Hopes and fears before the DRC elections

My friend Sokari Ekine has an excellent overview of the situation in the DRC leading up to Sunday’s elections. She points out the complexities of the situation: less violence than anyone expected, perhaps due to the presence of 17,000 UN troops, but real concerns that some sectors of Congolese society will view the results as legitimate.

Some of the most concerning violence has centered around Jean-Pierre Bemba, one of the 33 presidential candidates in a race likely to go to Joseph Kabila, the incumbent interim President. Bemba’s party headquarters suffered a suspicious fire – some speculation ties the fire to French jets flying above Kinshasa, part of the multinational peacekeeping force. Clashes between Bemba’s supporters and police have been deadly, and observers report that Bemba’s supporters – who’ve allegedly been involved in rebel activity in the CAR – are armed with Kalishnakovs and RPGs.

One narrative of the elections in DRC is a hopeful one – a nation, torn apart by corruption and international war will be transformed by democratic elections, will see support from the global community, and will emerge as a stable, democratic heart to a rising African continent. The fact that 25 million people – more than half the population of the country – have registered to vote is an amazing achievement given the logistical obstacles to holding elections in a country almost the size of Europe with very few roads.

Another narrative is more complicated, skeptical and worrisome. It suggests that the election in fait accompli for Kabila, the coronation of a leader who originally took power as the son of an assasinated leader. The presence of UN and French troops legitimate the transition, which is likely to have some major electoral problems: possible fraud due to the massive overprinting of ballots, the influence of bordering and regional powers on the elections, widespread accusation of abuse of state power on Kabila’s part to ensure his election. Paule Bouvier and Pierre Englebert take this stance in an article on foreignpolicy.com: “In short, the DRC is likely to revert to the predatory and personal rule that has characterized so much of its history. National elections after decades of warfare and autocratic rule should be a momentous time in a country’s history; in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, they will mean more of the same.”

The cynic in me tends to side with the second view, with one caveat: if DRC became a rallying point for international attention and involvement, I think the slide into “big-man” kleptocracy could be combatted. Elections in DRC should be a hopeful moment for the whole world – the chance for a nation whose instability has helped perpetuate conflicts all over the continent to move towards stability and prosperity. If global attention, assistance and aid flooded to DRC the way it did to South Africa whith the end of Apartheid, is it possible that the “more of the same” narrative could be avoided? Or is that hope – the hope for attention and aid to Congo – roughly as unlikely as hoping that Kabila will be a fraction of the leader Mandela was?

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