The 2011 elections in Democratic Republic of the Congo were widely seen as seriously flawed and the aftermath has widened the gap between Congolese society and the regime, argues Joshua Marks.
A pro-democracy march intended to protest the conduct of the November 28th elections in Congo was broken up by security officials and authorities in Kinshasa, Congo’s capital, this Thursday, February 17. Banned on questionable grounds just hours before its start, the march never amassed more than a few hundred people, according to eyewitnesses, since security agents blocked participants from leaving their churches and harassed those that did make it to the streets.
Police fired tear gas and launched water cannons on congregation members at churches who were preparing to march, according to a preliminary report signed by leading human rights and civil society groups, including Voice of the Voiceless, NGO Friends of Nelson Mandela for Human Rights (ANDMH), the Association for the Defense of Human Rights (ASADHO) and the RECIC civic education network.* Youth gangs and police harassed marchers, including ANMDH president Robert Numbi, while four priests and four Catholic laymen were detained, some of whom were reportedly tortured with electric shocks and whips. All were released by Friday, according to march organizers the Apostolic Council of Catholic Laymen (CALCC).
The march was meant to commemorate the 20th anniversary of a Catholic-led march protesting the rule of Congolese dictator Mobutu Sese Seko that resulted in a massacre by state security forces. More recently, the church’s council of bishops, strongly condemned the November elections process as “a shame to our country.”
The extent of repression and level of participation on Thursday, however, remains unknown since observers visited about a tenth of the 136 known churches in the 10-million person city of Kinshasa. Four TV stations affiliated with either the Catholic television or the opposition were cut off on the eve of the march but were broadcasting again by Thursday night. According to media watchdog group JED, which denounced the abrupt cut-off of the media, the Congolese minister of communication accused the media of launching a “popular uprising.”
The European Union “regretted” the banning of the march by security forces and called on authorities to ensure the freedom of expression of all Congolese, according to Radio Okapi and Reuters. The Carter Center, which conducted an extensive observation mission of the November 28th polls, denounced the suppression of the march, calling recent government actions “dangerous developments.” Government spokesmen rejected the claims as “unacceptable” and justified their use of force.
The February 16th march was anticipated by many as the first major popular protest of the November 28th elections, which were profoundly flawed, disorganized, and ultimately discredited by many. Since then, public protest over the elections had been muted or outright repressed. The presidential runner-up, Etienne Tshisekedi, who remains effectively under house arrest, proclaimed himself president but was banned from holding any protests.
Now that a church-affiliated association has also been banned from holding a march, the gulf between the ruling regime and Congolese society is even wider.
In a post for the SSRC’s Possible Futures, Marks adds:
It’s difficult to make sense of the reactions of many Western governments and international actors to the disastrous elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) on November 28, 2011. Initial responses from the United States and the European Union were muted, and Belgium later congratulated President Joseph Kabila on his reelection. As the extent of fraud and lost votes became clearer, some governments have come out with stronger criticisms of the elections. US Secretary Clinton was “deeply disappointed,” while EU High Representative Catherine Ashton echoed Clinton’s assessment and said that the EU would “re-evaluate” its cooperation.
Yet today, both Western responses to the elections and their policies are unclear and tending dangerously toward the status quo of the last five years. The US Government, according to some, is divided on Congo, and its representatives have made cautious statements on the issue.
However, these signs of policy inertia could prove disastrous, since Western policies have so far done little to strengthen Congo’s governance. Congo dropped to last place in the UNDP’s latest Human Development Report, and its business environment, dominated by the corruption-laden mining industry, is one of the worst in the world.
As the members of Western donor countries continue to discuss their next steps, they could do worse than heed the recommendations of the Congolese people themselves. Both civil society groups and the bishops of the popular and influential Congolese Catholic Church called for the current national electoral commission (CENI) to correct its grave mistakes or to resign. Since the CENI has shown little incentive to reform, donor countries could request that the current CENI members resign and that a newly reconfigured CENI with civil society members be created, with a universally accepted CENI president—a move similar to the reforms in Nigeria after its 2007 elections.
Loosely following the recommendation of the main opposition parties, donor countries could also press for a recount of the legislative elections. The current legislative results for the 500-seat parliament are being fiercely contested in the Supreme Court, but the Court’s competence to treat some 500 complaints is suspect, given its limited staff and space and President Kabila’s last-minute appointment of eighteen new judges in the middle of the electoral campaign. …..
Another overlooked recommendation from Congolese is the call for an inclusive national dialogue among all major parties, a recommendation that the largest civil society electoral platform has proposed.…………
Of course, these recommendations will carry even more weight if the Congolese themselves show their support. So far, the myriad declarations and press conferences from politicians and civil society and religious leaders suggest that they want tougher stances from international partners to address the current political crisis in Congo. But if more indications are needed, the pro-democracy march in Kinshasa planned for Thursday, 16 February, 2012, might well be the sign.
*Voice of the Voiceless, NGO Friends of Nelson Mandela for Human Rights (ANDMH), the Association for the Defense of Human Rights (ASADHO), the RECIC civic education network and the Journaliste En Danger (JED) are partners of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.