Vote counting is under way in the Democratic Republic of Congo after elections marred by confusion, arson, and violence. Millions of voters participated in the country’s second postwar election despite widespread violence, including the killing of political rivals and attacks on polling stations.
Opposition candidate Vital Kamerhe today called for the election to be annulled because of “deliberately planned” widespread fraud.
At least a dozen polling stations were burned down in the provincial city of Kananga after residents discovered ballot papers pre-marked in favor of incumbent President Joseph Kabila.
“I saw them, other observers saw them, journalists saw them, they exist,” said Anaclet Tshimbalanga, the president of TDH, a human rights group in West Kasai province.
Electoral violence and malpractice were also evident across eastern Congo, according to the Centre Olame, a South Kivu-based NGO, which organized civil society monitoring in Walungu, Mwenga, Kabare, Idjwi, Fizi and in the city of Bukavu.
But other NGOs reported that the election, while marred by fraud and violence, went as well as could be expected.
“Overall, despite some serious incidents, the elections went well,” said Dolly Ibefo of the NGO Voice of the Voiceless (VSV), which deployed 400 observers across the country. “But it must be said that the logistics were catastrophic.”
Congolese civil society groups reported systematic electoral abuses and raised the prospects of post-electoral violence.
“The atmosphere is explosive,” said Bonzo Jerome, coordinator of the Action for Transparent and Peaceful Elections (AETA). His NGO observed attempts at fraud and “tampering by election officials, for candidates at different levels, not only here in Kinshasa, in different provinces, ” he told AFP.
Observers are speculating whether the country can avoid the post-electoral violence that has plagued other sub-Saharan states in recent years, notably Cote d’Ivoire and Kenya.
“It is crucial that there are no inflammatory statements before the results, and they have to be accepted or contested through legal means,” said a European diplomat in Kinshasa. “That is going to be a tall order.”
The prospect of violence appeared closer with Kamerhe’s call for the results to be annulled, but it remains to be seen whether the former government minister will try to mobilize his supporters.
“There can be no doubt as to the scale of the fraud, deliberately planned by those in power with the connivance of the national election commission,” Kamerhe wrote in a letter to Kabila, the election commission and international monitors.
“Police chased witnesses from polling stations before counting could start,” he said, citing reports by international observers. Kamerhe is a former minister in Kabila’s government
A democracy assistance official monitoring the poll cited reports of pre-filled ballots for Kabila in several provinces, including Equateur, Katanga, Kasai Orientale, Kasai Occidentale, and North Kivu.
“Voting was relatively peaceful in Kinshasa, which was surprising after the Saturday Kinshasa attacks that left at least eight dead,” he said. Nut “the next few days will likely be very tense as the extent of fraud emerges and as results are announced.”
Aside from the violence, the logistical challenges of holding elections in the second-largest sub-Saharan states are formidable.
“This is a difficult country to hold elections,” said Anita Vandenbeld, the Congo country director for the National Democratic Institute.
“It’s a very large country and there are a number of logistical problems,” she said. “Added to that is the fact that there has been in some ways lack of communication between the political parties from the electoral commission, which if you combine it with the logistical problems, can create suspicion. We saw that with the violence that has occurred.”
Despite the logistical problems and evidence that voting passed relatively peacefully across large swathes of the country, the “violence and persistent accusations of fraud are very troubling,” according to Jason Stearns, who blogs about the DRC and the Great Lakes region at Congo Siasa:
In Lubumbashi, serious violence has erupted in various areas of town. Opposition supporters denounced the delays in opening polling stations in the Bel-Air neighborhoods where many UDPS supporters live. Road blocks were set up and protests broke out. Some time afterwards, UN reports came in regarding the blowing up of two trucks full of ballot papers that had allegedly already been filled out before voting began. Around the same time, two trucks full of sensitive election materials were set on fire in the Kenya neighborhood of town. All the while, numerous abuses have been reported by election observers in polling stations (no further information available). Armed civilians wearing red bandanas have opened fire on civilians at polling stations at Sapin Cemetery in the Ruashi neighborhood, while armed gunmen stormed another polling station in Bel Air and set it on fire. The MONUSCO staff has been forced to retreat into their compound; there are even reports of mortar fire in town;
Election materials arrived late in much of Kinshasa. According to one international source, in Kinshasa IV (where around a quarter of the population lives) the presidential ballot papers had not arrived by noon. ……….
In several places around the country there have been reports of ballot papers being found already filled out before the elections began. This was the case in Goma (Himbi or Ndosho neighborhood), where the head of a voting center was attacked (one report has him being arrested) by voters after they found him with a stack of filled out ballots; a similar case occured in Kananga, where a woman is in critical condition – some reports suggest that she was trying to expose the fraudsters when she was attacked, others say she herself was the culprit. In Lubumbashi, Kananga and Mbuji-Mayi there have been similar reports;
In Kananga (Kasai Occidental), there have also been numerous violent incidents. Very few voting stations reportedly opened on time, due to the lack of polling materials.
AETA, VSV and Centre Olame are partners of the National Endowment for Democracy.