Congo, Elections, and the West: Try Again, Fail Again, Fail Better?

Sourcing from myriad inspiration such as Burkina Faso (ousting of Blaise Compaoré) or Nigeria (transition from Goodluck Jonathan to Muhammadu Buhari), discussions over constitutional rule and term limits, have gained increasing traction in Africa’s Great Lakes where Burundi just lived through contested polls and elections are scheduled in Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

From Obama to Hollande, western leaders have warned against presumed attempts to extend Joseph Kabila’s presidency beyond 2016. At the same time, criticism accompanies a constitutionally uncontested re-election bid by President Yoweri Museveni in Uganda. In protest-struck Burundi, an ominous military coup attempt and continued violence around presidential polls paint an abysmal picture of Pierre Nkurunziza’s disputed win. Rwanda only votes 2017 but already now parliament endorsed a petition signed by millions to allow Paul Kagame running for a third mandate and change the constitution.

As the DRC heads towards complex electoral cycle amidst increasing tendencies of national and regional instability, few analyses go beyond the constitutional mantra. The recent popular uprising in opposition to an electoral law amendment in January and the detention of activists in March reinforced a self-fulfilling prophecy of Western-style elections as a one-size-fits-all model in post-colonial and post-conflict contexts.

But things are less easy. In DRC’s eastern provinces, around 70 armed groups continue to rove around and claim de-facto authority, in urban areas myriad state security services prey upon both an emerging middle class and slum dwellers, and in the remoteness of the equatorial forest, the same services remain absent. Indiscriminate access to security is elusive and, from a wider angle, insecurity is accentuated by violent competition for power at various levels of the state. Système D or‘débrouillardise’, the Congolese way of muddling through to make ends meet, runs across the private and the public sector. Uncertainty over land and other economic assets often culminate into outright conflict. Elections are no panacea to these issues, at least as long as they do not facilitate a more grounded shift in governance and public accountability.

In the run-up to the DRC’s most ambitious electoral cycle with local, provincial, and national polls planned between October 2015 and November 2016, many of the key issues are concealed through Kabila’s portrayal as the elephant in the room. Although he is credited with ending the country’s great war in 2003 and the current government under Prime Minister Matata Ponyo steers significant improvement on socio-economic indicators, criticism over his style of governance emerged, including his gauging over recent rebellions and his handling of strident opponents. But Kabila’s responsibility for the Congo’s shaky recovery is often overestimated. Like his father Laurent-Désiré and the notorious Mobutu Sese Seko, Kabila governs a complex web of allegiances and dependencies, of political friendships and enmities.

Officially, DRC’s electoral roadmap starts with long-awaited local elections, but the circumscription process already fuelled local conflict over the bordering of constituencies. Driven by concerns over ‘glissement’, the delaying of presidential ballots, opposition parties now demand to prioritise national polls. Meanwhile, DRC rolls out its largest-ever decentralisation, in the shape of ‘découpage’ from 11 to 26 provinces. Coupled with a yet overcharged electoral calendar, this ambitious administrative reform of DRC’s wavering institutional architecture creates a formidable stumbling block for smooth polls.

Early September, the national electoral commission CENI implicitly acknowledged the impossibility of maintaining its schedule. Under condition of anonymity, a high-level CENI official suggested that he does not know when which polls may actually happen, and that plans of a 2-3 years ‘transition period’ were in the making. DRC’s constitutional court reacted to the stalled process and demanded a revision of the electoral calendar and the nomination of interim governors for the new provinces.

In the meantime, the last opposition party, Etienne Tshisekedi’s UDPS, left the national dialogue set up by the government and another opposition rally was disturbed by violence. The breakaway of seven government heavyweights opposing a third mandate and the delay of elections adds to the heightening tensions. The so-called G7 were subsequently fired and rumours circle over a possible alliance with Katanga governor Moise Katumbi, suspected to have presidential aspirations.

While both government and opposition stakeholders keep the debate turning around elections and constitutional matters, DRC’s needs an effective social contract that goes beyond just ticking the box. Without deeper societal transformation, polls – whenever they may happen – risk degenerating into simple lip service instead of becoming the ritual outcome of an actual political process. In a recent report, the International Crisis Group stated that “successful elections do not equal democracy and good governance; the transformation of the Congolese political system has a long way to go and requires a change in governance practices that will be the work of many years.”

Whether in its support for elections in DRC or in other fields, from peacekeeping over disarmament to resource governance, external intervention exhibits a lack of coherence when it comes to supporting such transformation. A stubborn focus on ballots, in Congo and elsewhere, encourages the symbolic politics of both national and international stakeholders and it offers a convenient exit from engaging in more time-consuming issues. Without a comprehensive approach that may include elections but embeds them into a coherent broader framework, the technical electoral exercise as a silver bullet is rather reminiscent of Samuel Beckett’s ‘try again, fail again, fail better’.

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