US Response to DRC Elections

On 15 December 2011, Assistant Secretary for African Affairs, Johnnie Carson addressed the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee in a special hearing regarding the 28 November elections in D.R. Congo and their results. Carson’s full statement is available here. Most telling is the use of “diplomat-speak”, which has only led to confusion among the international community and Congolese citizens in general.

The most controversial component of Carson’s statement is,

It is clear that the elections were deficient in many ways. The CENI did not meet internationally-accepted standards in the vote counting process. The U.S. government along with some of our international partners has found the management and technical aspect of these elections to be seriously flawed, the vote tabulation to be lacking in transparency, and not on par with positive gains in the democratic process that we have seen in other recent African elections. However, it is important to note that we do not know—and it might not be possible to determine with any certainty whether the final order of candidates would have been different from the provisional results had the management of the process been better. Further assessments by elections experts could determine whether the numerous shortcomings identified were due to incompetence, mismanagement, willful manipulation, or a combination of all three.

This statement can basically be read as a workaround for acknowledging President Kabila’s rightful victory in the election. Carson does make a good point. It might be impossible for us to know what the outcome would have been had the election gone off perfectly. Should the US demand that the results be thrown out completely due to inconsistencies and a second election be held? The chances of any difference in the execution and outcome of a second election are miniscule.

Yesterday, I discussed Carson’s statement with several Congolese colleagues over Primus. Their response to Carson was laughter and borderline disgust. They found his statement confusing and detrimental to Congolese politics. They couldn’t understand how the US could acknowledge problems with the election and in the same statement argue that the ordering of the results was accurate. Obviously, this is not exactly what Carson was saying – but the wording of his statement bred this sort of confusion.

My colleagues also mentioned their disgust at the whole electoral process. Queues at polling centers in Kisangani began before dawn. Yet election day was a normal work day for many Boyomais. This meant that they were sacrificing their livelihoods to stand in line all day – only to find that they couldn’t vote in time, their name was missing from the list, or they were at the wrong polling station all along. They also expressed concerns over voter fraud, ballot stuffing, and overall mismanagement from the polling station to the CENI. They wondered why the international community wasn’t doing more to demand better from their government.

Carson’s statement about the presidential process is a bit weak on this point. Instead of recommending that experts should look into the impact of “the numerous shortcomings”, he says that experts “could” do this. This is observational, rather than a recommendation from his department that further investigation should be made into the order of the outcome as a result of irregularities. However, his statement does suggest that better reporting needs to be done in the parliamentary race:

It is important that the relevant Congolese authorities complete the remaining steps in the electoral process with maximum openness and transparency. We are urging them to put forward greater efforts for an improved tabulation process throughout the rest of the Congolese election cycle.

But, and my colleagues agreed, we have to remember that this is the first election that D.R. Congo has organized and partially financed for itself since the Mobutu regime. Even then, elections were a sham. We can’t expect to see flawless electoral procedures in a place like DRC happen overnight. It will take several electoral cycles before D.R. Congo’s electoral commission operates like a well-oiled machine. Even then, there are likely to be huge hurdles due to the vast size and topography of the country and the limited road networks. In short, conducting an election isn’t easy. Conducting an election in a country like D.R. Congo is immensely challenging.

Lastly, I must mention that my colleagues also brought up the question of Kabila. What will he do next? This will shape D.R. Congo’s politics and stability for the next decade. His decisions regarding the election in 2016 and during his coming term will determine whether Congo returns to war or moves forward toward lasting peace and democracy. Will Kabila decide to amend the constitution to stay in power? This is the question on the minds of many Congolese today, because everyone is convinced that if he were to do so, the country would disintegrate into chaos and war again. I certainly would not want to be in his shoes.

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