A controversial census with a hefty price tag

Records from the 1984 census, courtesy Prof Grégoire Kankwanda

In the wake of the Blaise Compaoré’s precipitous fall from power, foreign diplomats in Kinshasa report that President Joseph Kabila told his staff to put a lid on campaigning for changing the constitution. After all, it was a very similar campaign that proved Compaoré’s undoing. The unrest in Burkina was only the final straw: Kabila has been facing substantial pushback from the Catholic church, foreign diplomats, and even members of his own ruling coalition on this matter.

But, even if true, this does not mean that Joseph Kabila has committed himself to stepping down in 2016. Many commentators––see Gérard Gerold here, or Vital Kamerhe here––think that Kabila might chose to sidestep controversy and simply delay the holding of presidential elections.

One way of doing this is by creating a complicated electoral process that places the presidential election after a series of other, time-consuming steps. One such step are local elections, which are currently scheduled for next year, but which could easily take until 2017 to complete. A number of laws have yet to be passed, the borders of electoral districts need to be drawn, and courts need to be set to adjudicate electoral disputes. Not to mention the revision of the voting roll, training of election officials, and distribution of equipment and materials––all of which requires money that is currently not available. As the Congolese election watchdog AETA argues, (see also good analyses by Christoph Rigaud, Kris Berwouts, and Manya Riche) local elections could easily delay presidential elections past their constitutional deadline.

Then there is the census. It should be a no-brainer: the country has not had a census since 1984. How are we supposed to know how to properly distribute polling stations and offices without this kind of basic information, let alone how to plan for development and infrastructure projects? Good points, except that initially the technical experts in the census bureau suggested that it could take up to 3 years (some say even 5) to complete the tally––this was what the national coordinator of the census office Dénis Nzita told the national assembly in 2012, and that is what Professor Grégoire Kankwanda suggested in his presentation for the Institute of National Statistics in 2010. If the census is supposed to take place before  presidential elections, as the electoral calendar suggests, that would again push those polls back by several years.

Not so, Adolphe Lumanu, the new head of the census bureau––it is officially called the Office national pour l’identification de la population (ONIP)––argued in a presentation he gave yesterday. In a long speech, he said that, based on past registration exercises, they would only need a year to complete the work. However, the price tag is considerably higher than expected. Instead of the $143 million budgeted by Nzita and the $178 million suggested by Kankwanda, Lumanu provides a budget of $500 million. That figure should raise eyebrows, as it is two-and-a-half times as much as the original budget. Kenya, a country with roughly 2/3 of Congo’s population, carried out a census in 2009 for around $100 million; Nigeria, a country with almost twice Congo’s population, carried out a census in 2006 that cost around $290 million. Of course, the Congo presents some extreme logistical challenges, but $500 million beggars belief.

Also, Lumanu’s speech references the Chinese company Huawei as the main partner in carrying out the job, with financing from China EximBank (a governmental lending body). However, according to two sources with intimate knowledge of the contract, EximBank has been reluctant to fund the project and Huawei appears to be out of the running. The Congolese government is not a good borrower––at the moment, it is dragging its feet even on repaying internal debts and paying its bills to Congolese companies. According to one source, several other companies, including one belonging to a prominent South African businessman, are seeking to replace Huawei. The question, however, remains: Who would lend the Congolese government $500 million (or even considerably less) and what would count as collateral?