Essays | March 14, 2012

Congolese Vote, but Who Decides?


In his excellent contribution to this blog on 15 February 2012, Joshua Marks writes that “It is difficult to make sense of the reaction of many Western governments and international actors to the disastrous elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) on November 28, 2011.” To those of us who have followed the actions of Western governments and international actors since their complicity in the illegal removal of Patrice Lumumba from his position as the democratically elected prime minister of the Congo in September 1960 and his assassination on orders of the US and Belgian governments in January 1961, their total contempt for the democratic right of the Congolese people to choose their own leaders is perfectly understandable. It is symptomatic of the hypocrisy and double standards governing the foreign policies of these self-appointed promoters of democracy and human rights.

In a presentation to the 2009 annual meeting of the African Studies Association in New Orleans, I made the following critique of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy, based on his 4 June 2009 speech in Cairo:

The hope in Africa is that governments claiming to have the interests of the African people at heart, as Obama’s administration does, will support the continent’s popular struggles for democracy. That implies holding the same yardstick for all regimes, and not employing double standards or playing favorites with strategic allies. For example, the regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is notorious in its violation of human rights and its conduct of fraudulent elections, and yet Washington is extremely timid in pressuring its ally on this matter. In his Cairo address to the Muslim world, President Obama had little to say about democracy in Egypt.1

The double standard in Obama’s approach was evident one month later, in his 11 July address to the Ghanaian Parliament, where he took a patronizing attitude in lecturing Africans on the virtues of strong institutions instead of autocratic leaders. In Cairo, on the other hand, he had no courage to remind his audience that Egypt, like so many other countries on the African continent, was being governed by an autocrat. As long as the autocrat was in full control of the country and its people, there was no need to call this strategic ally to order. The same applies to Bahrain and Saudi Arabia today, countries whose democracy and human rights record is despicable, but whose regimes remain among Washington’s best allies in the Middle East.

In the DRC, the Obama administration has disappointed all those who had expected a return to the principled policies of democracy and human rights promotion of the Carter administration. As a Senator, Barack Obama is credited with one major piece of legislation, which then Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton supported as well. It is Senate Bill 2121, the “Democratic Republic of the Congo Relief, Security, and Democracy Promotion Act.” It has been enacted into law as PL 109-456. One of the provisions of this law requires the US government to impose sanctions on countries engaged in plundering the DRC. Obama as President and Clinton as Secretary of State have done nothing to implement this law, in the face of several UN reports on the plunder of Congolese natural resources and other forms of wealth by Rwanda and Uganda. The reason for this failure is crystal clear: Rwanda and Uganda are major US allies from the Great Lakes region in the fight against international terrorism, the number one threat of the post-communist age for the United States, with Rwanda having troops in Darfur, and Uganda leading the peacemaking role in Somalia.

The role of President Jimmy Carter in the democratization process is all the more important because it took place before the end of the Cold War. In the wake of the First Shaba War of 1977, Carter sent Ambassador Donald McHenry on a mission designed to read the riot act to then Zairian President Mobutu Sese Seko. The gist of McHenry’s brief was the liberalization of the system, and Mobutu responded positively by appointing a prime minister to take care of the day-to-day running of the government, and the holding of the freest parliamentary elections that the country ever experienced under a one-party system. Individuals were free to stand for Parliament on their own, instead of being handpicked by the politburo of the ruling party, the Mouvement Populaire de la Révolution (MPR). The result was a parliament full of independent voices, and one that had the courage to stage fairly brutal interpellations, or questions and answer sessions during which cabinet ministers had to explain their policies and justify their expenditures.

It was out of the Parliament elected in the wake of Shaba I that Etienne Tshisekedi and the Group of Thirteen emerged in December 1980 with their fifty-two page letter to Mobutu demanding multi-party democracy. Repeatedly arrested, tortured and jailed under Mobutu’s reign of terror, Tshisekedi and a diminishing number of his comrades persisted in their defiance of Mobutu’s externally backed kleptocracy. Despite the ban on opposition parties, they founded the Union pour la Démocratie et le Progrès Social (UDPS) in February 1982, making the latter the oldest pro-democracy political party in the DRC today. Tshisekedi’s exemplary courage in the face of adversity and his commitment to the ideals of democracy and social progress are qualities that ordinary Congolese find admirable in a person who has come to incarnate their deepest aspirations for freedom and material prosperity. As a delegate to the Sovereign National Conference in 1992, I still remember the hugs and applauses we received from the people of Kinshasa when we came out of the People’s Palace in the early morning of August 15 following our nightlong election of Tshisekedi as prime minister of the transition to democracy. We were congratulated for having voted for the “people’s candidate.” For most of the Congolese people today, there is no doubt in their minds that faced with a choice between the neoliberal policies of the dominant centers of world capitalism and the best interests of the Congolese people, he will not hesitate to side with his people.

The same cannot be said of Joseph Kabila, a very weak leader who, after eleven years in power, is still unsure as to what his job is all about. He is more at ease behind the steering wheel of a vehicle (a fast car, a jeep) or on a motorcycle than he is at playing the game of head of state. For someone who had been named major general at twenty-five years of age and without officer training or significant military experience, he is deficient in both military science and the art of governance. His humiliating military defeat at Pweto on December 3, 2000 was a traumatic event with serious consequences for him and for the country. On the one hand, it bonded him with the late Augustin Katumba Mwanke, then governor of Katanga, who sent a helicopter to rescue the young general from Pweto, protected him against the anger of President Laurent Kabila, his father, and became his éminence grise once the young Kabila became president. On the other hand, according to Gérard Prunier, the fall of Pweto and the collapse of pro-government forces, including over 300 Zimbabwean troops, “is one of the causes eventually leading to Laurent-Désiré Kabila’s assassination.”2 As a beneficiary of this assassination, Joseph Kabila came to power treating the international community as his power base,3 and the latter fell in love with him as “a man who seemed to play the political game on their terms.”4

Given the strategic importance of the DRC as a land of considerable natural wealth located in the center of Africa, with world-class resources in fresh water, tropical rain forest, hydroelectricity, arable land and numerous minerals, the major powers in the international community do prefer leaders with no national constituency who are easy to manipulate like Joseph Kabila over those like Etienne Tshisekedi, who are unapologetically nationalist and committed to serving their peoples. In eleven years in office, Kabila has failed to fulfill his mandate in restructuring the state and the security forces. Ours is probably the only country in the world with general and superior military officers who cannot read a map, as some of them are illiterate. Instead of a professional and disciplined national army, we have units made up of former rebels and militia groups, who continue to harass the civilian population and engage in heinous crimes such as rape and forced labor. It is also the only army in the world to incorporate an independent militia loyal to a foreign country (Rwanda), the Congrès National pour la Défense du Peuple (CNDP), which has been commanded by a general who refused orders to deploy to a part of the country other than his own region of origin (Laurent Nkunda), or one for whom there exists an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court (Jean-Bosco Ntanganda). The presidential guard, which is the best equipped, trained and paid unit, is rumored to include mercenaries from Angola, Burundi, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe.

In the economic and social field, the country’s enormous wealth in natural resources has not been used to benefit the mass of the people. Instead, it has gone to enrich the country’s rulers and their business and political partners at home and abroad. In the 2011 UNDP Human Development Report, the DRC is ranked the last of 187 nations surveyed in terms of the Human Development Index, a measure of well-being based on life expectancy, personal income, health and education. In this context of a failed state, Congolese people would be unlikely to vote for a man who had done nothing for them in more than ten years in power. Kabila and his external backers were surely aware of this in devising his electoral strategy. The constitution was changed by his loyal parliament to remove the requirement for a run-off election in case no one had received an absolute majority of the votes cast; eighteen new judges were named to the Supreme Court in the middle of the electoral campaign, to make sure that they would ensure Kabila’s victory; and Pastor Daniel Ngoy Mulunda, a close political ally of the President, was selected as chair of the so-called Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI). In addition to these measures, a formidable machine of violence and intimidation, corruption, and electoral fraud was established to make sure that Kabila would come out as a victor. Now that the Catholic bishops of the DRC have called on the CENI to correct their lies or resign, I wonder what US State Department officials who rejected our complaints about Ngoy Mulunda and defended his integrity would say today.

In this regard, it is amazing that some observers should claim that “there is no data that could give a reasonable degree of certainty as to who actually won the polls.”5 If the people who organized the election had any expectation that the process would be highly competitive, why would they resort to corruption, intimidation, violence, and massive fraud, including fictitious polling stations, insufficient or no presidential ballots in some polling stations, rigged ballots, the expelling of poll watchers from the opposition and civil society from a number of polling stations at the time of vote counting, and the falsification of electoral returns at the so-called compilation centers?  Moreover, why did the CENI refuse to allow the technical teams from the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Federation of Electoral Systems (IFES) sent by the US to help them recount the votes? Recounting the votes on the basis of results from each polling station is the only way of establishing the truth of the ballot box. Figures in the possession of the Catholic Church, which had deployed 30,000 observers or close to half of all polling stations, should be able to help in this process. The bishops must show their commitment to the truth by publishing the results obtained by their observers.

Another comment from external observers is that people have remained largely passive in the face of the election being stolen by Kabila and his cronies, and this might be an indication that they have accepted the current outcome. Nothing could be farther from the truth. All over the world, the Congolese diaspora has proclaimed Tshisekedi the winner of the presidential election and demonstrated against the fraudulent results and their apparent acceptance by the international community. South Africa, Belgium, France and the UK are now deporting Congolese immigrants without appropriate documents in retaliation for their participation in sometimes violent protests. Were the DRC a country in which the rulers and the security forces respected the rule of law, millions of Congolese would also descend in the streets of our cities and towns to enact what their compatriots living in liberal democracies are doing. During the electoral campaign, when it was relatively easier to manifest their political sentiments, Tshisekedi was the single candidate to draw the largest number of people at his rallies all over the Congo, in each of its eleven provinces, including supposedly hostile areas like Katanga and Maniema. On 26 November, the last day of campaigning, the police held him hostage for nearly six hours at the airport, and prevented him for holding his final rally in Kinshasa. Over ten opposition supporters were killed on that day by the security forces.

The DRC is a country in which approximately six million people have been killed as a result of the Congo wars of 1996-97 and 1998-2003, together with their economic and social consequences in the affected areas. Other parts of the country have also known episodes of state-sponsored terrorism, notably the brutal repression of the politico-religious group Bundu-dia-Kongo (BDK) in Lower Congo, ethnic cleansing of peoples from Kasaï in the Katanga province, and retaliatory killings for anti-state and communal violence in Equateur. A comprehensive record of the most important of the crimes committed between 1993 and 2003 has been compiled in the mapping report published on October 1, 2010 by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. State responsibility for some of the criminal acts is well established, and this includes the wanton killing of BDK adherents, and the assassinations of journalists such as Bapuwa Mwamba in 2006 and of human rights activists such as Floribert Chebeya in 2010.

The International Criminal Court is doing nothing about all of these crimes against humanity. And yet, the ICC prosecutors were brought to Kinshasa to intimidate Tshisekedi and other opposition leaders that they would be held responsible for election-related violence. Since 26 November 2011, the police and the security forces have, in Kinshasa and elsewhere, continued to pick up young people, whose destination and fate are unknown. On 16 February 2012, when the Catholic Church asked its faithful to march in commemoration of the 1992 March of Christians and in protest against electoral fraud, the police and the militia of Kabila’s party, the People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy (PPRD), went into churches even before the march was to start to beat up on worshippers, and their weapons included tear gas and clubs. Why aren’t President Kabila and his security forces being held responsible for election-related violence by the ICC?

While they have closed their eyes to state-sponsored violence and to violations of the electoral law by Kabila and the CENI, or issued mild statements in condemning these crimes, Western governments and international actors have not been so kind to Tshisekedi. Every statement he makes is closely scrutinized and condemned if it is found to be politically incorrect. For example, he is condemned for castigating the violation of law by Kabila and his government, and held responsible for inflammatory statements likely to provoke violence. On the other hand, the people responsible for real violence against citizens, including death, are never condemned publicly and they move about freely. In addition to President Kabila, people in this category have included Gabriel Kyungu wa Kumwanza, the architect of ethnic cleansing in Katanga beginning in 1992, and John Numbi, the Inspector General of Police, who has been suspended but never charged for the murder of Chebeya. General Ntanganda, the CNDP commander wanted by the ICC, is being protected by Kabila as a high-ranking officer in the army, while Jean-Pierre Bemba is being prosecuted at the ICC for crimes allegedly committed by his troops and in his absence in Bangui, capital of the Central African Republic.

By recognizing Kabila as DRC president after fraudulent electoral results, Western powers and the international community are showing that their strategic interests are more important than their avowed commitment to democracy and justice. Recently, the international community did recognize Alassane Ouattara as president of Côte d’Ivoire in spite of the decision of that country’s Constitutional Court in favor of the incumbent president, Laurent Gbagbo. Following a UN Security Council resolution calling for the protection of Libyan civilians against the regime of the late Muammar Qaddafi, major Western powers led by NATO recognized the Libyan rebels as legitimate representatives of the Libyan people and their aspirations for change. Refusal to recognize Tshisekedi as the winner of the presidential election and the legitimate representative of the deepest aspirations of the Congolese people for democracy and social progress amounts to both hypocrisy and double standards, particularly for those states claiming to stand for democracy and human rights. It will at least let us know who our true friends and enemies are in the world today.

In remaining in office based on fraudulent electoral results, Kabila has usurped power in the DRC. He is therefore in violation of both our country’s constitution and the African Union’s Resolution against unconstitutional change of government. In accordance with Article 64 of the DRC constitution, which recognizes the right and the duty of Congolese citizens to resist the usurpation or seizure of power by unconstitutional means, peaceful manifestations of resistance will continue at home and in the diaspora against the illegal Kabila regime. To prevent further violence and unnecessary loss of life due to the current impasse, Kabila must be pressured to accept an honorable exit similar to the way that Fredrick De Klerk did in post-apartheid South Africa, by becoming President of the Senate, which is the second highest office in the country. He must accept the verdict of the ballot box and the people’s choice of Tshisekedi as the person who must preside over the process of change and reconstruction in the Congo. A power sharing formula similar to those in Kenya or Zimbabwe is simply not workable, given the history of the last twenty years since the National Conference. Sharing cabinet posts, state enterprises, and ambassadorships among the different political groupings is not necessarily a way of solving the most important issue facing our country today, namely, the restructuring of the state to strengthen its capacity for order and security, revenue mobilization internally, service delivery, and economic development.

  1. Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja, “Putting Africa’s House in Order to Deal with Developmental Challenges,” ASR Forum on “Africa in the Age of Obama,” African Studies Review, Vol. 53, No. 2 (September 2010), p. 14.
  2. Gérard Prunier, Africa’s World War: Congo, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 234.
  3. Ibid, p. 258.
  4. Ibid, p. 264.
  5. Laura Seay, “Political Repression Threatens Increased Violence Against Civilians in Congo,” Preventing Genocide – Blog, US Holocaust Memorial Museum, March 2, 2012.

2 Responses to “Congolese Vote, but Who Decides?”

  1. Thomas Turner

    Sad but true. In the past week, millions of people have supported “Kony2012”, asking the corrupt and violent Ugandan army, with US help, to hunt down Joseph Kony of the LRA.

  2. Ann Reck

    So much suffering. It breaks my heart to hear of such indefference not only by the Obama administration but of the democratic nations of the world would not do something about these atrocities. God give them strength and help. Thank you for sharing this Patrick.

    Annie. Xoxo


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