United Nations Security Council votes on draft resolution to extend the mandate of the UN stabilization mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for another year, UN HQ,New York. March 27, 2018. Li Muzi/Press Association. All rights reserved.As a fresh wave of civil unrest engulfs the Democratic Republic of Congo, the nation’s government unveiled late last month a new electronic voting machine which it claims will be instrumental in carrying out this year’s presidential elections, booked in for December 23.
However, critics fear that incumbent president Joseph Kabila – whose term was officially over in November 2016 and who had promised to hold elections late last year – is simply using the machines as a ruse to further delay votes, with the ultimate goal of maintaining power indefinitely.
Against the backdrop of increasingly violent and vocal civil unrest, the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) introduced domestic and international journalists to a new electronic voting machine, which it maintains is indispensable to meeting its target of the December 23 elections.
Yet critics are concerned that these machines are just another bait-and-switch to allow Kabila to postpone elections further – or worse, to manipulate the voting. Indeed, shortly after they were unveiled, the machines, which had been imported from South Korea, broke down when they were being presented to a parliamentary commission in Kinshasa.
Furthermore, it is estimated that 60,000 of the devices will be needed to service a country two-thirds the size of western Europe. Ahead of election day, more than half a million electoral agents will need to assist with their deployment, along with efforts to update the electoral roll. What’s more, the machines operate only in French – not in any of the nation’s four other official languages. These obstacles alone could end up as convenient excuses for Kabila to renege on his promises once again.
The integrity of an electronic ballot has also been called into question by the international community. US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley has claimed that America "has no appetite" for such a system, highlighting the fact that it has never been tested in the country. Notwithstanding that display of unequivocal opposition, government-controlled media have tried to paint the international stakeholders as supportive of their venture.
It is key to note that Kabila has a long history of employing questionable excuses to postpone his secession of the presidency. Previously, he has cited issues ranging from incomplete electoral registration to underfunding of CENI to militia violence in the central region of Kasai – a consequence, ironically, of his own refusal to step down.
It’s easy to imagine that as election day approaches, the voting machines will end up as yet another subterfuge – especially since, as CENI head Corneille Nangaa swore, "Without voting machines, there won't be elections on December 23 2018."
How far has the DRC fallen. After the horror of Africa's World War in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the world hoped with bated breath that Kabila could bring some much-needed stability to this turbulent region. The son of the previous (assassinated) president, Kabila ruled for a transitional period from 2001 until 2006, before winning two more elections (in questionable circumstances) and serving a 15-year tenure.
Yet his rule has been characterised by an increasingly tenuous but iron-willed grip on power, with conditions for everyday citizens slowly but steadily deteriorating. Despite being one of the most resource-rich countries in Africa, it’s estimated that annual inflation has reached 50% and almost 10% of the population (7.7 million people) struggle with extreme hunger.
And in the wake of Kabila’s refusal to cede power in 2016, the situation has only deteriorated, with surging conflict forcing more than 1.3 million people to flee their homes, 800,000 of them children.
The Catholic church
In response to the rising chaos in the country, step forward the Catholic church. With 32 million followers in a nation of 80 million, the church is one of the few institutions capable of wielding power against Kabila and was behind a deal reached with Kabila in late 2016 to organise elections by December 2017.
Yet when the time came, Kabila once again sidestepped his obligations, incurring the wrath of church leaders, who have been coordinating a new wave of peaceful protests against him. Since then, three church-led anti-Kabila marches have taken place; on December 31, January 21, and February 25.
The authorities have used tear gas and live ammunition to disperse protesters on all three occasions, resulting in at least 17 deaths and countless more injuries. The government callously maintain that there have been minimal casualties and deems all victims “known terrorists”. Yet that does precious little to explain why an infant is currently struggling between life and death after having inhaled teargas in the February 25 protest.
Beyond colour and creed
The government have also tried to further divide their opponents by instigating a Muslim counter-protest – a claim which has been categorically quashed by COMICO, the Islamic Community in Congo. Meanwhile, exiled businessman and politician Moïse Katumbi, who is seen by many as the greatest political threat to Kabila’s rule and the country’s best chance of a democratic leader, has called for opponents of the president to unite, regardless of colour or creed. Earlier this month, Katumbi succeeded in rallying together opposition parties into a coalition backing his candidacy, itself an impressive feat in a country as fragmented as the DRC. And though he has promised to return to the country by June, he still remains in Belgium, where he fled after a botched assassination attempt and in order to avoiding incarceration for trumped-up money laundering charges.
Surely keeping lawful elections at arm’s length can’t succeed indefinitely – so what is Kabila’s endgame? Judging by similar events in other increasingly authoritarian states like the Republic of Congo and Rwanda, it’s entirely feasible that the president is postponing his abdication just long enough to find a loophole which will allow him to engineer himself a third or even fourth term in power.
After all, Kabila has already suggested "reframing" the legality of peaceful protests, so he may well take an oft-used page from the dictator’s playbook and seek to alter the constitution for his own personal gain. Yet if the international community wants to avoid another “World War” in Africa, they must step in to negotiate with Kabila for his own peaceful resignation – before he goes beyond the point of no return.