Congolese have done their part. Now’s SADC and the AU’s moment of truth.
As the DRC counts votes from the presidential election, the regional and continental body will be crucial in determining the poll’s legitimacy.
When the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) finally went to the polls on 30 December, the vote was marred by chaotic scenes and logistical problems. The following day, the government shut down the internet to avoid speculation about the outcome. With provisional results expected on 6 January (though the electoral commission just announced this could be delayed), many in the Congo believe they are now just effectively awaiting the final step in the regime’s exhaustive plan to keep hold of power despite its huge lack of popularity.
The warning signs have been glaring for a long time. As far back as 2016, President Joseph Kabila was trying to change the constitution to allow him to stay in power after the end of his final mandated term. When these attempts failed, he simply disregarded it and declined to organise elections.
When the people protested vehemently by taking to the streets in towns and cities, the government responded with brutality. Security forces killed dozens, injured hundreds and detained many more. Young democracy activists were gunned down, including at church services, or killed in mysterious fires. The government’s sole aim was to quash any resistance to Kabila’s continued unconstitutional rule.
Under internal and external pressure, the president finally agreed to a peace deal that involved holding elections in 2017. But he still had other cards in his political deck. First, he kept everyone guessing as to whether he would keep his promise (the elections were delayed another year to the end of 2018). Then, he kept people guessing as to whether he would find a way to stand in the elections himself (he eventually announced a successor on the final day to register as a presidential candidate). And finally, he allowed speculation to spiral over whether the elections would be free and fair.
Every indication suggests that they were not. Kabila’s two main rivals – Moise Katumbi and Jean-Pierre Bemba – were barred from entering the race. The regime stoked or at least tolerated various local conflicts that later created the pretext to postpone the vote in those areas or not hold it at all. And the regime stacked the deck by heavily funding Kabila’s handpicked successor, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, while banning rival rallies in opposition strongholds at the most crucial campaign moment.
The government also starved the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) of the resources it needed to conduct credible elections across the vast country. Ultimately, CENI’s preparations muddied rather than cleared the electoral waters. The body’s management was chaotic and did little to gain the public’s trust. Officials procured voting machines that proved controversial and botched the voter registration process, disenfranchising up to 16 million people by some accounts.
But the worst was saved for the last. A week before the election, then scheduled for 23 December, a depot holding election materials in Kinshasa was destroyed in a suspicious fire. This led CENI to delay the election by a week. A few days later, it announced the vote would be delayed in three opposition strongholds of Beni, Butembo and Yumbi till March 2019.
Election Day, when it finally came, was chaotic. Voting stations in many places did not open until the afternoon; some machines malfunctioned; and materials had not been delivered to several voting stations. Nonetheless, Congolese citizens defied the odds to turn out in large numbers.
The question many inside and outside the DRC have been asking is whether this was all worth it. Is a deeply flawed election, controlled every step of the way by a powerful regime determined to stay in power, better than no election at all? Congolese voters were damned if they participated and damned if they did not, but for many the answer was ultimately yes. President Kabila had outstayed his welcome and only an election – even if a faulty one – seemed to offer up the possibility of him stepping down. In the just-ended election then, the Congolese spoke loudly, albeit with a gag in their mouths and every obstacle in their way.
They did their part. Now, much responsibility shifts to the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the African Union (AU), both of whom deployed observers. This is their moment of truth. They have long failed to rein in Kabila as he trampled on the constitution and people’s democratic rights, but their new respective leaderships have vowed to take a more active stance. Indeed, they pushed for the elections to be held on time, for example, and insisted that Kabila could not be on the ballot. But this alone is not enough.
Their observers have been entrusted with the responsibility of protecting the Congolese people’s vote and their leaders’ actions in the coming days will go a long way to determining the credibility (or lack thereof) of the entire process. SADC officials have said the vote “went relatively well”, but having watched how President Kabila and his regime acted in the months, weeks and days leading up to the long-awaited election, they have also seen how the government did – and is still doing – everything in its power to ensure the vote is not free and fair. SADC and the AU must now put the Congolese people first. They cannot afford to let them down, though few who have witnessed these bodies’ past actions – most recently in Zimbabwe – will be holding their breath.