On November 28th 2011, the Democratic Republic of the Congo held its only 2nd ever democratic elections for the post of President and for the 500 posts in the national legislature. Now, more than 6 weeks later and after the re-installation of Joseph Kabila as president, accusations about the legitimacy of the process continue to reverberate around the entire country and beyond.
Conducting elections in a country almost as big as the whole of Western Europe but with virtually no infrastructure was always going to be difficult and questions were raised weeks before the poll over whether or not enough time was being allowed to set up the polling stations and distribute all of the voting materials. CENI, the national electoral monitoring commission, insisted that it could be managed but on Election Day, it was reported that numerous polling stations failed to open due to absence of voting papers. There were perhaps fewer outbreaks of violence than had been feared but where, in some constituencies, the ballot paper was the size of a tabloid newspaper due to the high number of candidates, it was unrealistic to expect that voting could be completed in a single day. When it came to counting the results, 100% turnout in favour of one candidate or another, as has been alleged in some constituencies, has to be suspicious, while it is also alleged that the entire collection of ballot boxes disappeared altogether in other constituencies, before votes could be counted.
Mr Etienne Tshisekedi, a veteran politician and the principal opposition candidate for the presidency, rejected the declared result and swore himself in as President in a separate ceremony. He is justified in complaining about the way the elections were conducted: both national and international observer missions have spoken of irregularities that occurred in many places during voting. The largest national election monitoring group was that deployed by the Congolese Catholic Bishops Conference (CENCO) who trained and equipped 30,000 monitors who then spread to all parts of the country. Admittedly this number was sufficient to cover only half of the total number of polling stations, but provided breadth of cover that far surpassed any of the other monitoring groups.
Following their monitoring work, the Catholic Bishops were so concerned about the results which their programme delivered to them that they called an Extraordinary Plenary meeting, which was held from 9th-11th January. The message that they presented to the public following a special Mass in Notre Dame du Congo Cathedral at the end of their meeting was quite unambiguous: “We believe that the electoral process was marred by serious flaws that call into question the credibility of the published results……the rule of law cannot be built in a culture of cheating, lying and terror, militarism and a flagrant violation of freedom of expression…”
Throughout their message, the Bishops call for peace to be maintained, cognisant of the terrible factional and tribal violence that has gone on in different parts of the country during the past decade and is still rampant in some areas. “But [peace] has principles that cannot be set aside, including truth, justice and respect for the people” they say. Violence breeds violence and the Bishops even extend their call for peace to Congolese citizens living in diaspora, calling on them to “find peaceful ways to contribute to building a truly democratic Congo”.
At the time of writing, the Congolese elections are still “unfinished business”. Counting of the polls cast for members of the legislative assembly is still ongoing, and the release date for these results expected on January 26th. Whatever their outcome, bold and courageous steps are going to need to be taken to address the faults and weaknesses of these elections. They were intended to draw citizens into the democratic process, to empower them and to demonstrate that the government is accountable to the people. Instead the people have been ignored and marginalised and this experience will inevitably undermine confidence in electoral processes in the future. It is laudable that the Bishops have had the courage to speak out in such a forthright way, in language that leaves no room for misunderstanding. We must now wait to see if those who have been returned to power will put the needs of the nation above their own self interest and find the courage and will to put their house in order.