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Election Day Plus One

Walter James | Posted November 29th, 2011 | Africa

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Well, it is Election Day Plus One in the Congo.

Acting on the advice of the UNDSS and several others, I have left the Congo and will be finishing up things in Bujumbura, Burundi, before leaving Africa.  I really wish I could have stayed in the DR Congo as an election observer, but for a simple humanitarian, it was the best decision to sit things out.  Maybe I will be back for the next presidential election.

Across the country, polling has been marred by violence and accusations of fraud, but fortunately I am hearing nothing out of Uvira so far.  No news is good news.  However, there are reports that large parts of Fizi Territory did not receive election materials as of yesterday, which makes sense, considering how large parts of Fizi are still zones of combat.

In Lubumbashi, there are reports of up to a dozen or so people killed when armed men opened fire on several polling stations.

In Kinshasa, the Election Day mood was “tense”, as the governor decided to cancel all demonstrations on the last day of campaigning.  This infuriated many UDPS supporters; there were several violent clashes between the police and Tshisekedi supporters.  The EU condemned the cancellation as a violation of free speech and free assembly.

The allegations of voting fraud have mostly been about the following: ballots where Joseph Kabila’s name has already been checked, ballot boxes being already half-full even before the polls opened, poll stations opening late or not opening at all, observers not being allowed to monitor polling stations and inspect ballot boxes, voters not finding their names on the registration lists, soldiers blocking access to polling stations or forcing people to vote their way, and tampering with ballot boxes after they had been collected.  In some cases, accusations of fraud have lead to polling stations being attacked by angry mobs in North Kivu and the Kasai Provinces.  The irregularities are occurring in many places across the whole of the country, according to one observer.

According to the BBC (see below), voting has been extended in some areas, due to polling stations opening late and ballots not arriving.  In one part of Kinshasa, the legislative ballots were a staggering 13 pages long; the amount of resources needed to put on this election at rather short notice has been overwhelming.  In particular, there are concerns about how accessible rural polling stations have been in a country with so few roads.

Checking the latest headlines, both the CENI (Congolese electoral commission) and UN envoy Roger Meece are so far satisfied with the way elections are going.  Whether this is the opinion of the man (or woman) on the street, however, is another matter.  Nonetheless, I think everyone knew going into Election Day that things would be rough, and fortunately so far it has not been as bad as it could have been, considering historical precedence.  However, we all know that Congo (or any country, for that matter) deserves better.

To keep up-to-date on what exactly is going on in these perilous days for the Congo, I would advise you to visit the following websites:

Radio Okapi

Probably the best news source on anything in the Congo.  Check out the nifty, interactive election map, which gives population data, number of candidates, etc., on each province.

Congo Siasa

Jason Stearns is in Bukavu right now as an election observer, and he has lots of interesting updates from around the country.

BBC News: DR Congo voting extended in some areas

The latest BBC news on what’s going on with elections.  Make sure to check out the cool series of maps at the bottom.

Charlie Walker

Ms. Walker has just written blog entry on a series of tragic incidents that happened in Uvira just before we left, and what some of the women of Uvira have done to respond.

Sud Kivu Election Diary IV: Joseph Kabila comes to town

Walter James | Posted November 8th, 2011 | Africa

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Yesterday, Joseph Kabila Kabange arrived in Uvira on a presidential campaign stop.  I was able to see the Chef de l’Etat Congolais twice: yesterday when he arrived in Uvira and today when he gave a speech to a large crowd next to the Cathedral.

Yesterday morning, I knew something was up when I saw large groups of soldiers wearing red berets and sporting a lot more equipment than the normal, ragged FARDC soldier that we are used to seeing in this part of Sud Kivu.  It turned out that these were members of the Presidential Guard.

I later went to the Rond-Point, the entrance to Uvira proper, and encountered a large crowd sporting blue and yellow, the colors of Kabila’s campaign.  I conducted interviews for the better part of the afternoon next to the Rond-Point, watching as the crowd grew larger and larger.  Police and soldiers ran up and down the road, trying to keep the path clear.  People were holding signs, waving flags, and hoisting photos of Kabila above their heads.  A brass-and-drum ensemble was loudly farting out bouncy tunes, keeping the crowd’s spirits high.  At one point, when I was trying to cross the road, I was stopped and questioned by a surly member of the Presidential Guard.

“I’ve seen you wandering around here, Mzungu.  What are you doing here?” he demanded.

“I am here to see the Chef de l’Etat,” I said, with an obsequious smile.

“No, what do you DO here in Uvira?” he reiterated, the scowl on his face growing deeper.

“I am a humanitarian,” I said, trying to keep the mood as light as possible, but probably only succeeding in looking like a mzungu airhead.

The surly soldier let me go, but warned me not to take any pictures.  I was a bit impressed with his equipment; he was the first Congolese soldier I had seen with an assault rifle, several banana clips in his webbing, and, to top it off, a sidearm.  In addition, he looked like someone who drank lots of beer while pumping lots of iron.

As the first vehicles of the presidential convoy started arriving, I took up a post on a hill, so I was afforded a broad view of the road.  Standing next to the road were several provincial deputies, the Territorial Administrator (in a blindingly white suit with a gaudy Congolese flag sash), and the mwami of Uvira (wearing a golden crown).  All of a sudden, a group of police trucks came screeching past with red-and-blue lights blazing, and before I knew it, President Kabila and his wife, Mme Olive Lembe Kabila, were walking right in front of me.  The president stopped briefly to shake hands with each notable person standing by the side of the road, pausing every few minutes to do a double-handed wave to the crowd.  Mme Kabila was putting more of an effort to excite the crowd, jumping up and down and flashing a broad smile as she waved.  The intimidating Presidential Guard, their assault rifles at the ready, closely followed the president and scanned the crowd.  President Kabila was a little shorter than I thought he would be, and also a little skinnier than the brawny figure one sees in most presidential portraits.

As soon as it happened, it was over.  The president walked past my view, and presumably got back into one of his SUVs after passing the crowd at the Rond-Point.  The crowd at this event was obviously very excited, but it was also clear that most of them were ardent Kabila supporters that were brought to the Rond-Point to give the president a warm welcome.

The next day, my roommates and I received news that President Kabila was going to be giving a campaign speech.  Earlier that morning, the presidential helicopter (the Congolese equivalent of Marine 1) was observed flying in tight evasive combat circles very close to our house.  We had heard that Kabila’s was speaking at the Cathedral, so we decided to go up and see what the Chef de l’Etat had to say.

We arrived at a large, open space between the Cathedral and the accompanying Catholic school, where normally a group of schoolchildren would be playing soccer on an ordinary afternoon.  There was about a crowd of 2,000 present, and on the small incline next to the Cathedral an impromptu stage had been set up.  There were definitely a lot of Kabila campaign banners/flags present in the crowd, but they were somewhat diluted by the vast numbers of people present.  Unlike the crowd at the Rond-Point the day before, most people were not wearing Kabila campaign paraphernalia.

As we arrived, the microphone was handed to Joseph Kabila, and he began speaking to the crowd in clipped, but warm, Kiswahili.  He spoke of how he carried Uvira and the rest of Sud Kivu in the 2006 election, and he asked the crowd to vote him in again.  Most of his speech centered on the Cinq Chantiers, and the efforts he had made to realize them.  Of course, for most Uvirois, the Cinq Chantiers are a complete joke, a promise that has never been fulfilled, and most Uvirois who plan to vote with the opposition cite the Cinq Chantiers as the reason why they won’t vote for Kabila again.  However, Kabila made some serious overtures, promising to pave the road from Bukavu to Uvira and all the way down to Baraka.  He promised to build more schools; indeed, about a month ago, Mme Kabila had visited Uvira to inaugurate a new primary school in Kasenga.  Kabila pointed out the Congolese state’s investment in the old Belgian sugar factory in Kiliba, which is about to start operating again after many years of disuse and disrepair.  At the end of each long paragraph of oratory, Kabila would pause and large speakers would blare out his earworm-of-a-campaign song: VOTEZ VOTEZ VOTEZ, KAAAABIIIIILAAAAAA.

After about 10 minutes, Kabila apologized for his short visit to Uvira and bid farewell to the crowd.

Two things to note about the event:

1)     The reception of the much-larger crowd at the Cathedral was lukewarm, at best.  Sure, there were plenty of Kabila supporters near the front, but the level of cheering and applause could hardly beat out what I normally hear from local soccer matches.  The crowd of mostly young men with which I was standing was making cynical and sarcastic comments during the speech, especially when Kabila spoke of all the improvements he claimed he would continue bringing to Uvira.  When Kabila was saying his goodbyes, a young man near me exclaimed “anamaliza?! (He’s finished already?!)”.  However, I was struck by the overall calm nature of the crowd; even those who were openly unhappy with Kabila were not “acting out”, interesting news when election-related violence is rising in Kinshasa and Katanga Province.

2)     Kabila’s tone seemed almost pleading.  Kabila’s reputation has suffered quite a bit in Sud Kivu, and it appeared that he was doing his best to win over the crowd for their vote.  Despite the fact that security is still bad and the Cinq Chantiers are a distant fantasy, Kabila sought to assure the crowd that he would continue trying to accomplish his goals.  Overall, he came off as someone who was desperately trying to ingratiate himself with a population where his support is slipping.  This is quite a contrast to, say, his father, who was prone to take ironfisted positions when faced with declining support.  Again, while Kabila is obviously engaging in some dirty tactics in order to stymie his opposition, he also seems to be campaigning like a man who just might lose.

For further information, check out the amazing Charlie Walker‘s thrilling account of Kabila’s visit.

Sud Kivu Election Diary III: Young Democracy

Walter James | Posted November 3rd, 2011 | Africa

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In 2006, the Democratic Republic of Congo held its first multiparty elections in 46 years. At the time, the Congo was emerging from many years of war, involving all of its neighbors and other African nations. There was a fragile peace, or, in the case of the Kivus, none at all.

The 2006 election was largely financed by international donors, who accounted for 90% of the financial burden. In addition, MONUC, UNDP, and other international agencies provided much-needed oversight and guidance. After all, this was a country that had just been recently reunited through a weak peace agreement, and many of the major players still had armed groups at their disposal.

Now, the situation is quite different, as Joseph Kabila and the rest of the government represent a much stronger, democratically-elected Democratic Republic of Congo. Things may still be bad, but they are still better from the cauldron of chaos of the late 90s/early 2000s. However, there are still signs of trouble.

One particularly eyebrow-raising development of 2011 election process has been the recent changes to the Congolese constitution, which, among other things, has altered the presidential election system from a 2-round, majority-wins election to a 1-round, plurality-wins election.

When the Congolese National Assembly and Senate passed these controversial amendments, there were immediately allegations of bribery against President Kabila. A 1-round plurality-wins election would make things easier for Kabila to divide the opposition and win with a much smaller percentage of the national vote. In addition, it appeared suspicious that these amendments were passed so quickly through the Congolese legislature, given its reputation as a body that usually works grindingly slow. While there is nothing inherently wrong with a single-round election (or with the changes to the constitution, if indeed there was no bribery), the problem is that it appears to have occurred only to the benefit of Kabila. The sole argument, it seems, for the public benefit of these electoral changes is that it will save money for the Congolese state, which is now carrying 60% of the cost of the election.

A report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) released back in May gives a rather pessimistic image of the 2011 elections: opposition supporters and journalists are being harassed and beaten during demonstrations, there is a considerable lack of much-needed international involvement, the CENI (the national electoral commission) is politically biased, there is not enough election security, and the proposed November 28th election date is too soon to organize a free-and-fair election. However, if the date of the election is pushed back, there is sure to be controversy, as Kabila’s term expires on December 7th by constitutional mandate. There are already rumors that members of the opposition (notably Etienne Tshisekedi) are planning on demanding a power-sharing agreement if there is no clear winner by the date on which Kabila’s term ends.

So, what is going on here in Uvira? All over town, posters are plastered onto walls and kiosks, and men on foot or bicycles are advertising for various candidates via megaphone. Things are calm so far.

Sud Kivu Election Diary II: In the other corner…

Walter James | Posted October 31st, 2011 | Africa

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So, who will be running against Joseph Kabila in the presidential election? There are so far 11 registered candidates, several of whom represent strong competition for Kabila in the election. I have chosen to highlight three particular Congolese political figures, of which 2 are registered as presidential candidates. There are many, many more notable Congolese opposition leaders, but I am limiting myself just to demonstrate the fragmented nature of the opposition, as well as for the sake of brevity.

Etienne Tshisekedi, nicknamed the “Sphinx of Limete”, is an old and experienced player in the Congolese political arena, having cut his teeth as one of Mobutu’s foes. Tshisekedi’s party is the UDPS. Among the opposition, Tshisekedi is noteworthy for his adamant position that he is the only opposition candidate who can face Kabila. While other opposition candidates have called for inter-party negotiations in order to rally support around a single candidate, Tshisekedi has made it clear that he will compromise with no one. He has persistently called on other opposition leaders to fall behind him and support his candidacy, going so far as to visit Jean-Pierre Bemba in prison in the Hague to try and gain his (and hopefully the MLC’s) approval. So far, Tshisekedi has garnered a large coalition of politicians to support him, although this has been tempered by the fact that no one in his coalition is relevant or influential. Here in Sud Kivu, many view Tshisekedi as “too old” (he is 79) and not representing the interests of the East (he is from Kasai Province, and his base is largely in the West).

So far, there has been quite a bit of friction between UDPS supporters and the PPRD/Congolese state, punctuated by violent confrontations in Kinshasa on September 5-6 between UDPS supporters and PPRD supporters/state security forces.

Vital Kamerhe is an MP from Bukavu, and a former Speaker in the National Assembly. His party is the UNC. In 2009, Kamerhe was forced from his Speaker position due to his criticism of Kabila’s decision to conduct joint military operations with the Rwandan army in the Kivus. He remains critical of Kabila’s government, although some see Kamerhe as merely an overambitious politician who challenges Kabila purely for his own political gain. Kamerhe, as a native of Sud Kivu, retains a certain level of popularity here, though he still lacks enough political influence outside of the East. Kamerhe has built some crucial alliances with other Congolese political parties, notably with fellow presidential candidate and President of the Senate Leon Kengo wa Dongo, although there are still major leadership issues within these alliances.

In 2006, Joseph Kabila faced Jean-Pierre Bemba in the 2nd round of the presidential election. Bemba is the leader of the MLC, a rebel movement during the 2nd Congo War that morphed into a national political party once peace was declared in 2003. Bemba is almost universally despised here in the East due to his alliances with the Ugandan military and the horrendous human rights abuses committed by MLC troops in the East, including allegations of cannibalism. Today, Bemba is in prison in the Hague pending trial for war crimes at the ICC. Nonetheless, he is still considered the exiled “leader” of the MLC. The MLC has not fielded a presidential candidate for the 2011 election, despite the fact that Bemba made statements that he would run for president from his jail cell in the Netherlands. Bemba’s continuing (though declining) relevance and his persistence are good examples of the strange and surreal nature of Congolese politics.

Overall, the picture that one finds of the opposition is of a squabbling and unorganized group, divided by ethnicity, region, and individual ambition. As the presidential election will be a 1-round, plurality-wins affair this time, it is crucial that the opposition can unite around a common leader if they realistically want a chance to beat Kabila. A major point of compromise will be the promise of positions in the new government depending on support of a common candidate, as well as input in the policy-making process. However, so far there are few signs of unity, despite the fact that the election date is getting closer and closer. There are also concerns that Kabila is using “dummy candidates” to take away votes from opposition candidates, although it is also common for opposition leaders to accuse each other of being “dummy candidates” that have been “bought off” by Kabila.

Some in the opposition, like Tshisekedi, have unequivocally stated that whoever the opposition is, Kabila will lose. On the other hand, Kabila has stated that he is supremely confident of victory in November. So, no one is really willing to give up, and, although the cards are stacked in Kabila’s favor, anything is possible come November 28th.

How are sentiments on the ground here in Uvira? A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with a group of young Uvirois at a popcorn stand, and the conversation drifted into politics.

“We have had enough with Kabila, there are no jobs and no security,” said the young Congolese. I asked them whom they were voting for.

“Vital Kamerhe,” they responded unanimously. I asked them why they thought things would be different if Kamerhe was elected.

“We don’t know if things will be better, but Kabila had his chance, it’s time to give someone else a chance, and Tshisekedi is too old.”

Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

Again, this is only the 3rd multiparty presidential election in the Congo’s history. How is this time different from 2006? There are a few notable changes to the political situation, as well as some changes to the election system itself. In my next blog entry, we will take a look at some crucial aspects of the 2011 election process, including changes to the constitution and the decrease of international involvement.

Sud Kivu Election Diary: Part I

Walter James | Posted October 28th, 2011 | Africa

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In less than a month, national elections are scheduled for the Congo.  Yesterday, official campaigning began all across the DRC.  Here in Sud Kivu, we are all holding our breath a little bit.  This will only be the third national multiparty election in the history of the Congo.

So far, many observers see this election as a referendum on incumbent President Joseph Kabila, who took over as interim president when his father was assassinated in 2001 and won Congo’s first real national election in 2006.  Kabila’s political party is the PPRD.

In 2006, Kabila easily carried Sud Kivu Province, as he was considered a “native son” (as opposed to “people-eating” Jean-Pierre Bemba) who reunited the country and ended the Rwandan occupation.  However, since then, Kabila’s reputation in Sud Kivu has suffered for a number of reasons:

1)     Many “autochtone” Congolese (Babembe, Bafulero, Bashi) are angry that Kabila “shook hands with the devil” when he improved relations with Paul Kagame in Rwanda.  During Operations Kimya II and Amani Leo in 2010-2011, the boots of Rwandan soldiers were once again on Congolese soil to assist the largely unmotivated and ineffective FARDC in pursuing the FDLR.  The population of Sud Kivu, who will not easily forget how badly they suffered under brutal Rwandan occupation, are not ready to forgive Kabila for this compromise.  Even after official Rwandan presence has all but disappeared from Sud Kivu, many “autochtone” still feel that the Rwandophone ethnic minorities hold too much power in the regional governments and in the armed forces.  It doesn’t help that many high-ranking PPRD members in Sud Kivu used to belong to the rather unpopular RCD regime of the late 90s/early 2000s.

2)     The lack of development in Sud Kivu (as well as in the rest of the Congo) is still astoundingly awful for a country so rich in mineral resources.  Early in his regime, Kabila promised great developments in the “Cinq Chantiers”, a series of improvements to five aspects of the Congo (schools, roads, etc).  However, in Sud Kivu, unemployment rates are still high, the roads are awful, and the education system is in a dismal state.  Having promised great things, many Congolese people now see Kabila responsible for the failure of development in the Congo.

3)     Security remains very bad in Sud Kivu.  The FDLR has been pushed back further into the jungle in the past few years, but the local populations have suffered under the hands of FARDC troops.  Furthermore, there has been no real resolution to the war and insecurity, despite the fact that many armed groups have been induced to join the FARDC through promises of cash and impunity.  Many people in Sud Kivu dissatisfied by Kabila believe that he should try harder at making a deal with the FDLR, instead of continuing what they believe is a “Rwandan” war.  Thus, many hold Kabila responsible for the lawless, violent, and undisciplined behavior of state-endorsed troops, as well as the lack of resolution to the “fires in the East”.

The discontent with Kabila’s regime explains why groups such as Mai Mai Yakutumba maintain a certain level of popularity in Sud Kivu, particularly among the Babembe elite in Fizi Territory, who resent Rwandophone ethnic minorities and feel disenchanted by their perceived lack of political power at the national/regional level.

Kabila’s growing unpopularity in the East has also fueled a number of myths about his intentions and his origins.  It is easy to find Congolese people in Sud Kivu who will tell you that Kabila is (my goodness) a “Tutsi spy”, a puppet installed and kept in power by the Rwandan government.  There are many circulating stories about Kabila’s mother being a “Rwandan Tutsi”, which, despite their apocryphal nature, may actually be possible, given what we know about the women who orbited around Laurent-Desire Kabila.  Of course, does it really matter where Petit Joseph’s mother came from?  No.  This kind of xenophobic name-calling, unfortunately, is rather counterproductive and does nothing to improve the image of Sud Kivutians as racist Génocidaires 2.0.

I have explained why Kabila is a rather unpopular choice here in Sud Kivu.  However, there is still the possibility that he will carry Sud Kivu in the election, given the dismal state of the political opposition.  In my next blog entry, I will write about those who will be running for president against Major General Joseph Kabila Kabange.

Fellow: Walter James

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