22nd Mar 2018


EU steps back, as tensions build ahead of Congo elections

  • Kinshasa market square (Photo: Andrew Willis)

On seizing power from Zaire's long-standing dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997, Laurent-Desire Kabila changed the country's name to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). It was not until 2006, however, after a tumultuous decade of conflict in which Kabila himself was assassinated, that democratic elections were actually held.

The international community piled into the Central Africa state in the run-up to the tightly contested poll, keen to draw a line under the region's recent bloody history. Clashes took place across the country, machine gun fire rang out in the capital Kinshasa and opposition candidates cried foul over electoral fraud, but by and large the vote was deemed a success.

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Interim president Joseph Kabila, son of the former assassinated president, was declared the victor after a second round run-off with Jean-Pierre Bemba, a businessman-turned-politician now facing charges at the International Criminal Court. Many breathed a sigh of relief at the time and dared to hope of better things to come.

Now, as the DRC draws close to its second set of democratic elections on the 28 November, foreign involvement is markedly down. EU sponsorship of the presidential and parliamentary votes, for example, has been cut from €165 million to roughly €45 million. "This is good," says the head of the EU delegation in Kinshasa, Richard Zink. "It means that the government is paying. In 2006 the elections were part of the international community, now they are a Congolese thing."

As part of this scaling back, the EU has also cut its number of electoral monitors on the ground to 147 people, down from 300 in 2006. Some in Brussels had hoped to go further. In a letter to EU high representative Catherine Ashton earlier this year, a group of MEPs argued that no electoral monitors should be sent, citing expense and concerns they would merely legitimize fraudulent elections.

Opposition groups in the DRC fear the EU's desire to take a step back may enable the current administration to steal the election. Earlier this year, pro-government MPs pushed through a change to the country's constitution, shifting the presidential election from two rounds to one, a move widely perceived as helping Kabila's re-election. "It took a month for the EU to react [by voicing concerns]. That's not good," says Medard Mulangala, a Liberal MP hoping to regain his seat this November.

Mulangala is among a vocal group in the DRC who want the elections to be delayed until next summer, questioning whether ballot papers can be effectively delivered to the 62,000 polling stations in time amid an array of earlier setbacks. The EU's Zink is adamant that this is a bad idea, however. "If there is a delay some candidates will argue that there is no legitimate government," he says. "Here that is an invitation for trouble."

Other concerns relate to the National Independent Electoral Commission (CENI), criticised as being badly-run, low on transparency and slow to consult with political parties.

Perhaps most of all, the DRC's electoral register has come in for sustained criticism in recent months, especially following a leaked report by the Belgian firm Zetes, a company commissioned by the DRC government to issue biometric voter cards. The unpublished report, seen by EUobserver, points to a high number of "duplicates" – voters registered twice – in several provinces. "For the provinces of Bandundu, Equateur, and Province Orientale, there are a very significant number of duplicates, above what would be expected from the census data," says the document. In the province of Kinshasa, a stronghold of opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi "the number appears to be normal", it adds.

The double entries are equivalent to more than 12 percent of voters in several provinces. While many dublicates are likely to be the result of technical glitches, the high numbers "lead one to think that it amounts to a direct manipulation," says the report.

The EU has failed to properly criticize these irregularities, say critics including Marta Martinelli of Open Society Foundations. "More political pressure from Brussels and concerted EU member state initiatives to demand transparency, inclusivity, consultation, the revision of the electoral register ... could have been expected," she noted. Martinelli believes the reason for this lack of criticism is partially 'Congo fatigue' - a desire to leave the DRC to its own devices after years of struggling to bring about positive changes.

Belgian Green MEP Isabelle Durant agrees that EU criticism of the electoral process makes it harder to accept the final result. But she also questions the motives of the current fear-mongering. "Frequently it is those who risk losing that create the most problems ... The criticism in 2006 was exactly the same and coming from the same people," she says. In addition, she warns that undue pressure on the elections will just increase the risk of post-electoral violence, with the DRC currently like a "powder box."

Members of the European External Action Service justify the bloc’s 'softly-softly' approach. "It's important for us to build a climate of trust and not build up a list of reasons as to why the elections won't work,” Manuel Lopez Blanco, director of the EEAS department for West and Central Africa, says. "Otherwise it will become a self fulfilling prophecy."

But tensions are already mounting on the streets as polling day approaches. A recent episode in the Bandundu Province saw bodyguards of presidential candidate Vital Kamerhe engage in a gun battle with anti-Kamerhe forces, leaving four dead. In Kinshasa, cars have been scorched and several buildings burned to the ground in recent weeks, with another presidential candidate, Etienne Tshisekedi, attracting criticism for repeatedly inciting his supporters to take direct action.

"It’s going to be hot, that’s for sure," says Mr Mac, a chauffeur in the capital. "Kabila is scared because we have had enough." Others say they will vote for the incumbent, mindful of the greater peace and moderate improvements in infrastructure that have taken place under his watch.

Analysts agree that key to a successful outcome will be the willingness of losing candidates to accept the final result. "If the elections are not deemed to be free and legitimate, the DRC risks plunging into political chaos," warns Bulgarian centre-right MEP Mariya Nedelcheva, head of the EU electoral mission currently on the ground.

Congo fatigue: EU funding in the heart of Africa

The Democratic Republic of Congo was last year the largest recipient of EU support among ACP states. But critics say this approach has failed, drawing a question mark over the EU's next step.

Black gold in Virunga, curse or saviour?

The DRC's Virunga National Park is teaming with wildlife but also sits atop huge oil deposits, traditionally a magnet for corruption in parts of Africa. New EU legislation covering the extractive industry may help.

Congolese tensions spill onto streets of Brussels

Post-electoral tensions in the Democratic Republic of Congo spilled onto the streets of Brussels on Monday, with angry supporters of opposition presidential candidate Etienne Tshisekedi damaging vehicles and briefly occupying the EU capital’s inner ring-road.

Kabila re-elected in Congo

The international community calls for calm as the main opposition leader declares himself victor.


EU praises Turkey on migrant deal despite Greek misery

The EU-Turkey deal was agreed two years ago in Brussels. Focus has largely been on reducing migrant flows across the Mediterranean and helping Syrian refugees in Turkey, while the plight of those on the Greek islands are ignored.

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