Elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo are a real opportunity

If the international community is to continue to invest large sums of money in the DRC and help the Congolese people, it must insist on responsible leadership and holding the new President to account

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Excitement over the election is building in the DRC
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Don Foster MP
On 17 November 2011 11:59

In Kinshasa, you can buy almost anything from the seat of your car while stuck in traffic jams; water bags and bottles, soft drinks and cigarettes top the list as far as I could see. But the most bizarre sight was the success of a young lad who was selling photocopied lists of the candidates for the, hopefully, up-coming presidential and parliamentary (general assembly) elections.

These elections will be the first consecutive multi-party elections in the Congo’s history, but there remain many uncertainties and the socio-political environment remains fraught.

The outcome will have a defining impact on the future of the DRC and Central Africa, and must be embraced as an opportunity to overturn many years of neglect and dysfunction.

Evidence that there may be elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo at the end of November is clear. UN and EU election observer mission vehicles and people abound. But, as I discovered during my very recent - and first ever - trip to DRC, the logistics of getting everything in place in time is turning out to be a nightmare.

The figures are stark. There are 400 different political parties although almost none have a nationwide reach and most are confined to activity in very small areas. Between them, for the 500 or so seats in the National Assembly, they have registered 18,000 candidates. That's an average of approaching 40 candidates per seat.

So imagine the ballot papers in a country where one-third of the population are illiterate; forty candidates' names, party logos, photographs and spaces for voters to place a cross. There is even one legislative position which has attracted an astonishing 1,500 candidates.

The ballot papers will be huge. There are those who question whether, when folded, the ballot papers will get through the slots in the ballot boxes!

But these ballot papers and ballot boxes aren't even in the country yet; the printing is still underway in South Africa and the ballot box construction is still taking place in China.

Once ready they have to be distributed to 62,000 polling stations across the vast country – nearly as big as Western Europe - that is DRC; and distributed to many places without roads and during the rainy season.

While the logistics have proven formidable, the sense of goodwill leading up to these elections has also been far from apparent. It has been reported that there are a large number (several thousand) of ‘duplicates’ on the electoral register, giving rise to fears that the result of the Presidential election may be distorted in favour of the incumbent.

What’s more, there appear to be fewer duplicates detected in Kinshasa, a hotbed of support for a leading opposition candidate. The problem is compounded by the government’s intransigence over allowing an audit of the supposedly flawed database.

Such electoral anomalies are not new to the Congo and, given the importance attached to these elections, the international community can no longer stand from a distance and simply criticize the DRC for the failures of its leaders and security forces.

The UK in particular contributes an enormous quantity of financial aid (up to £200 million per year until 2015) to the DRC and is therefore responsible, in part, for ensuring that the money is well spent and not simply channelled into the pockets of elites to allow them to preserve their positions of power.

Politics in the DRC is inexorably linked to social issues, and the most startling observation from my recent visit to sub-Saharan Africa’s largest state was the sheer quantity of challenges facing the country.

The lack of advancement in the government’s development programme, known as cinq chantiers, has led many Congolese to become cynical about what the government in Kinshasa is able to do for them.  

Where does one begin to prioritise when a baby born today in a remote province in the East can expect to live only until 48; where one-third of women can expect to be beaten, raped or abused in their lifetime; where threats from rebel groups in neighbouring states can destabilize vast swathes of the country and displace millions, and where seven in ten people living in rural areas do not have access to clean drinking water.

Although we have seen similar challenges successfully embarked upon elsewhere in Africa, for example in Liberia (albeit on a much smaller scale) attempting to mobilize 200 ethnic groups across the vastness of the DRC around a narrow set of objectives will require phenomenal leadership from the next President of the Congo, whoever that may be.

At the end of his first full term in power, it is hard to identify where the Congolese people have been the recipients of any real social advancement pledged by the President five years ago.

This is put into perspective by the recent release of this year’s Human Development Report, in which the DRC ranks rock bottom in a league of 187 countries. Furthermore, this year’s “Doing Business” report, produced by the World Bank, reveals that the DRC has descended a further two places, to 178th out of 183 countries, making it harder for external actors to invest in the Congo and help to build infrastructure that the country so urgently needs to develop.

With all of the hype surrounding the various candidates, and the reports of violence and wrongdoing, it must not be forgotten that the Presidential election should represent a real opportunity for the winner to craft an inclusive social agenda.

If the international community is to continue to invest large sums of money in the DRC and help the Congolese people, it must insist on responsible leadership and holding the new President to account.

I can't imagine it happening; but then I couldn't imagine that anyone would buy photocopied lists of election candidates. Maybe, once again, the DRC will exceed expectations.

Don Foster is the Member of UK Parliament for Bath and the Liberal Democrat spokesperson for Culture, Media and Sport. He tweets at @DonFosterMP

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