Democracy Failing in Congo: Joseph Kabila and Etienne Tshisekedi Both Claim Presidency


Yesterday, Joseph Kabila was sworn in to begin a second term as president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In a scene reminiscent of the Ivory Coast earlier this year, his main opponent, Etienne Tshisekedi, has also declared himself winner of the election and plans to conduct his own confirmation ceremony on Friday. This episode is just the latest chapter in a political process which has been disappointingly undemocratic. 

In January this year, the ruling coalition, worried about an opposition growing in popularity, orchestrated a change in the constitution which removed the runoff round for elections and allowed the ruling government to appoint the head of the electoral commission. This not only improved Kabila’s chances by furthering divisions among the opposition, but also ensured that he was likely to be given the benefit of the doubt in any dispute. 

The elections, when they were finally held earlier this month, were fraught with numerous irregularities; ballots and voters' names mysteriously disappeared, polling stations were burned down, and poll workers were attacked. The Carter Centre team monitoring the elections declared that the process lacked credibility. The Catholic Church, arguably the most respected non-governmental institution in the DRC which also deployed election monitors, seems to support the Carter Centre’s assessment with the archbishop of Kinshasa commenting that the elections "do not conform either to truth or justice."

The most disheartening aspect of this whole process has been the silence of the international community. Despite the enormous influence international actors hold in the DRC (the country receives over $180 million in aid from the U.S. and is dependent on the United Nations and others to maintain a grip on the fragile security situation), reactions to the developments in the Congo have been muted at best. The constitutional changes which would have been unthinkable in any modern democracy were allowed to occur with little comment. The strong reactions of the international community to election irregularities in Kenya and Zimbabwe which forced the ruling parties to respect the will of the people and include the opposition in governance structures is missing here. UN Secretary General Ban ki-Moon, issued a weak statement asking for differences “to be resolved peacefully through available legal and mediation mechanisms," a tacit recognition of Kabila’s authority given that the available legal mechanisms are biased towards the ruling coalition. Similarly, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a statement expressing "disappointment" at the DRC Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the elections.

The silence of the international media has also been disappointing. In the aftermath of the elections, Congolese communities across the globe have staged numerous protests in Paris, London, New York, and even as far as Israel. Despite the fact that some of these protests have occurred in front of media houses like FOX, the international media has largely failed to capture these outbursts. Within the country as well, protests have led to military crackdowns resulting in the deaths of many activists. Again, these incidents have been largely ignored.

Unlike in other recent elections on the continent, the international community seems to be favoring what it perceives to be the ‘stability’ promised by the Kabila regime at the expense of the expressed will of the Congolese people. This is a strategy that has proved disastrous in the Congo. The same flawed reasoning underlay U.S. support of the dictator Mobutu Sese-Seko for 32 years, a major contributor to the current crisis in the Congo.

The international community needs to recognize the will of the Congolese people and reject the election results pending a full review of the areas and results in dispute. This will be in the interest of long-term democratic growth in the Congo as well as the short-term stability which has been so prized by the international community. Despite the widespread irregularities, Kabila was only able to secure 42% of the vote. It is tough to imagine how Kabila can effectively govern in a country where the majority of the population voted for somebody else. The fact that Kabila’s swearing in ceremony took place in the midst of a heavy military presence in Kinshasa and was devoid of the presence of foreign dignitaries besides Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe speaks to the precarious situation that pertains in the Congo as well as the international discomfort with Kabila’s authority to rule.

The Congolese people have clearly expressed a desire for a change in the way the county is governed. The world owes it to the Congo to take note and speak up.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons