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The electoral dilemma in the Congo

The New Year’s Eve deal between the opposition and the government was made possible by a rare trifecta: concurrent pressure by Congolese in the streets, a relatively united political elite, and a hawkish donor community.

Now, however, the New Year’s Eve deal is being unraveled by the nomination of Bruno Tshibala, a defector from the main opposition coalition, as prime minister. In order to “make the process more inclusive,” as many donors have demanded, this would require another round of pressure on the government.

But now, the Congolese street seems subdued: instead of protesting during the last call to demonstrations, people in Kinshasa just stayed home. That provided important symbolism, but not the kind of force needed to make the government change tack. The Congolese political elite is appearing increasingly fragmented––the core coalition between the G7 and the UDPS still holds: only two of the founders (Joseph Olengankoy and Lisanga Bonganga) of the Rassemblement signed the arrangement particulier last week. However, the UDPS has taken a battering, loosing stalwarts like Bruno Tshibala, Valentin Mubake, and possibly Joseph Kapika. Two other opposition leaders, Martin Fayulu and Freddy Matungulu, have gotten into a public row, while conflicting statements have been coming from the MLC leadership about the way forward.

Is it now up to the international community to carry water for the Congolese opposition?

Possibly. But even there, cracks have appeared in the edifice. The US State Department, which led the charge for sanctions and pressure last year under the leadership of Tom Perriello, is suffering from a leadership vacuum: there is no Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, no US ambassador in Kinshasa, and only recently was Rudy Atallah, a former Air Force officer, named as senior director for Africa at the National Security Council. The French are undergoing a transition themselves at the moment, leaving the Belgian government with the unofficial lead among western donors. To be clear: the policy positions of the main donors have not changed, but the focus has drifted somewhat in the respective capitals.

Nonetheless, the European Union is preparing for another round of sanctions. This time, they are considering expanding the focus from individuals guilty of human rights abuses to those obstructing the democratic process. Regime heavyweights such as Lambert Mende could be targeted if members states agree.

But there is a deeper problem. While some diplomats have said clearly that the Tshibala government flies in the face of the New Year’s Deal, everyone agrees that elections should happen as soon as possible. In fact, the whole purpose of the New Year’s Deal was to build consensus around the electoral process. So which is more important: inclusivity or timely elections?

I am sure most diplomats would reject this as a false binary––they want both. They would argue, and I would find it hard to disagree, that the only way you have to legitimate elections is through an inclusive process.

But the Congolese government is sure to present this binary. Sure, you can continue to oppose Tshibala, but do you want to go against the electoral process? It will go ahead whether you back it or not. Do you want to be inside that process, backing it and making sure that it is as transparent as possible? Or do you want to stay outside, taking the moral high ground but also allowing the Congolese government to blame you at every turn for delays and financial shortfalls.

The institution that will be most vulnerable to this logic is MONUSCO. They are already backing the registration process, which is supposed to end in July. The UN mission has the country’s largest fleet of airplanes, helicopters and trucks. Indeed, it will be difficult and extremely costly to distribute electoral materials and transport CENI staff around the country without UN support. If MONUSCO does not take a stand, it will be more difficult for other donors––whose money the government has already said it doesn’t need––to apply pressure.

How much difference will it make to not have the UDPS/Felix in government, monitoring the agreement? How much damage to the international community’s credibility and leverage will it make if they back down now and throw their weight behind the new government––or just say nothing at all?

Again, at a certain point in time these conversations will be moot, as the electoral process gains momentum. The real question is: How can we avoid an outcome as in 2011, when the international community was kept out of elections and the polls ended up deeply flawed? Once you carry out a process that costs over half a million dollars (or over a billion, as the CENI says) and takes several years to prepare, you don’t get another chance.