Working towards Credible Elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo

The November 2011 elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) serve as a good example of the limits of international advocacy on political governance and institutional reforms.  We had warned far in advance that the election would be sabotaged by the incumbent, Joseph Kabila, and events proved us right. International and domestic observers refused to endorse the process or the results, and security forces used brutal violence to suppress protest. When international donors told us they accepted our analysis and recommendations, yet refused to apply significant pressure to the Congolese government, the electoral commission or the security forces, either before or after the poll, we were perplexed.  In this article, we explore the reasons for this reaction and look at the way ahead.

The presidential and legislative elections of November 2011 were the first to be entirely managed by the DRC government. Elections in 2006—the first after the decade long conflict—had been essentially run by the international community.  The stakes were high.  Credible elections would demonstrate the Congolese government’s capacity to marshal political and social forces that would help entrench peace and democracy. The elections would also test the strength of the international community’s commitment to supporting democracy in the DRC, after substantial investment in peace-building.

Unfortunately, both the Congolese government and its international partners failed to live up to these expectations. In the run-up to the elections, the Congolese government effected ill-advised constitutional amendments, weakened political oversight mechanisms and bent electoral rules in favor of incumbent President Joseph Kabila. In the face of such blatant violations of democratic principles, the silence of a usually vocal diplomatic corps in Kinshasa was striking.

The basis of Open Society Foundations advocacy ahead of the elections was a platform of recommendations for improved electoral management and the creation of a civil society coalition to advocate for these recommendations.  Our recommendations were widely accepted by policymakers and many recognized that electoral failure would lead to a post-election crisis within DRC.  We found ourselves in the unusual position of having completely convinced our advocacy target on the substance of our argument, yet unable to persuade them to take action.

One of our headline advocacy messages was that the composition of the electoral commission (CENI) compromised its independence and effectiveness.  Although it was made up of the majority and minority in parliament, one of the strongest and best organized political parties was not represented due to their boycott of 2006 elections and therefore absence from parliament.  Our recommendation was that the CENI create a mechanism of permanent consultation between the commission and all political parties, particularly those not represented, to build confidence in the process and consensus around important electoral issues. Specifically, we urged the CENI to create a forum for regular meetings between the commission and political parties, civil society and security forces to discuss all aspects of the elections and thus build trust among the main stakeholders.

The advice was ignored.  We then called on the donor community, which was giving extensive technical assistance to CENI, to add pressure but they refused, claiming they had to remain politically neutral.  As the acrimony between CENI and the opposition parties grew, the silence of the donor community led to the perception of the donors as not only providers of technical assistance, but also as political supporters of the CENI, and therefore President Kabila.

The UN mission in DRC, MONUSCO, led by American Roger Meece refused to press the CENI, maintaining that its role was limited to providing logistical support, even though they operated a whole electoral assistance division with a team of political and technical experts who worked closely with the CENI.  In a country with logistical challenges of such magnitude, provision of logistical support could tip the political balance one way or another.  The claim that their influence was limited was simply not credible.

Another of the opposition’s primary demands, pre-election, was for an audit and clean-up of the voter register.  Donors agreed that the list was a mess but would not press the CENI to act.  Some did not want to call for the audit because it would delay elections, which they feared would breach the law. Others were concerned that the institutional credibility of the CENI would be damaged if the poor quality of the register became known. This backfired. Such attempts to protect the reputation of the CENI actually encouraged a lack of transparency and a culture of secrecy within the Commission which, come the election, was responsible during the count for the “loss” of over 2 million votes in mainly opposition strongholds.

During the weeks following the elections, members of the diplomatic community in Kinshasa condemned the opposition leader, Etienne Tshisekedi, for declaring himself the winner—a claim that was impossible to disprove—and exhorted opposition supporters to refrain from violence. This was a reflection of the international community’s misreading of the causes of election related violence. Throughout the process, MONUSCO and major international actors behaved as if election related violence was only likely to be generated by the opposition, ignoring the poor record of the government’s own security institutions. This left them effectively, if unintentionally, siding with these same security forces when violence began.  There was no word of condemnation from MONUSCO's own human rights monitors, when on February 16, a peaceful march organized by the Catholic church to the headquarters of the CENI to demand transparency in the electoral process was violently suppressed by a MONUSCO-trained police squad. Other international actors made only half-hearted complaints.

Why were donors so ambivalent?  We do not yet have a full picture of all the factors at play but we can guess some of them:

  1. In the pre-election period, donors were too invested in projecting the success of the election and would not criticize as wrong turns were taken. When the eventual election was shown to be a fraudulent shambles, they felt they could not suddenly attack the government. The lesson would seem to be that it’s important for international actors to raise warning flags early and as often as necessary, even when they are active partners in an election process.
  1. The entire donor community in Kinshasa seemed to share a strong hostility to opposition leader Tshisekedi and were unwilling to criticize the incumbent’s fraud too strongly since they did not want to see the result overturned.  The consequences of supporting an indefensible electoral victory, however, may prove to be more damaging to Congo’s future, than a possible Tshisekedi victory.
  1. The donors believed that stability was important: even if Kabila did not win, it might be worth supporting him if sustaining the status quo would maintain peace. This was irrational. Confronted with evidence that voting against Kabila had made no difference, those believing he had, in reality, lost decided to revert to violence, as demonstrated by the emergence of new armed groups in the east within three months.
  1. International actors seemed convinced that they did not have influence over the Kabila government. This view was not shared by many in Kinshasa who believed the government—heavily dependent on donor funds—to be vulnerable to pressure and were stunned by donor silence.

For the Congolese people there is nothing to celebrate in the outcome, and good reason to fear that provincial elections, which have a critical bearing on national politics, will be even worse than the presidential and legislative exercise that took place last November.  However, all is not lost.  The advocacy community has found a new unity through working on this issue.  The level of cooperation between US and Europe based NGOs and with Congolese partners is high. The donors have been left uncertain about how to proceed and we will redouble efforts to offer good policy approaches.

Add your voice