December 6th, 2011
08:54 AM ET

Congo's crucial crossroads

Editor's Note: Gambino reopened the USAID mission in the Congo in 1997 and returned to Congo to run the Mission from 2001-2004; O’Hanlon is senior fellow at Brookings and author of the new book The Wounded Giant: America’s Armed Forces in an Age of Austerity; both were Peace Corps Volunteers in Congo in the 1980s, when it was known as Zaire.

By Tony Gambino and Michael O’Hanlon - Special to CNN

Last week, millions of people turned out in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to vote in Presidential and Parliamentary elections. Unfortunately, because of myriad mistakes in the run-up to the polling, the elections themselves were marred by disorganization, fraud, and violence. And Congolese, as well as the world community, now face a fraught moment.

The electoral dysfunctionality comes on top of Congo’s other huge problems that have put it dead last in the U.N.’s World Development Index. It now risks another round of violence—and perhaps even civil warfare—in a country that has already seen more war-related deaths than any other on Earth since the Cold War ended. Beyond the humanitarian stakes, Congo is quite literally the crossroads of Africa, the continent’s second largest and third most populous country, bordered by nine other states including Angola, Rwanda, Burundi, and Uganda. Much of the continent’s future hinges on what happens here.

The Carter Center, which observed the Congo elections, stated in its Preliminary Post Election Statement: “The level of disorganization prevailing in some polling stations led our observers to give a poor evaluation in 16 percent of cases.” This sense that voters at roughly 15-20% of polling places encountered severe difficulties is widely shared. In addition, there were credible reports of ballot stuffing, voter intimidation, and other electoral violations.

On Tuesday, the President of the Congolese Electoral Commission, Reverend Daniel Mulunda-Nyanga, is expected to announce the interim results of the Presidential election (we won’t know the results of the Parliamentary elections until next year). As expected, the race is between two men, the incumbent President, Joseph Kabila, and longstanding Congolese opposition figure, Etienne Tshisekedi.

Rev. Mulunda is closely tied to President Kabila. This relationship, and Mulunda’s actions and statements during the electoral period, mean that he has little credibility as an impartial actor among Congolese. Many in the international community also doubt his impartiality. Therefore, if Mulunda declares that the interim result shows President Kabila defeating Tshisekedi, his statement is certain to be greeted with great skepticism by many Congolese and others. Furthermore, the finalization of results by the Congolese Supreme Court also is a process that many Congolese deeply mistrust, since the Court is packed with Kabila loyalists and has no record whatsoever of impartiality.

Adding to these serious problems, because of all the mistakes and difficulties around these elections, it will be exceptionally difficult to ascertain the actual winner of a close election. With up to 20% of polling places subject to irregularities, including election violations, with the counting process also filled with irregularities and disorganization, and with little confidence in the neutrality and impartiality of the central Congolese organizations responsible for certifying the elections how can the Congolese ever establish in a reasonable fashion who they chose to be their next President?

Doing so is urgent, since there is widespread fear that the Congo could descend into another round of horrible violence, with massive demonstrations by Tshisekedi’s supporters violently repressed by President Kabila’s security forces – and perhaps hundreds of people massacred in the streets of the Congo. Such violence could lead to further instability, greater violence, and another descent into chaos in a country which has seen millions of unnecessary deaths due to war and chaos over the last fifteen years—but which at the moment is truly ungovernable only in some isolated parts of the east.

That state of affairs could soon change for the worse. The international community, and President Kabila, should bear in mind the stakes. One lesson of 2011 is that people’s movements for change, once begun – and then opposed by government force, tend to lead quickly either to the regime’s downfall or to its international ostracism. Neither prospect should appeal to anyone with any interest in a country so desperate for aid, trade, recovery, and a return to normalcy as is Congo today.

Luckily, there is a process required by Congolese law that the most trusted institution in the Congo, the Catholic Church, as well as the Carter Center and other actors agree on: providing data on election results disaggregated by each polling place. As the Carter Center stated: “The publication of election results by polling station as required by the electoral law (is) the single best means to ensure that the elections reflect the will of the people.” This focus on transparency, long called for by the US Ambassador to the Congo, James Entwistle, and others, is essential to establishing some validity for the election results.

Once these credible results are available and verified, a further problem could arise if the margin between the two candidates is so narrow that fraud and/or disorganization could have affected the outcome. A credible mediation mission, perhaps involving neutral arbiters from other African states, should be put in place to help the Congolese find fair ways to resolve such problems as they arise. The United States must strongly support such efforts.

In 2006, the election came down to two men: President Kabila and Jean-Pierre Bemba. Many Congolese mistrusted the process, yet the Carter Center was able to say the following: “The Carter Center election observation mission to the Democratic Republic of the Congo is confident the results announced by the Independent Electoral Commission (CEI) are consistent with the results obtained in the polling stations. The provision of original tally sheets to candidate witnesses, combined with the publication of results by polling station, introduced a strong measure of transparency that virtually eliminated the possibility of significant fraud after the ballots were counted.”

This process must urgently be replicated as rapidly and transparently as possible to give the people of the Congo reasonable confidence in the results of the election and to prevent yet another Congo catastrophe. The world must also avoid the temptation to paper over election irregularities and tolerate another Kabila term, even if won by hook and by crook, simply because that seems the path of least resistance. Our reading of Congo’s current politics leads us to conclude that such a strategy will not be stabilizing and could prove incendiary. While international leverage is still reinforced by the presence of 19,000 U.N. troops, and while the year 2011 remains the year of political awakenings and hope from Tunisia to Egypt to Libya to Ivory Coast to Burma and beyond, this would be a terrible moment to allow a new form of autocracy to take root in the heart of Africa.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Tony Gambino and Michael O’Hanlon.

Post by: ,
Topics: Africa • Elections

soundoff (26 Responses)
  1. LeCongolais

    The comments above is fair and balanced, however, shall rectify that even in 2006, there were Fraud from Kabila side, which could not be pick up by the Carter Centre. In all cases, most congolese people do not want to be lead by Kabila and team. If they do not want to quit peacefully, the congolese people will do it by force. The Congolese people would like just to warn most multinationals supporting Kabila, that we know all your manoeuvers and this time we still wash you.

    December 6, 2011 at 10:49 am |
  2. jee bee

    HAPPENING NOW: protestors in toronto, canada are demonstrating in front of the US consolate. 2 arrests as some protestors allegedly threw objects at police. police have the hundreds of protesters surrounded and have received assistance from other police divisions.

    December 6, 2011 at 2:13 pm |
  3. Academia

    I was on the phone this Sunday with the son of a 92 year old man who was kidnaped on Saturday 26, 2011 on the occasion of Tshiseked's election gathering in Kinshasa. I was in tears to hear that this senior citizen died after being incacerated and brutalised by police forces. He was brought to Maman Yemo Hospital while he was agonising. I chose to share this story with you so that you can put a face to the many victims of injustice and violence in the Congo. May God assist this family which is mourning their beloved father!

    December 6, 2011 at 7:22 pm |
  4. James

    Please spread the word on tshisekedi's victory and help the congolese people access to democracy. Kabila has to leave, the people of Congo do not want him as their president. Why does the international community does not facilitate the departure of Mr Kabila?

    December 6, 2011 at 10:55 pm |
  5. Congotime

    We have to Know something here why the Obama administration is not saying a thing here, the secretary of the state Hilary Clinton is not making ant statement about the current situation in Congo? I want to let the whole world Know that like it or not this is Time for Congo to rise, we love it here but we are not from here, you CAN be a english citizen but you Will never be an english man, so in this day an age the Voice of the people has to be heard. It is Mr Etienne TSHISEKEDI or nô body enough is enough.

    December 6, 2011 at 11:02 pm |
  6. Olibotch

    Thank you Tony and Michael, I only wish the international community will have such a deep understanding of the Congolese situation as you guys do. What i really don't understand is what kind of a president who knows that he won the election, will call up on the army and install a curfew? meanwhile there's a mixed message from the authority, one telling people to go about their business as usual and the other asking or telling people to stay home or get shot trying to gather or march... How in the world a person named in more than one report by various Human rights group(Canada's "Rights and Democracy"Group) as personally responsible for Crime against Humanity for atrocities committed during the Civil War, should be elevated to hold the function of Commander in chief of the whole police force of the nation and this person is supposed to protect the same people he murdered, that tells you how The international community really don't give a damn about the congolese People. I remember when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became the president of Iran, how the US media went and found out who and were he was during the Iranian revolution and the hostage situation some 26 years ago...@ Le Congolais The Carter center did indeed got it wrong in 2006. I hope the catholic Church in Congo will act like the Catholic church in The Phillipines when after an election hold up Ferdinand Marcos declared himself President of That Country , then Cardinal Sin took over the air and announced the real Result which led to Marcos fleeing to the US. The Catholic Church of Congo owe to the people to publish their result gathered by 30K observers they send all over the Country. So at this time only the catholic church can avoid the country a bloodshed ... Cardinal Mosengo the ball is in your court... The Congo at this time need a Modern day E.D Morel who back in the late 1800 exposed the World Greatest Criminal of all Time King Leopold II of Belgium under whom more than 10 Millions of congolese where killed within a 15 years period...Mr Tony and Michael can you take this vacant position ????
    Olivier Sayah

    December 6, 2011 at 11:33 pm |
  7. Benedict

    The confusion in the Congo election is a sign of the lengths at which African leaders are willing to go to just to keep their position of power. The conflict that reigned during the rule of Mobutu Seseko until his dethonement by Joseph Kabila Snr,looks like resuming again and the consequences for the East African region isn't something to imagined. The rest of Africa take notice!.

    December 7, 2011 at 3:05 am |
  8. T. John Metzel

    You wrote: "Rev. Mulunda is closely tied to President Kabila." He is also personally biased against Dr. Tshisekedi. In 1993 Mulunda succeeded me in providing advice on Zaire to the Washington Office on Africa. When I checked in with him on several occasions Mulunda insisted that Dr. Tshisekedi (only 60 years old at the time) was "too old to lead in Congo". Eighteen years later Dr. Tshisekedi has filled the largest stadiums in the country to overflowing (130,000 people minimum) and has been welcomed by a huge outpouring of support everywhere he has gone in the country including Katanga, purportedly Kabila's strongest base. I personally witnessed a turnout of millions lining the 24 km route from Ndjili airport to Dr. Tshisekedi's home in Limete upon his return to Congo on December 8, 2010. Dr. Tshisekedi has managed his campaign considerably better than Mulunda has handled the organization of the election.
    Thank you for this informed and balanced perspective on ways forward. I agree with you, with Ambassador Entwistle, and with the Carter Center that "publication of election results by polling station as required by the electoral law (is) the single best means to ensure that the elections reflect the will of the people.” My sense is that thoughtful people in both main political camps will choose this path forward for the love of Congo. T. John Metzel

    December 7, 2011 at 4:57 am |
  9. j. von hettlingen

    The civilians have been victims of a civil war between different marauding militia groups and the government forces. Over 5 millions died as a result of the fightings, malnutrition and diseases. The conflicts were fuelled by the country's vast mineral wealth, with all sides taking advantage of the anarchy to plunder natural resources. For this reason Kabila doesn't want to relinquish power.

    December 7, 2011 at 5:12 am |
  10. Marilyne

    Thank you so much for your objectivity.
    It helps in the fight for the congolese people, it gives courrage when the truth is not hidden.

    December 7, 2011 at 8:18 am |
  11. khony

    there isnt a single true of this great nations that is DRC that is in favour of kabila mainstream media can spin it how they want it with their Eurocentric journalism defending multi nationals and their interest as hard as they can but we the people know our president isn't kabila he must go for the sake of the future generations

    December 14, 2011 at 1:43 am |
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    there isnt a single true offspring of this great nations that is DRC that is in favour of kabila mainstream media can spin it how they want it with their Eurocentric journalism defending multi nationals and their interest as hard as they can but we the people know our president isn't kabila he must go for the sake of the future generations

    December 14, 2011 at 1:44 am |
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