Essays | March 21, 2012

Values vs. Interests: The US and African Elections

US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and DRC Foreign Minister Alexis Thambwe-Mwambe in Goma, DRC

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) held national elections beginning on 28 November 2011. The Carter Center, European Union observers, Congo’s Catholic Bishops, United States, other Western states, United Nations, and many others stated that these elections were badly flawed. Yet, in early March 2012, the UN, Western, and African governments are striving to interact with President Kabila on a “business as usual” basis. A mere two months ago, some of the same governments were criticizing the elections. What happened?

Western diplomacy is sometimes criticized as cynical. The West, particularly the United States, preaches democracy, but—it is argued—when it does not suit Western interests, the West ignores its own rhetoric and turns a blind eye to fraudulent electoral outcomes, like those in the Congo. However, seen from a closer vantage point, current American diplomacy, whether towards Africa or in reaction to the Arab Spring, looks more like a constant struggle to balance international stability with the promotion of  democracy. When American policymakers perceive that the stability interest conflicts with the democracy value, more often than not, the stability interest triumphs. Unfortunately, in the case of the Congo, Western diplomats have conjured a false dichotomy between stability and democracy promotion, and, as they normally do, have chosen stability. This regrettable slide away from democracy promotion was inadvertently aided by one small slip.

It is a disturbing fact that history can sometimes turn on something as tiny as an omitted word. This article will discuss outside reactions to the presidential election and lay out the importance of a one-word omission in a mistranslation—and how this seemingly trivial error aided some Western governments in their ill-considered acquiescence to another five year presidential term for Joseph Kabila. Finally, a better approach, reuniting values and interests, will be offered.

The UN, African governments, and Western states have long and loudly stated their interest in and commitment to democratic development in the DRC. Just three of many examples of international rhetoric on the importance of elections and democracy include the African Union Declaration on the Principles Governing Democratic Elections in Africa, adopted in 2002,1 the Report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, May 12, 2011,2 and the testimony of Ambassador Donald Yamamoto, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, before the US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, and Human Rights, on 8 March 2011.3

The African Union (AU), Southern African Development Community (SADC), the Economic Community of the Central African States (ECCAS), International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR), and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) sent election observers to monitor the 28 November elections. On 30 November, the observer missions for these African organizations issued a “Joint Declaration on the Presidential and Parliamentary Elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo” stating that “(we) welcome the successful holding of the elections despite the numerous challenges which the country is confronted with. . .” and “appeal to all the Congolese political stakeholders to continue to show a high sense of responsibility by accepting the outcome of the polls, and should there be any dispute due legal processes should be pursued.” 4 This statement was released before the end of actual voting in some parts of the Congo and before the announcement of provisional results.

On 9 December, the Congolese electoral commission (CENI) released provisional results. As reported by the CENI, out of 18,143,104 total votes cast, Joseph Kabila, with 8,880,944 votes (48.95%), defeated his nearest rival, Etienne Tshisekedi, who received 5,864,775 votes (32.33%). That same day, the US State Department issued a press release, saying: “The United States continues to follow closely the electoral process in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). With today’s publication of the preliminary results, the United States urges the relevant Congolese authorities to complete the remaining steps in the electoral process by proceeding with maximum openness and transparency.”

On 10 December 2011, the Carter Center released a statement on the Congo’s presidential election provisional results which reached a markedly different conclusion from that of the African observers: “The problems observed in the tabulation and announced results are compounded by inadequate access for observers at multiple compilation centers around the country and no official access to the national results center in Kinshasa. The Carter Center is therefore unable to provide independent verification of the accuracy of the overall results or the degree to which they reflect the will of the Congolese people.” European Union election observers later released a statement similar to that of the Carter Center.

It is crucial to be meticulous and clear when examining the empirical question of Joseph Kabila’s democratic legitimacy after the 2011 elections. Casual observers might find Kabila’s reported 3,016,169 vote margin of victory convincing. After all, could there really have been fraud and other problems on such a scale to call into question such an overwhelming margin of victory? According to the Carter Center and other careful observers of these elections, the short answer is “Yes.” For example, according to the Carter Center, in their February 23, 2012 statement on the Congolese elections:

The poor management and disorganization of the local results tabulation centers (CLCRs) during the tabulation of presidential results contributed to the loss of at least 3,500 polling station results (affecting 1.2 million potential votes), including some 2,000 in Kinshasa. Highly implausible results were reported from four districts in Katanga province, which recorded between 99-100 percent of the vote for incumbent President Joseph Kabila, with rates of voter participation of almost 100 percent. A further ten districts had 95 percent of the vote for Kabila, garnering some 1.8 million of his 8.8 million votes overall. These districts also reported a rate of null or blank ballots well below the national average; yet even those small totals were greater than the number of valid votes recorded for all ten of the other presidential candidates combined. These facts, coupled with the fact that CENI signed off and accepted these results, followed by the Supreme Court, undermine the credibility of not only these particular results but erode the integrity of the overall administration of the tabulation.5

Furthermore, as stated by the Carter Center:

Some 3.2 million of the overall 18 million votes, nearly 18 percent, were cast through derogation voting—voters casting a ballot at a location other than where they are registered. This high number of such votes reflects the many problems with CENI’s management of the voter register. While derogation voting has the potential to increase voter access to the polls, it is also open to abuse by multiple or non-registered voters, especially when, as observed by the Center, other controls such as inking of a voter’s finger after voting are not used comprehensively.6

Note that just these three irregularities call into question 6.2 million votes, more than double Joseph Kabila’s purported margin of victory. Multiple other inconsistencies, irregularities, and fraud in nearly every other province of the Congo call into question many more of the over 18 million votes cast.

With the Carter Center’s release, Western governments believed themselves in an uncomfortable position, in contrast with how they viewed the 2006 elections. In 2006, the Congo held relatively good, free, and fair elections, its first post-independence contested multi-party elections. After these elections, President Kabila himself stated that, having won freely and fairly, he finally had become the democratically legitimate head of state. The international community correctly agreed.

Despite all the imperfections of the 2006 elections, the Carter Center, which had sent an observation mission, concluded that President Kabila really had won. There had been cheating and fraud on a large scale—by both Kabila and his main opponent, Jean-Pierre Bemba—but the Carter Center examined the levels of cheating and other problems and determined that the results still were accurate in terms of who won and who lost.

In 2006, American and other Western diplomats had to balance the constant tension between their interest in stability and democratic values, but stability and democracy promotion did not come into conflict, since Western policymakers saw a Kabila victory also as promoting stability. In 2011, stability and democratic values appeared to come into conflict, since many Western diplomats genuinely feared the destabilizing effect if Etienne Tshisekedi would win the election, and fervently hoped—at the very least—for another Kabila victory.

However, with the badly botched election, and negative assessments such as those by the Carter Center and European Observer Mission, this scenario did not unfold as neatly as they had hoped. To aid their turn away from democracy promotion, Western governments latched onto a mistranslation of one sentence from the Carter Center’s original English language version. The Carter Center statement, originally drafted in English, contains the following sentence: “This assessment does not propose that the final order of candidates is necessarily different than announced by CENI, only that the results process is not credible.”  This sentence, carefully albeit tortuously drafted, is clear in and of itself when read closely. In the context of the full Carter Center report, it is unambiguously clear that this sentence means the Carter Center was unable to conclude who actually won the election. Put in the plainest language, the Carter Center had concluded that neither Joseph Kabila nor Etienne Tshisekedi, his main rival, nor any other candidate could legitimately claim that he had won the election.

The Carter Center’s own French version mistranslated this sentence into the following: “Cette déclaration ne remet pas en cause l’ordre des résultats des candidats tel qu’annoncé par la CENI,”  or in English: “This statement does not call into question the order of the results for the candidates as announced by CENI.” (The present version of the Carter Center’s December statement in French on their website has corrected this sentence from the original French version with the explanation that the reader should “please note that the text of the French version has been modified to conform with the original English version.”) The mistaken omission of the word “necessarily” from the French version (“ne remet pas nécessairement en cause. . .” or, “does not necessarily call into question. . .”) inadvertently provided a way out both for Joseph Kabila’s Congolese supporters and for anxious diplomats.

Despite the Carter Center’s clear overall meaning in both English and French versions, an anonymous paper was rapidly circulated by Congolese supporters of Joseph Kabila. This paper, dated 12 December, only two days after the release of the Carter Center statement, and entitled “Note Concerning the Announcement of Provisional Results by the CENI,” seized on the one sentence mistranslated in French to argue that the Carter Center, along with other observer missions, accepted that, despite irregularities, Joseph Kabila had indeed won the election. This poorly argued, slanted document attempted to demonstrate that Joseph Kabila won, saying in its final sentence:  “The credibility of the results of the November 28 presidential election is therefore clearly established despite certain irregularities found here and there.” This paper was immediately circulated in Kinshasa and Western capitals.

On 16 December, the Congolese Supreme Court affirmed the results precisely as announced by the Congolese Electoral Commission, declaring Joseph Kabila the official winner of the 2011 presidential elections. After any country’s announcement of official elections results, it is customary for concerned governments to release statements commenting on the elections. African states, following the lead of the African observer missions and the governments of South Africa and Congo’s neighbors, rapidly congratulated Joseph Kabila on his purported victory.

The next day, one of the first statements from a Western country came from Belgium, stating: “Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Didier Reynders takes note of the final results of the presidential elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo.” The statement continues that the Minister of Foreign Affairs “regrets once again that too many deficiencies and irregularities were confirmed during the collection and counting of the results. Even though these deficiencies do not appear to be of a nature to call into question the order of the results, they negatively affect the integrity of the vote.”7

Apparently, the Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs, having read the Carter Center statement in French, concluded, along with the anonymous Congolese propagandists, that even the Carter Center accepted that Joseph Kabila had in reality won the election. Note the similarity of the relevant wording in the Belgian government’s communiqué to the mistranslated Carter Center statement.

On 20 December 2011, the U.S. Department of State released a statement by the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, which said:

The United States is deeply disappointed by the Democratic Republic of the Congo Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the electoral commission’s provisional results without fully evaluating widespread reports of irregularities. We believe that the management and technical execution of these elections were seriously flawed, lacked transparency and did not measure up to the democratic gains we have seen in recent African elections. However, it is still not clear whether the irregularities were sufficient to change the outcome of the election. We believe that a review of the electoral process by the Congolese authorities and outside experts may shed additional light on the cause of the irregularities, identify ways to provide more credible results, and offer guidance for the ongoing election results and for future elections.8

Interestingly, the American statement, relying on the English version of the Carter Center statement, gets it right in stating that it just is not clear whether Joseph Kabila had won or not.

The seeds of both international logic and illogic towards the Congo’s elections had been sown. The Belgian statement, following the French version of just one key sentence in the Carter Center report (and ignoring its clear overall content), stated, incorrectly, that everyone, including credible international observers, already agreed that Joseph Kabila had won the presidential election, even taking into account fraud and myriad other flaws. Secretary Clinton’s statement, however, following the original, correct, English version of the Carter Center report, pointed in a more positive direction.

The logical implication of her statement can be summarized as follows:  The United States wants to see an increasingly democratic Congo. The November elections are not a step in this direction. Therefore, the United States will take actions to help Congo regain a democratic path. The initial actions  that the US will take are to make both a public statement stressing disappointment in the process to date and offer a positive suggestion for a review of the results, involving outside experts, to “provide more credible results, and offer guidance for the ongoing election results.” The United States will take additional steps, as warranted, to help Congo regain a democratic path.

The next important steps occurred in January 2012. Publicly, based on Secretary Clinton’s call for a review of the electoral process by Congolese authorities and outside experts, the National Democratic Institute and IFES organized a joint mission to the Congolese capital of Kinshasa. Because of a near total lack of cooperation from the CENI, this mission ended in failure, and the delegation packed its bags and headed home early. But privately, Belgian, American, and other diplomats already had concluded that they needed to find a way to more fully accept a Kabila presidency.

An interested observer who only had access to American public statements and other public documents might have thought that, after the failure of the NDI/IFES mission, the next step by the United States would have been to take the measures outlined above to help Congo regain a democratic path. A potential next action might have been private diplomatic arm-twisting to make it possible for the Secretary of State’s request for a serious review to occur. Such an observer would have been surprised—perhaps shocked—to read about the 15 February 2012 statement to the press by the US Ambassador to the Congo, James Entwistle. Ambassador Entwistle, in the first public pronouncement by the United States on the specific topic of the presidential elections since Secretary Clinton’s statement and the failure of the NDI/IFES mission, said flatly that the United States “recognizes Joseph Kabila as President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo for the next five years.”

In fewer than two months, and after Congolese authorities had thwartedClinton’s called-for review, the US apparently had moved from her nuanced, positive position to an unqualified endorsement of Joseph Kabila as the president of the Congo. With no African institution or nation supporting Secretary Clinton’s call to find a way to “provide more credible results,” with Africa’s states and institutions supporting Joseph Kabila, and with many other Western nations, led by Congo’s former colonial power, Belgium, acquiescing in a purported Kabila victory, American policymakers appear to have concluded that accepting Kabila, although ignoring democracy promotion, was the wiser course.

Many observers disagree with Western policymakers’ view that by recognizing Joseph Kabila they are opting to maintain stability in the Congo. These observers, including this author, argue that a more nuanced analysis leads to the conclusion that the stability interest and democracy value do not conflict. Although challenging, perhaps even changing, the outcome of the 2011 presidential elections would be difficult, and could lead to short-term instability, it is not at all clear that accepting the fraudulent outcome leads to longer-term stability.

Diplomats assert that it will prove possible to accept the fraudulent results of the presidential and parliamentary elections and somehow successfully muddle through the next five years. However, this facile assumption does not survive serious examination given the extraordinary weakness of Congolese institutions and the multiple sources of instability present in and around the Congo.  Many political analysts believe that Kabila emerges from this process seriously weakened by the loss of legitimacy he has suffered and that his political rivals (including some among his own supporters), scenting this weakness, will increasingly chip away at his authority. Without democratic legitimacy, analysts see an ever-weakening Congolese state declining into even deeper poverty, instability, and violence.

Any discussion of next steps should begin by accepting the serious threat to both stability and democracy posed by the November elections’ lack of legitimacy. As of March 2012, Joseph Kabila is not the democratically elected head of the Congolese state. The US Government and other states have not yet digested the implications of what is now apparent:  the sitting head of the Congolese state organized a systematic effort, across multiple provinces, to fraudulently alter and manipulate election results. As in 2006, Joseph Kabila can become the democratically legitimate head of state if and only if a credible, transparent process (such as that called for by Secretary Clinton) would confirm that he indeed had won the election.

The present Congolese election commission is thoroughly corrupt and utterly discredited. Therefore, any move forward must begin with a new, reformed CENI, as called for by the Catholic Bishops of Congo on 11 January 2012. For the CENI to enjoy the credibility it needs to carry out its work, it should be reconstituted with respected, qualified members, and equitable representation from all parties.

A newly constituted, credible electoral commission should, among its initial actions, undertake an examination of the results of the presidential and legislative elections with a view to establishing actual winners and losers. The new commission should use international experts as necessary to assist them in their difficult, critical work. Secretary Clinton’s offer in this regard remains valid and important. In those instances where winners and losers cannot be clearly established, then those elections should be re-voted at the same time as the provincial elections (which probably will occur in late 2012 or early 2013). These steps, if actually taken, would go a long way to correcting the multiple errors and fraud that destroyed the credibility of the November 2011 elections.

If ultimately successful, this process would mean that the Congo would have found its way back onto the democratic path that many—in sharp disagreement with the actions, if not the words, of African and Western governments—see as essential for long term stability and progress in Congo and Central Africa. This is a necessary refocus of United States and international policy for 2012, to establish genuine steps to help the Congolese polity find a way back to democratic legitimacy.



    1. Democratic elections are the basis of the authority of any representative government;
    2. Regular elections constitute a key element of the democratization process and therefore, are essential ingredients for good governance, the rule of law, the maintenance and promotion of peace, security, stability and development;
    3. The holding of democratic elections is an important dimension in conflict prevention, management and resolution;
    4. Democratic elections should be conducted:
    a. freely and fairly;
    b. under democratic constitutions and in compliance with supportive legal instruments;
    c. under a system of separation of powers that ensures in particular, the independence of the judiciary;
    d. at regular intervals, as provided for in National Constitutions;
    e. by impartial, all-inclusive competent accountable electoral institutions staffed by well-trained personnel and equipped with adequate logistics

    From OAU/AU Declaration on the Principles Governing Democratic Elections in Africa, AHG/Decl. 1 (XXXVIII), 2002, available at

  2. “The timely conduct of general elections which are transparent, credible, peaceful and secure will be vital (emphasis added) for the future legitimacy of the democraticinstitutions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and in ensuring theconsolidation of peace and stabilization in the country.” From United Nations, Report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, May 2011, S/2011/298
  3. “Our engagement in the DRC. . . advances our national interest in a democratic and stable Africa. . . . The national elections. . . are an essential step in determining the Congo’s democratic future. The legitimacy of the DRC’s next president and parliament will be determined by the quality of the upcoming election. We encourage elections that are well and transparently administered and that are conducted in an environment conducive to free political expression.” From Testimony of Ambassador Donald Yamamoto, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, before the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, and Human Rights, March 2011
  4. Document available here.
  5. “Carter Center: Democratic Republic of the Congo Legislative Election Results Compromised,” February 23, 2012, found at:
  6. Ibid
  7. Author’s translation from the original statement in French, which can be found at:
  8. US Department of State, Press Statement, “Supreme Court Decision Confirming Results of the Presidential Election in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC),” December 2011

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