Thursday, June 02, 2011

D.R. Congo: November election runs the risk of further destabilizing the country

Some 1.7m people in DRC are internally displaced

(IRIN) - The second democratic presidential election in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), scheduled for 28 November, runs the risk of further destabilizing the country because of preparation delays and potential constitutional contradictions, say analysts and observers.

"Instead of signalling consolidation of democracy, the coming elections present at best a logistical problem and at worst a new cause of destabilization for a country that has still not recovered from the long wars that marked the end of the Mobutu [Sese Seko] era and its denouement," the International Crisis Group (ICG) said in a report published in May.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, while noting that elections in general had the potential to "ease tensions and build transparent and accountable institutions", warned that "they also entail risks, especially in societies divided by or recovering from conflict".

To minimize those risks, he said, the DRC polls must be "timely, transparent, credible, peaceful and secure, offering all Congolese a full opportunity to participate freely without fear of harassment and violence. We have invested much - and there is much to lose."

The opposition has already complained of harassment and violence, as well as about the election timetable, which they say violates a constitutional requirement that "the presidential ballot will be convened" 90 days before the expiration of the incumbent's mandate. President Joseph Kabila's mandate expires on 6 December 2011.

Representatives of 26 opposition parties signed a declaration in May decrying the election calendar (see box) set by the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) as "unconstitutional and unrealistic".

The government insists there is no constitutional breach. A spokesman said the 90-day interval did not refer to the actual polling day, but to the day the organization of the election started. Although the Supreme Court of Justice is reviewing it, the government appears unwilling to revisit the question. According to the spokesman: "The debate is no longer relevant."

CENI and the government have also dismissed opposition warnings that the scheduled 20 December swearing-in of the election's winner will leave a dangerous power vacuum after 6 December. They point to Article 20 of the constitution, which states that an incumbent should stay in office after his mandate expires until "the effective installation of a new elected president."

In its report, the ICG urged politicians on both sides to begin talks now that would provide for a transitional government should it prove impractical to hold the election on 28 November. It said the Congolese authorities faced a dilemma: respect the constitutional deadline "and organize botched elections, or ignore that deadline and slide into a situation of unconstitutional power".

Violations of fundamental texts have been "common practice" by DRC leaders since independence, according to N'Sii Luanda Shandwe, president of the human rights group, Comités des Observateurs de droit de l'homme. This time, Luanda believes ignoring the opposition parties in setting the electoral calendar could have violent results. "To disregard the views of these opposition parties could drive them to push the people to rise up if the elections don't go well," he said.

Voter registration

Problematic voter registration is one of the canaries warning of political turmoil ahead. "Unrest could occur because some politicians could claim that voter registration was conducted badly to incite their supporters to contest the results, something that can spark rioting," said Philippe Biyoya Makutu Kahandja, a political scientist and director of the Pan-African Institute of International and Strategic Relations.

This year, the slow release of funds by the government and donors means potential voters in remote areas have to travel long distances to find registration centres, according to NGOs, a deterrent for some who do not have the time, money, or fitness to travel.

"We received some posters that we distributed in the provinces, but our partners don't have the means to support the process," said Pierre Shinindanyi of CENI in Kasai Occidental. "I don't know if by 6 June we will meet our objective of reaching the number of people we hope to register."

Would-be voters are staying away from registration centres to avoid the endemic violence of armed groups, and policemen assigned to secure the centres are also demanding payment for entry, said Luneno Maene, spokesman for the National Synergy of Civil Society for Good Governance and Elections in DRC. Others complain of long queues. Electoral commission chairman Ngoy Mulunda has warned politicians who transport voters to register outside their home areas that they are committing fraud.

Luanda predicted low participation in elections, which could provide a basis for further disputes, while Biyoya warned that contesting the poor organization of the elections could take the country back to years of war as many contenders - previously warlords - could re-arm to negotiate their way back to power.

The opposition parties do not have a presence at voter registration centres, according to Maene, but he fears they will be centre-stage if unsuccessful in the elections. "These same political parties or politicians will be the first to mobilize their partisans to cause trouble, having gotten nothing out of it," he said. "I think the elections will be catastrophic."

Entrenched instability

Increasing fears of election violence are matched by escalating insecurity in some regions.

The opposition's declaration denounced what it called a "poisonous climate notably characterized by the confiscation of public media... the arbitrary arrests and assassinations, the politicization of the army, police, and security services, not to mention the many intimidations, etc".

In 2010, the Congolese army reportedly arrested several citizens who had been fighting alongside Ugandan rebels in Beni, North Kivu. Reports from Uele region allege that armed Congolese groups are putting up illegal roadblocks, often attacking vehicles transporting merchandise. Some of the attacks have been attributed to Ugandan rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) fighters, according to NGOs in the north-eastern province of Orientale. More than 25 attacks in North Kivu, including on the minister of higher education that killed two, were blamed on the Forces Démocratiques de Libération de Rwanda (FDLR), said the UN Stabilization Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO). The government continues to fight armed groups from Angola and Burundi as well.

"We are in a situation where authorities are still struggling to restore the authority of the state in several parts of the country; when some politicians feel they have lost elections because they have been badly organized, they could go to the bush to organize armed groups as it was before 2003," Biyoya said.

Maene said those who used the instability in the DRC to illicitly export natural resources could also capitalize on electoral problems.

International engagement

The presence of armed groups has led many Congolese to flee their homes in the east. An estimated 1.7 million people are displaced in DRC. Already, millions of people live in fear and rely on humanitarian aid after fighting between the Congolese army - backed by MONUSCO - and armed groups - mainly the FDLR rebels and other insurgents, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

These conditions are leading some Congolese to question why the international community seems relatively disengaged from this year's elections. "What is the explanation for the fact that five years ago, there was an enthusiasm from the west surrounding the 2006 elections while today, we sense a lack of attentiveness for those of 2011?" asked a Kinshasa reporter of UK ambassador Neil Wigan.

While the 2006 election costs of US$500 million were funded almost entirely by international donors, this year the DRC is expected to shoulder 60 percent of the financial burden.

Wigan said 90 percent of the 2006 elections were financed by the west because they were the first to be held post-conflict, and the DRC needed hand-holding. This time, everyone wants to see the Congolese carry out elections with less outside support. "It's not a lack of enthusiasm, but rather the evolution of democracy," Wigan said.

Personnel have also been cut: in 2006, 250 international experts attached to the UN peacekeeping mission in DRC were deployed all over the country to coordinate the electoral logistics. Now, MONUSCO's electoral division has 103 staff members.

Some have suggested MONUSCO should expand its mission to ensure that democratic principles are being upheld in the run-up to the election. But others, including the independent International Peace Institute, urged the UN Security Council to limit MONUSCO's role to technical consulting, as requested by the Kabila government.

"Since MONUSCO's presence is still needed to protect civilians in eastern DRC, the UN mission is not well suited to take on greater political responsibilities through a new mandate," the Institute said.

Achieving fair and peaceful elections will be the responsibility of the government and the opposition. But many Congolese place little faith in the political class. "In our country, we have a lot of money, but we don't get anything out of it," said Ingrid Mulumba, a student in Kasai Orientale province.

"The government has done almost nothing here since 2006," she added. "Are they suddenly going to do something before November? I don't think so. But still I will vote because I want to see some kind of change in this province."

Copyright © IRIN 2011. All rights reserved. This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States. The boundaries, names and designations used on maps on this site and links to external sites do not imply official endorsement or acceptance by the UN.