Congo’s Crucial Crossroads

Last week, millions of people turned out in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to vote in Presidential and Parliamentary elections. Unfortunately, because of myriad mistakes in the run-up to the polling, the elections themselves were marred by disorganization, fraud, and violence. And Congolese, as well as the world community, now face a fraught moment.

The electoral dysfunctionality comes on top of Congo’s other huge problems that have put it dead last in the UN’s World Development Index. It now risks another round of violence—and perhaps even civil warfare—in a country that has already seen more war-related deaths than any other on Earth since the Cold War ended. Beyond the humanitarian stakes, Congo is quite literally the crossroads of Africa, the continent’s second largest and third most populous country, bordered by nine other states including Angola, Rwanda, Burundi, and Uganda. Much of the continent’s future hinges on what happens here.

The Carter Center, which observed the Congo elections, stated in its Preliminary Post Election Statement: “The level of disorganization prevailing in some polling stations led our observers to give a poor evaluation in 16 percent of cases.” This sense that voters at roughly 15-20% of polling places encountered severe difficulties is widely shared. In addition, there were credible reports of ballot stuffing, voter intimidation, and other electoral violations.

On Tuesday, the President of the Congolese Electoral Commission, Reverend Daniel Mulunda-Nyanga, is expected to announce the interim results of the Presidential election (we won’t know the results of the Parliamentary elections until next year). As expected, the race is between two men, the incumbent President, Joseph Kabila, and longstanding Congolese opposition figure, Etienne Tshisekedi.

Rev. Mulunda is closely tied to President Kabila. This relationship, and Mulunda’s actions and statements during the electoral period, mean that he has little credibility as an impartial actor among Congolese. Many in the international community also doubt his impartiality. Therefore, if Mulunda declares that the interim result shows President Kabila defeating Tshisekedi, his statement is certain to be greeted with great skepticism by many Congolese and others. Furthermore, the finalization of results by the Congolese Supreme Court also is a process that many Congolese deeply mistrust, since the Court is packed with Kabila loyalists and has no record whatsoever of impartiality.

Adding to these serious problems, because of all the mistakes and difficulties around these elections, it will be exceptionally difficult to ascertain the actual winner of a close election. With up to 20% of polling places subject to irregularities, including election violations, with the counting process also filled with irregularities and disorganization, and with little confidence in the neutrality and impartiality of the central Congolese organizations responsible for certifying the elections how can the Congolese ever establish in a reasonable fashion who they chose to be their next President?

Doing so is urgent, since there is widespread fear that the Congo could descend into another round of horrible violence, with massive demonstrations by Tshisekedi’s supporters violently repressed by President Kabila’s security forces – and perhaps hundreds of people massacred in the streets of the Congo. Such violence could lead to further instability, greater violence, and another descent into chaos in a country which has seen millions of unnecessary deaths due to war and chaos over the last fifteen years—but which at the moment is truly ungovernable only in some isolated parts of the east.

That state of affairs could soon change for the worse. The international community, and President Kabila, should bear in mind the stakes. One lesson of 2011 is that people’s movements for change, once begun – and then opposed by government force, tend to lead quickly either to the regime’s downfall or to its international ostracism. Neither prospect should appeal to anyone with any interest in a country so desperate for aid, trade, recovery, and a return to normalcy as is Congo today.

Luckily, there is a process required by Congolese law that the most trusted institution in the Congo, the Catholic Church, as well as the Carter Center and other actors agree on: providing data on election results disaggregated by each polling place. As the Carter Center stated: “The publication of election results by polling station as required by the electoral law (is) the single best means to ensure that the elections reflect the will of the people.” This focus on transparency, long called for by the U.S. Ambassador to the Congo, James Entwistle, and others, is essential to establishing some validity for the election results.

Once these credible results are available and verified, a further problem could arise if the margin between the two candidates is so narrow that fraud and/or disorganization could have affected the outcome. A credible mediation mission, perhaps involving neutral arbiters from other African states, should be put in place to help the Congolese find fair ways to resolve such problems as they arise. The United States must strongly support such efforts.

In 2006, the election came down to two men: President Kabila and Jean-Pierre Bemba. Many Congolese mistrusted the process, yet the Carter Center was able to say the following: “The Carter Center election observation mission to the Democratic Republic of the Congo is confident the results announced by the Independent Electoral Commission (CEI) are consistent with the results obtained in the polling stations. The provision of original tally sheets to candidate witnesses, combined with the publication of results by polling station, introduced a strong measure of transparency that virtually eliminated the possibility of significant fraud after the ballots were counted.”

This process must urgently be replicated as rapidly and transparently as possible to give the people of the Congo reasonable confidence in the results of the election and to prevent yet another Congo catastrophe. The world must also avoid the temptation to paper over election irregularities and tolerate another Kabila term, even if won by hook and by crook, simply because that seems the path of least resistance. Our reading of Congo’s current politics leads us to conclude that such a strategy will not be stabilizing and could prove incendiary. While international leverage is still reinforced by the presence of 19,000 U.N. troops, and while the year 2011 remains the year of political awakenings and hope from Tunisia to Egypt to Libya to Ivory Coast to Burma and beyond, this would be a terrible moment to allow a new form of autocracy to take root in the heart of Africa.