Painting by Cheri Samba

Lokuta eyaka na ascenseur, kasi vérité eyei na escalier mpe ekomi. Lies come up in the elevator; the truth takes the stairs but gets here eventually. - Koffi Olomide

Ésthetique eboma vélo. Aesthetics will kill a bicycle. - Felix Wazekwa

Monday, April 27, 2015

Countdown to 2016: How are elections shaping up in the Congo?

Election commission officials counting ballots in Kinshasa in 2011 (Courtesy: MONUSCO)
The United States is not the only country with a 20 month-long election campaign. Kinshasa is already abuzz with rumors, tensions, and street protests linked to the elections. The schedule is as follows: local and provincial elections in October 2015, senator and gubernatorial elections in January 2016, and national legislative and presidential elections in November 2016.

If successful, these elections could produce the first genuinely democratic transfer of executive power in Congo's history, and the first comprehensive local elections. If the polls or rigged or the process appears illegitimate, however, it could set Congo's institutions back years and trigger violence. 

So where do we stand? 

We can break the challenges to the process down into several topics: the voting register, outstanding legislation, electoral institutions, and funding. 

The register

The voting register will be one of the most contentious issues of the electoral cycle. Currently, the election commission (CENI) is saying that it will not carry out a new voter registration before local and provincial elections (registration will instead happen between January and March next year). That means that––according to respective estimates by the opposition and civil society––between 5 and 8 million youths between the ages of 18 and 23 could be disenfranchised. Some opposition parties have already threatened to boycott the electoral process if this is not addressed. 

This lack of updating is far from the only problem with the register––the current register suffers from the legacy of the 2011 fiasco. The voter rolls in 2011 produced many suspicions that have never been resolved: registration growth rates in places favorable to Kabila were much higher than in opposition strongholds (compare 33% growth in Katanga and Maniema to the 13% growth in Kinshasa). One audit suggested that over 2 million duplicate registrations were in the system, although the CENI later said that these were real voters who happened to have the same first and last name; according to them, duplicate registrations stood at 119,000. The ensuing mess prompted the CENI to say on the day of the vote that anyone with a registration card could vote. Around 3.2 million (18%) ended up voting on the controversial "list of omitted voters/derogation voters," which opens the door for fraud.

The opération de fiabilisation, undertaken earlier this year, was supposed to solve this problem. CENI called on citizens across the country to go and consult lists of voters posted at local election offices, so as to find out who had died, moved away, or was not present on the register but should have been. But, according to diplomats and civil society people who followed this process, turnout was extremely low. One source said that CENI had told him turnout in one neighborhood of Kinshasa was in the single digits. In part, this was because CENI had very little money to carry out a campaign, so few knew about the operation or understood its importance.

So how bad is the register? We don't know, but given the controversies surrounding the 2011 vote, severe doubts will persist. In order to get an idea of what it was up against, CENI reportedly carried out a spot-check in one small part of the country. According to a diplomat close to the CENI, they found that a substantial part of the registry there was inaccurate––but it is difficult to know whether the same would be the case for the rest of the country. There is now supposed to be an external audit of the registry carried out by the Organisation internationale de la francophonie, but it is not clear to me––or several of the sources in Kinshasa who follow this closely––what exactly this audit will consist of. At the very least, they should try to see how many duplicates are in the database of voters. Civil society groups have asked the OIF to be included in this audit, but their request has not yet been answered.

Outstanding legislation

Following the acrimonious debate over the electoral law in January, there are few outstanding pieces of legislation required from parliament. The most important law on the calendar concerns the distribution of seats for local elections. The ministry of interior has drawn up a draft, which will now go to parliament, where it is bound to be contentious. For example, each groupement is supposed to be represented in the conseils de chefferie (chiefdom councils), but there are allegedly dozens of groupements (of the over 5,000 in the country) that exist only on paper. This debate over the groupement de fait and the groupement legaux could further delay the process.

Electoral institutions

The most important electoral institution is the CENI itself. After the controversy of the 2011 elections, a new law on the CENI was passed to reform the institution. It separated the executive body from a plenary that is supposed to render the process more accountable. It also gave the leadership of the CENI to civil society, and continued to guarantee the representation of the opposition in the body.

However, civil society is not a cohesive body and the wording of the law allowed for manipulation. Civil society was supposed to have three representatives––one from religious orders, one from women's organizations, and one from civic education groups. But none of these groups are structured institutions, and controversies ensued. The Catholic Church protested at what it perceived as a politicized process and withdrew its participation. The current head of the CENI, Apollinaire Malu Malu, a Catholic priest,   ended up being designated by protestant churches and the small Muslim leadership.

Even if Malu Malu had been a consensual candidate, nothing in the law says that religious orders should have the presidency of the institution. That choice, according to Sylvain Lumu, the head of Ligue des Électeurs, was imposed by the president of the national assembly, Aubin Minaku. "This was supposed to be a consensual process. In the end, parliamentary leadership just decided." And since Malu Malu is currently in poor health, the institution is being led by a member of the ruling coalition, André Mpungwe.

Various other decisions made by CENI have been controversial, as well. For example, the designation of top administrative positions in the CENI is supposed to pass through an open, competitive process. This, according to civil society observers, was not the case. Malu Malu designated former colleagues such as Flavien Misoni and Corneille Nangaa––both extremely experienced in electoral management––to top jobs without following the correct procedure.

Equally important, although rarely discussed in the media, are the other institutions that are supposed to support the electoral process. There are supposed to be 166 tribunaux de paix in the country to adjudicate electoral disputes for local and provincial elections. According to the International Bar Association, only 45 of these courts were functional in 2009. For the presidential election, the jurisdiction in charge is the newly named constitutional court. This body, too, has been criticized by civil society activists. The nine judges are supposed to be designated by the president, parliament, and the magistrates body (conseil supérieur de la magistrature, CSM). Since the CSM has been politicized, all three of these bodies have a political bias––unsurprisingly, many of the nine members of the court have occupied political posts in the past.

Finally, the Conseil supérieur de l'audiovisuelle et de la communication (CSAC), the media oversight body, suffers from similar problems as the CENI and the constitutional court. It is supposed to make sure that media do not broadcast inflammatory speech, and that all parties have equal access to state media during election campaigns. But its members are supposed to be designated by journalists' associations, which in the past have been susceptible to political influence. The head of the commission, Jean-Bosco Bahala, was replaced last year––he had been seen as very favorable to the government––and the new president Tito Ndombi is less well-known.


The budget for the entire electoral cycle is $1,145 billion. That's a lot of money for a government that has a real budget of around $6 billion (it's official budget is $9 billion, but execution is very poor) that is also planning on carrying out a national census and creating 26 provinces out of the current 11.

However, diplomats and government officials concur that the government has been setting aside funds for the past several years to a "special account" in the Central Bank. One member of the parliamentary oversight committee said there might be up to $400 million available for elections in this account. If this is true, the money is not being disbursed quickly enough. According to the same sources, CENI's budget for the first quarter of the year was $45 million, but it only received $5 million. This is one of the reasons that there was no media campaign for the fiabilisation of the voter register.

Foreign donors have been reluctant to step in to support a process that is so contentious. The European Union has said it will provide modest funding of national elections, but not of local ones. The UN mission thinks it might be able to provide logistical support to around 30% of hubs in the eastern Congo, where it has mostly of its assets.

So will local elections happen?

Despite all of these problems, if Kabila insists on holding local elections before national ones, as currently planned, it will be difficult to stop. The government is likely to find enough funding to pull off the polls. The advantages could be considerable: the only parties with enough money to field candidates and campaign across the country are members of the ruling coalition––a situation that will be accentuated if the opposition boycotts the elections. If Kabila's allies win big at the local level, they will control the local administration, which will give them a head start in the national parliamentary and presidential elections.

Could there by delays and unrest caused by the process? Yes, but since the current strategy of the government appears to be glissement––deferring elections through repeated delays to gain time––that may be part of the point.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Will Jean-Pierre Bemba return?

Jean-Pierre Bemba at the ICC (Courtesy Radio Okapi)
Could Jean-Pierre Bemba walk free? What would the consequences be for Congolese politics? The answers to these questions are unpredictable, but could dramatically impact Kabila’s succession battle, which is becoming increasingly tense.

Jean-Pierre Bemba was arrested in May 2008 under a warrant from the International Criminal Court for crimes committed by his troops in the Central African Republic in 2002. The trial has been percolating through the ICC system now for over four years (it didn’t begin until November 2010), and closing arguments took place in November of last year. Court watchers now expect a verdict by June, although its been pushed back numerous times.

It is difficult to predict the verdict, but based on the quality of the evidence that they have seen or heard of, some close to the court feel that Bemba stands a good chance of being released. But even then, there are several different scenarios: he could be found guilty and released after time served––he has already been in jail for seven years––or be found innocent. While in the mind of many in the west of the country, Bemba’s charges were trumped up regardless, there are far-reaching implications of a guilty verdict. Congo’s constitution does not allow individuals guilty of war crimes to run for office.

Even if Bemba is released, many questions would remain:

A second, far minor charge has been brought against him, his lawyer, and other MLC members (Fidèle Babala, Aimé Kilolo, Jean-Jacques Mangenda, and Narcisse Arido) for interfering with witnesses. That trial could prolong Bemba’s dealings with the ICC, although all the other accused in that case have seen set free pending trial.

Would Kabila allow Bemba to return? After all, Bemba had already fled into a sort of exile in Portugal when he was arrested, following deadly battles between his troops and the national army in downtown Kinshasa in March 2007. Given Bemba’s popularity, Kabila might try to prevent his return.

How popular is Bemba? There has not been any national polling in the Congo in recent years. In 2006, Bemba won 42% of the vote in the second round of polling, winning big in the center and the west of the country. Given the recent collapse of the UDPS opposition party, the illness of its leader Etienne Tshisekedi, and the lack of another leader who can galvanize national opinion, Bemba would stand a good chance of scoring high in the polls again, even though his MLC party has disintegrated over the years. 

The provinces in which Bemba won a majority in the run-off election in 2006 (Courtesy: BBC)

Even if Bemba cannot run, he could throw his weight behind another candidate. Sources close to Moise Katumbi, the governor of Katanga, say that the two have been in touch. Katumbi, who is still in Kabila’s coalition but has clearly expressed his presidential ambitions, is a Swahili speaker from Katanga. Given that the country has been ruled by a Katangan president for the past eighteen years, the support of a westerner like Bemba could be a significant boost to Katumbi.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

The weekly Kash: Filimbi

On March 15, police and intelligence agents broke up a workshop on non-violent protest in Kinshasa, arrested dozens of youth activists from the Congo and West Africa, as well as journalists and a diplomat. Most have been released, but three members of Filimbi, a new youth group, have been detained by the intelligence service––which is not mandated to arrest or detain anybody––for over a month now. The three have not been allowed to see their families or lawyers.

Voici our exclusive, weekly Kash:

Monday, April 13, 2015

MONUSCO's military mandate: A red herring?

UN Security Council 
Much of the debate around the recent mandate renewal of the UN peacekeeping mission was centered on military action. News reports focused on the recent debate about a drawdown of UN troops and operations against the FDLR. But, pace Clausewitz, military action should always be part of a broader political strategy. And what is that strategy?

Yes, it is true, as news media reported, that the mandate renewal came at a time of intense tensions between MONUSCO and the Congolese government. And some of these tensions are indeed military ––the Congolese foreign minister wanted the peacekeeping force cut by 6,000, the Security Council answered with a preliminary cut of 2,000. And then there is the kerfuffle over the anti-FDLR operations: the government had been planning joint operations against the Rwandan rebels together with MONUSCO since last year, only to scrap those plans and go it alone this year when the UN raised concerns over the human rights record of two FARDC commanders. So it was no surprise that the Council reminded the government of the importance of going after the FDLR––it said that any permanent reduction in troops would depend on it––and of collaborating with UN troops.

But the real problem is not military. Yes, MONUSCO's human rights due diligence policy ("don't support FARDC commanders with poor human rights records") has rubbed Kinshasa the wrong way for many years. But it is actually in military matters that the interests of MONUSCO and the government most closely align. While Kinshasa has not always shown a lot of vigor in dealing with armed groups in the eastern Congo (read this recent post by Christoph Vogel on the FDLR), it has always been the threat of a Rwandan proxy that played the most important role in pushing the FARDC into complicity with armed groups. And for now, that threat has disappeared. Despite its lackluster performance against the FDLR, the Congolese army has deployed resources––and lost hundreds of troops––in operations against the M23, ADF, and APCLS in the past two years. So, broadly speaking, MONUSCO and the FARDC both want the same thing: to get rid of armed groups, although sometimes the UN wants it more, and the FARDC is particular about which armed groups.

Where interests diverge crassly is on the political process. The Congo is headed toward an election, possibly the most contentious poll since independence. This election could mark the first democratic  transfer of power between heads of state since independence in 1960. Or it could mark the critical erosion of institutions (constitution, parliament, provincial assemblies, etc.) that the Congolese people and donors have spent the past 16 years building.

The UN wants to play an important role in this political process. The formulation used about twenty times in the mandate renewal is "good offices"––MONUSCO is supposed to use its "good offices" to support institutional reform, democratization, and in dealing with armed groups. With regards to the elections, it says MONUSCO should:
Promote peace consolidation and inclusive and transparent political dialogue among all Congolese stakeholders with a view to furthering reconciliation and democratization, while ensuring the protection of fundamental freedoms and human rights, paving the way for the holding of elections. 
But "good offices" do little good if the government refuses to come to those offices. Or shuts them down altogether. Last year, when the head of the UN mission Martin Kobler tried to convene various political parties  to promote consensus around the electoral process, Kabila shut the initiative down. Prior to that, MONUSCO's attempts to get involved in security sector reform––as requested by the Security Council––and in the demobilization of Congolese combatants met with cold/lukewarm shoulders in government ministries.

This is the era that MONUSCO finds itself in––one in which it has been reduced to what it arguably does worst: protecting civilians in the absence of a broader political process. What it did best was precisely that: help negotiate and the shepherd through a political process during the 2001-2006 period. Since 2006, the UN has been almost entirely marginalized from the political process. It cannot broker peace deals with armed groups, arguably the most important task for the mission. It cannot, although it has tried, try to promote goodwill and consensus around the electoral process in Kinshasa. And it has struggled to play a meaningful role in institutional reform, although it has the mandate to do so.

More and more, UN missions are being deployed into situations without a viable political process. That is the arguably the case in Darfur, South Sudan, and even Mali. Of course, the absence of a political process does not obviate the need for a mission. A lot can still be accomplished––most notably, the ushering in of a political process, but also, as in the Congo, political and human rights reporting, facilitation of humanitarian aid, and a basic check on military and political excesses.

To be blunt: It is a shame that MONUSCO cannot play a role in military operations in the eastern Congo; those operations would probably be more effective and less abusive of civilians. But it is a much greater shame that military force has become the primary remit of the mission. Brute force will not solve the conflict.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Kash: Mass grave on the outskirts of Kinshasa

This is the first in a series of caricatures the Congolese political caricaturist Kash (aka Kashauri Thembo) is providing exclusively to Congo Siasa.

The Congolese media have been abuzz today about a mass grave that has been found on the outskirts of Kinshasa. Local residents alerted the UN that trucks came in the dead of night on March 19th to bury corpses in a mass grave, and some fear that the bodies may include opposition and civil society activists who have disappeared since recent protests against the government. Since then, Congolese authorities have confirmed that they buried 424 bodies in Maluku, the suburb, but say that the bodies belong to indigents and dead-born babies who were never claimed from the city morgue in Kinshasa.

Two parallel investigations have been launched, one civilian, the other military, and the government has given contradictory signals as to whether they will exhume the bodies.

In the meantime, here is Kash:

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Podcast: Ida Sawyer on human rights trends in the Congo

For this week's podcast, I spoke with Ida Sawyer, the senior researcher for Human Rights Watch on the Congo. We discussed the recent arrests of civil society and opposition activists to the backdrop of an increasingly acrimonious election season.