vote for "their child", "the son/daughter of the land", sometimes adding the promise of defending your brothers and sisters against the "others". In Goma, we still remember the campaign of a provincial member of parliament who swore he would not shave his beard until "all the Rwandans in North Kivu go back home", alluding to the Congolese people speaking "Kinyarwanda". At the end of this term of office, the honourable gentleman still has his flourishing beard and can gamble with it again in the coming month for another term in parliament.

For, unfortunately, this divisive scenario may well be repeated during the electoral cycle. First of all, at the top: We will certainly witness an inflation of candidates for the presidential elections as in 2006 when the Congolese people had a choice of 33 candidates in the first round. Their agendas were vague but each candidate claimed a "home territory" corresponding to their birthplace, the contest was reduced to a race for fixing territorial boundaries rather than a combat of ideas.  For example, the candidacy of two biological sisters – same father same mother, as they say here - in Bas Congo appeared incongruous to some, when in fact the two ladies belonged to different political parties. Later, in the second round, we witnessed a re-composition of national territory through the buying up of land with a view to the final victory. Two major blocks were formed. Furthermore, the Alliance for the Presidential Majority supporting Joseph Kabila, which included important players from the west, including the Unified Lumumbist Party (PALU) of the patriarch Gizenga, which had stocked up on votes in his native Bandundu and the Union of Mobutist Democrats (UDEMO) of Nzanga Mobutu, the son of Marshal Mobutu himself, who had been toppled by Joseph Kabila's father. This surprise alliance allowed the MPA to gain votes in the province of L'Equateur, fief of the other finalist, Jean-Pierre Bemba. The latter, who had filled up on votes in the capital, was counting on his block, the Union for the Nation (UN) to win the presidential seat. But for lack of a significant ally in the mountains in the east, he lost the election, with 42% of the votes. Subsequently, his past as a rebel leader caught up with him. Accused of crimes committed by his troops in the Central African Republic, he was arrested while staying in Belgium and transferred to The Hague where he will be brought before the International Criminal Court (ICC). Orphaned and divided, the young opposition in the Congo will play only a marginal role in institutions dominated by the Head of State's henchmen.

The 2011 scenario appears to be more complicated. First of all because the rules of the game have changed since January with the hasty revision of the Constitution by a National Assembly under the influence of the current Head of State and candidate for his own succession, Joseph Kabila. According to the new provisions, the presidential election will now take place in one round only, irrespective of the winner's score. In spite of the uproar caused by this constitutional tampering in the opposition and within Civil Society, the powerful Catholic Church in particular, nothing can be done. The irruption into the arena of two opponents whose possible alliance in the second round could push the current President into an unfavourable runoff certainly counted for much in this revision. First of all, there is Etienne Tshisekedi. The old leader of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) declared himself a Presidential candidate, after boycotting the ballot in 2006. With Jean-Pierre Bemba held by the ICC in The Hague, Kinshasa, plus the two provinces of Kasaï (in the centre), could well swing towards the old opponent. Then there is the effervescent Vital Kamerhe, former Secretary General of the presidential party and former Chairman of the National Assembly, today at the head of an opposition party, the Union for the Congolese Nation (UNC) and of the Alternance Vital Kamerhe (AVK) coalition, which will hunt for votes on the same Kivu territories where Joseph Kabila was voted in in 2006 when the main propagandist was… Vital Kamerhe.

The mining province of Katanga (South-East), Joseph Kabila's native province, seems to fall naturally to him through the support he enjoys from local leaders such as the President of the Provincial Assembly, Kyungu wa Kumwanza, infamous for the pogrom against the Kasaïens under Mobutu, the wealthy national member of parliament Jean Claude Muyambo and the equally wealthy governor Moïse Katumbi Chapwe. The latter, who announced that he was retiring from politics completely at the end of this term of office, continues to declare his loyalty to the Head of State. Bas-Congo (far west) will certainly open its arms to the candidate supported by the Bundu dia Mayala party of member of parliament Ne Mwana Nsemi whose ambitions of autonomy are a secret for no-one.  As for the province of L'Equateur, home of the Mobutus and Bembas, it will be bitterly fought over, as neither of the clans has a potential presidential candidate.

In a context like this, the most likely scenario would have been a consensus among the opposition around a joint candidate and programme to face up to the candidate in the presidential camp and thereby avoid a dispersal of the votes and the division of the electoral territory. Such a schema does not yet seem to be emerging, with each opposition party believing its hour of glory has arrived. Other candidates have even been announced, including Dr Oscar Kashala, who came fifth in 2006, and François Muamba, a dissident from Jean-Pierre Bemba's MLC. This cacophony arising from the war of egos is surely beneficial to the outgoing President who will only have to win the first round in 2011, irrespective of the number of Congolese citizens who vote in his favour. However, an opposition alliance at the last minute is not totally impossible nor is a vote against the president in power who has not kept his promises in terms of security and improving the living conditions of the population. In this eventuality, the new elected representative would face the challenge of sticking back together the territories of the country and preventing it from falling back into the situation it was in prior to 2002, so fragile remain the balances in DRC.

An incomplete process: when will the local elections be held?

We are embarking on the 2011- 2013 electoral cycle when in fact the 2006 elections were never completed. First there was a constitutional referendum, the presidential election, the direct suffrage for national and provincial legislative elections and indirect ballots to appoint senators and provincial governors. And then, nothing else. The urban, municipal and local elections, which were scheduled, were never held, whereas they would have served as an impetus to the decentralisation preached by the new Constitution. It all took place as though, according to the logic of the strictly vertical pyramid in place since independence, the grassroots institutions, especially in the rural areas, were of no political importance whatsoever. Unless it was a deliberate strategy on the part of the elected powers. In fact, while the populations were deprived of an opportunity to choose local representatives who would have been all the more accountable to them that they would not have abandoned them to go and do politics "elsewhere" – once elected, the members of parliament took up their positions in the national or provincial capital and only came back at the end of their term of office to ask to be voted in again – the fact that local elections were overlooked allowed those in power to appoint, by decree, the local administrators (mayors, local counsellors, territorial administrators and district commissioners). This administrative apparatus could repay the favour by possibly influencing the vote of the administered in favour of the candidates in power who put them in their current positions.  According to the current schedule, the local elections will be held in 2013, at the end of the process, with all the risks of "forgetting" them again, unless the memory of Pastor Ngoy, the current chairman of the CENI, is more reliable than that of Abbé Malumalu, the ex-chairman of the defunct CEI. Again, the volatility of the security situation in the countryside will have to be taken into account, where even foreign armed rebels such as the FDLR have been enrolled and could influence the process, either by disturbing the elections through military activism, or by distorting the results with their votes when we know that in DRC resident foreigners, just like expatriate Congolese, do not have voting rights.

What is a political party for?

Meanwhile, although the electoral campaign hasn't started yet, they are all sharpening their weapons for the elections. On the pretext of mobilising citizens to have them register to vote (enrolment), the future candidates have come back to "their bases" and, killing two birds with one stone, have implanted their current parties. For, in the meantime, most of the national members of parliament have joined other groups or created parties intended to procure themselves another term of office. This inflation of parties will certainly add to the confusion and the divisions mentioned above, as the vast majority of Congolese people are not well enough informed to navigate through the labyrinth of acronyms, especially when the standard-bearer (the local son/daughter)  is –already!- calling on the voters to vote for someone else, in the presidential elections. As was recently remarked by an analyst of the political life in North Kivu, "in 2006 we elected members of parliament; in 2011 they have all become political parties"!

This migration from one party to another, this continuous quest for a "moral authority" and fertile creation of acronyms (the Interior Ministry has to date counted 400 political parties) illustrate the words of Mr Djoli Eseng’ekeli:
"The political parties in the Congo, in the past and today, remain ephemeral and fragmented. They are circumstantial, the property of individuals, essentially urban, with no precise vision of a political agenda nor clear ideological foundations; they are "everything but the kitchen sink" with connotations of tribalism, regionalism, opportunism and nepotism." [2]

4. A history of shattered illusions 

On 30 June 1960, the Congolese people celebrated an independence they were expecting miracles from. The next day, 1st July 1960, no miracle happened and the witnesses of this era assure us that, on that day, the country began a dangerous backward slide. In 2006, the descendents of the witnesses to independence and the survivors of the backward slide were jubilant, on the occasion of the first free, democratic and transparent elections. Didn't the candidates promise us, during speeches doused in beer and decked out in scarves, "a country more beautiful than before" the day after the vote? Peace, bread, water, electricity and jobs, nothing was left out in the string of promises. Five years later, there is great disillusionment and tangible disgust. "I won't be voting, it serves no purpose other than to make those in power wealthier", states someone who was disappointed in 2006. A feeling that is largely shared, despite the observed keenness to get on the voters roll and the noisy processions that welcome and accompany the politicians at the airports and docks during their pre-electoral tours. The enthusiasm for registering on the voter's roll is due to the fact that voting cards act as provisional identity cards, and registering to vote therefore confers a civil status that is as much of an incentive to the Congolese as the possibility of voting. As for the mobilisation of the politicians' followers, no-one is fooled: It is proportional to the financial capacity of the candidate who fills the tanks of the motorcyclists with petrol, rents trucks and buses, and gives food and drink to anyone who turns up.

The overall impression is therefore that "the elections serve no purpose", not even for giving birth to an embryo of democracy. The embryo could only grow in a milieu where the population has sufficient political culture to dare challenging their elected representatives who, as we said above, owe them their legitimacy and are therefore indebted to them and accountable to them. Efforts should therefore be made to accompany the Congolese people towards this political culture, which starts with the setting up of a global education system resolutely oriented towards training the citizen, which is unfortunately not the case at present. Furthermore, the rebellions such as those witnessed in South Kivu where the population in despair expressed their discontent with those who owe them protection, are a small step in the right direction. For we believe that without a small dose of "constructive revolt", no positive changes could occur for the Congolese.

Onesphore Sematumba
July 2011
Translated by Linda Herbertson
[1] Source: Internet, Wikipedia.
[2] DJOLI Eseng’ekeli, quoted by OBOTELA RASHIDI N., "Elections 2011: Profil des candidats et des partis politiques", in Congo- Afrique no. 456, p,415.

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