"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


today's analysis

I have a piece on the DRC elections up at The Atlantic today - click on over to read.


the start of DRC elections

This piece is cross-posted at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum's Preventing Genocide blog, where I'll be posting on threats to civilians over the next few weeks. Click on over for more thoughts from other DRC analysts.

Congolese voters go to the polls to choose legislative and presidential leaders for the second time on Monday, November 28. As several analysts have noted, the risk of election-related violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo is significant. The month-long campaign period has already resulted in serious violence, with up to ten dead in Kinshasa over the weekend and several protests being met with violent responses from the police and military. Some Congo-watchers believe violence will be short-term, sporadic, and limited to urban zones, while others fear violence could spread rapidly. Are these fears well-founded?

Congolese citizens already live under some of the worst humanitarian conditions in the world. Their country ranks dead last on this year's UNDP Human Development Index, which measures quality-of-life indicators like income, health, and education levels. One in five Congolese infants die before their fifth birthday, more than one in ten infants die in childbirth, and life expectancy for both men and women is less than fifty years. Simply being born Congolese puts a citizen at high risk of dying an untimely death from preventable causes.

These appalling statistics result from a combination of factors, including poor governance, lack of access to employment and financial resources, and the lingering effects of state collapse and of the country's wars. As such, elections are a key marker in Congo's progress towards rebuilding the state, re-establishing governance, and improving the lives of its civilians over the long-term.
The same elections that are necessary to continue D.R. Congo's transition to democracy also pose risks, however, and the potential for post-electoral violence may cause even more problems in the short, medium, and long runs. At issue is the fact that the country is deeply divided in its support for the eleven presidential candidates, including incumbent President Joesph Kabila. Kabila, who came to power after his father's assassination in 2001 and was democratically elected in 2006, is deeply unpopular, particularly in the western Congo, which includes the capital Kinshasa. There, support is divided among ten opposition candidates, the most prominent of whom are the UDPS party's Etienne Tshisekedi and Vital Kamerhe, who hails from the east. Tshisekedi, who stood up to Mobutu and, at 78 is the oldest of the candidates, sees himself as the rightful heir to Congo's presidency. He enjoys strong support in Kinshasa as well as in the Kasai provinces, which are home to the ethnic group from which Tshisekedi hails, the Luba.

Kabila won in 2006 with strong support from the eastern Congo, where voters speak his Kiswahili language and from where his family hails. This year, however, eastern Congolese voters are disillusioned with Kabila's rule. They have not seen as many benefits from Kabila's 2006 promises of increased stability and better infrastructure, and many voters there will not support him at the polls. Because Kabila knows his re-election is at risk, his supporters in Parliament changed the Constitution earlier this year to allow the president to win with a simple plurality of the vote rather than a majority, which means that no candidate has to attain fifty percent plus one of the vote. Rather, whoever gets the most votes will win.

Why might this result in violence? First, few in Kinshasa believe that Kabila can win fairly. Those voters are probably wrong; Kabila is likely to legitimately win 30-35% of the vote nationwide, but almost all of his support will come from outside of Kinshasa. Reality often matters less than perception, however, and the perception in Kinshasa will be that if Kabila wins the election, he must have stolen it. Given that outcome, Kinois voters are likely to take to the streets demanding that Kabila step down, and they will likely be met with a violent response from Kabila's presidential guard.

More potential for violence exists in the reaction of authorities and civilians to perceptions of irregularities and fraud in the voting process. Already, reports are coming in of hundreds of thousands of names being missing from voter rolls and rumors are flying that ballot papers have been pre-marked and that pens at the polling stations are filled with erasable ink. A number of polling stations had not received ballots as of Sunday night, meaning that voters in those regions will be completely disenfranchised. If Congolese civilians do not feel that their votes are cast and counted in an ethical and fair manner, some may take to the streets in protest.

The other potential for violence comes much later. As Chatham House's Ben Shepherd notes, local and provincial elections are scheduled in 2012 and 2013, and these may provoke significantly more violence in more places as voters express their frustrations about the country's lack of progress.

Is violence inevitable in the Congo this week or in the weeks to come? Not necessarily. The country enjoys a distinct advantage over 2006 in that none of the major presidential candidates still maintain private armies, as was the case with Jean-Pierre Bemba's MLC militia last time around. But politics in the country are still not settled on the basis of the rule of law, corruption is still rampant, and few feel that the electoral process reflects their wishes for the country's future. These factors do not bode well for a peaceful electoral process.


This blog post is part of a series done in conjunction with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum looking at the risks to civilians in the period surrounding Congo's national elections. The views expressed are my own. For more information, please visit: http://www.ushmm.org/museum/exhibit/focus/congo/


DRC elections: what to watch

Against all odds and amid pre-election violence that has killed several Kinois in the last two days and widespread reports that not all polling stations have ballots and other election materials, CENI (the Congolese electoral commission) has decided to go ahead with Monday's scheduled elections. Speaking in Kinshasa on Sunday evening, CENI head Daniel Ngoy Malunda (who also serves as President Joseph Kabila's personal pastor) said that his agency is 99% ready and that the elections will happen as scheduled. Never mind that the remaining 1% could mean that 600 or so polling stations lack the materials necessary to carry out an election.

No one knows what is going to happen in this election; there were no scientific polls conducted and the exceptionally loud voices of much of the Congolese Diaspora (most of which is very pro-Tshisekedi) are making public opinion seem more skewed to the UDPS than it probably actually is. Jason Stearns (who is observing the election in Bukavu) has a helpful province-by-province breakdown of likely voting patterns, but as he notes, results will depend heavily on turnout and are too close to call at this point. A few things to watch for as results come in:
  • Violence - As many as 10 are dead in Kinshasa, which is heavily opposed to Kabila and has a significant pro-Tshisekedi voting bloc. If violence happens Monday or in the days after the election, it will likely start in Kinshasa.
  • Tshisekedi's reaction - Tshisekedi was blocked from entering Kinshasa for several hours Saturday and was not allowed to hold a final campaign rally Sunday (the governor of Kinshasa banned all political rallies amid rising violence on Saturday). Tshisekedi has continued with strong rhetoric, and there's no telling what he might call for if there are significant irregularities or the perception thereof on Monday. Tshisekedi is almost openly daring the government to arrest him (he has, among other comments, called on his supporters to "terrorize" the government and declared himself president in recent weeks). Tshisekedi believes he has the victory and that the public is on his side; if he doesn't get a victory in this election, he and his supporters are unlikely to accept the results as legitimate.
  • The East - Kiswahili-speaking easterners were Kabila's main base of support in 2006, where he made extensive promises about improving the security situation and rebuilding infrastructure. While there is no question that both of these areas have improved somewhat in the last five years, Kabila can no longer count on voters there to have his back. DRC voters, especially in urban areas, are savvier this time around, and few are willing to take promises at face value anymore. As one Goma voter told Melanie Gouby, “We had no idea how to decide who to vote for during the 2006 elections. ...This time we know better. I won’t vote for someone because I was given a t-shirt, I want someone who will build the road, not just talk about it.” Such comments do not bode well for Kabila, whose campaign depends largely on promises of patronage.
  • Irregularities - Already, there are reports that several hundred thousand registered voters names do not appear on the rolls in Ituri and Idjwi. There are almost certainly also polling stations that have not yet received ballots. How CENI reacts when these reports arise - and whether voters feel their voices were heard - will be key determinants of whether protests happen and whether such protests turn violent.


today's post

I have a post up at the Peace Dividend Trust blog today. It's an interview with a Congolese leader who helps young adults start small businesses. Click on over and check it out.