Congo: Holding Its Breath

Riot police fire teargas at a crowd of UDPS supporters in Kinshasa on Nov. 26. An estimated four people have been killed so far in violence leading up to DRC elections.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) will be holding elections tomorrow, and the vote is expected to be deeply flawed. Incumbent President Joseph Kabila has lost much of his popularity since 2006. Kabila first came to power after the assassination of his father in 2001, and then led a transitional government until 2006 when he was elected after two rounds of elections. This time around the constitution has been modified for one round of voting, giving Kabila a distinct advantage.

Kabila is betting on the opposition being divided and weak; therefore he could be reelected with less than the majority. At present, though, instead of betting on a flawed election, he may be contemplating a rigged election because, while it is hard to accurately gauge popular support since there are virtually no opinion polls in the DRC, many believe that Kabila does not have enough support to overcome a divided opposition. Etienne Tshisekedi, the veteran opposition leader and head of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UPDS), may now be the front-runner.

The fall in Kabila's popularity is linked to several factors. The primary factor is that his previous campaign ran on the slogan that Kabila brought peace to the Congo. As a consequence he won the majority of the eastern provinces' vote, with as high as 90 percent in some. The eastern provinces are where the majority of the fighting took place during the Congo wars. What little stability that was achieved in the run up to the 2006 elections, due in part to the efforts of the United Nations and European Union, has been dashed by continued Rwandan interference in Congolese affairs. Rwanda sent arms and troops over the border, sanstheir Rwandan army insignias, posing as CNDP rebels (National Congress for the People). By the end of 2008 the Congo once again teetered on the verge of an open war with Rwanda.

The United States and the international community managed to restrain both factions from returning to war, but Kabila had to make a Faustian pact with President Paul Kagame of Rwanda in exchange for the arrest of Laurent Nkunda, the former head of the CNDP; Rwanda would be given permission once more to enter the Congo to attack the FDLR (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda). In essence the United Nations failed because Kabila was forced to outsource the Congo's security to its enemies. This move was deeply unpopular and seen as a betrayal to the people of the Congo.

It would be one thing if this rapprochement between Kinshasa and Kigali ended the conflict; instead the CNDP rebels were given amnesty for previous atrocities they committed, and have retained a parallel chain of command in the Congolese army that they were either supposed to integrate into the Congolese national army or disband. Furthermore, CNDP factions continue to be habitual human rights abusers to the local populace in North and South Kivu, and in what can be regarded as a concession to the CNDP, they have been given control of key mines in eastern Congo.

Another factor contributing to the fall of Kabila's popularity is the failure to deliver on the promise of development. Many Congolese are either in the same position economically as they were in 2006 or worse off. In fact, the DRC's Human Development Index (which measures a country's prosperity based on income, health and education) ranks last out of 187 countries.

Unlike the previous elections in 2006, the international community has failed to invest in the Congo's democratic future. In part there is fatigue on the U.N. side. Organizing and holding that election cost the United Nations more than a billion dollars, and to aid in security the European Union deployed a small elite peacekeeping force in the capital of Kinshasa. In addition, the previous elections held greater symbolic value, as they were the first elections held in 46 years in the Congo and were intended to heal the divisions of the Congo's two wars. These wars resulted in the deaths of more than 5 million Congolese, the most devastating war since World War II in terms of lives lost.

This time around there are no extra troops, and the checks are sizably smaller. Another difference is that, in 2006, main opposition leader Jean Pierre Bemba, a former warlord turned politician, retained a large security force in the capital. This later led to widespread unrest and considerable loss of life when Bemba did not disarm his 800 or so "bodyguards" after losing the election.

There is still a high probability of violence, not only from government forces but also from opposition parties. On Nov. 7 Etienne Tshisekedi, in response to the arrest of his supporters, said, "I'm giving a 48-hour deadline for all opposition prisoners to be released. Past that deadline, I will ask the population to attack prisons and free them, and as president, I'm ordering prison guards not to resist." While no doubt many supporters of UPDS were arrested for dubious reasons, it is not appropriate for a leader of a civilian opposition movement to incite violence. While the vote may be flawed, it does no one service to call for violence.

At this point there are several possible scenarios that may follow.

1.    Elections will be held based on the current timetable. They will be deeply flawed, and Joseph Kabila will squeak out a victory and be re-inaugurated as president. This will lead to widespread protests. The Republican Guard, who can be thought of as Joseph Kabila's personal praetorian guard, will then use disproportionate force to end the protests and carry out extrajudicial killings, as was done in the previous elections. Kabila will hope the international community may overlook these abuses in the name of stability and follow the model of Hamid Karzi in Afghanistan.

2.    The same chain of events mentioned above will occur, but the international community will intervene and help push Kabila from power, as was done in Cote D'Ivore.

3.    The protesters will topple the government in similar fashion as the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, only in bloodier fashion.

4.    In the face of widespread protests and increased violence, a coalition government will be formed, much like what was done in Kenya and Zimbabwe, where the president stays in power but the leader of the opposition assumes the position of prime minister.

5.    Elections will be delayed for six months. A technocratic government will take over, and the international community will rally to ensure that in six months time a more credible election is carried out, complemented by additional peacekeepers.

While the fifth scenario is the most desirable, it is the most unlikely to occur. The reason is that Kabila benefits most from a flawed election. Furthermore, under the constitution of the DRC, regardless of the outcome Kabila will lose his mandate in office after Dec. 6, and any technocratic government would then pass to the head of the Senate—a situation that Kabila does not desire.

The United Nations, the United States and the European Union should all push for a delay in elections, urge all parties to use restraint and not condone violence, and then follow through with concrete steps to make elections more credible. They should also send an unambiguous message to Rwanda not to take advantage of the potential chaos of the elections to reinvade the Congo or to arm the CNDP and attempt to annex eastern Congo.

The international community has already invested a great deal in the DRC. While the situation remains one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world, plagued with ongoing violence, it could rapidly spin out of control and become much worse. The time for half measures and empty rhetoric is over. Actions, not words, are required on the part of the international community to urge restraint. For now the Congo holds its breath in anticipation.


Eric Miller is acting director of Save the Congo, U.S., and the author of "The Inability of Peacekeeping to Address the Security Dilemma: A Case Study of the Rwandan-Congolese Security Dilemma and the United Nations Mission in the Congo."