Living Through Elections in the DRC

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The elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) were contested in the context of widespread voter intimidation, accusations of fraud, and fears that the declaration of the results would spark widespread civil conflict. The election was effectively a two-horse race between the incumbent, Joseph Kabila, and the most popular opposition challenger, Etienne Tshisekedi. Vital Kamerhe was one of a number of other candidates also contested for the presidency. Many reports have been written about the limitations of the electoral process and its aftermath, but we rarely hear about the experiences, hopes and fears of those on the ground. In this post, narrated by Sophie and David Kalinga and written by Patrycja Stys, some of those who lived through the election describe how they, and their neighbors in Himbi (Goma) and La Bote (Bukavu), experienced the campaign.

The Sound of Holding One’s Breath

…We’re sitting in Himbi, across from l’école primaire Matunda, on Avenue de la Mission. We walked back stubbing our toes on the lava rocks that line Himbi’s twisting routes. The power is out. Again. We write by the glow of our dying laptops, by the light of a kerosene lantern. Sarcastic comments concerning Kabila’s Cinq Chantiers, a broken development promise of roads and electricity and power and water and education and healthcare, punctuate our discussions.

It’s 8 December, and the transistor radio hums in the background. We’re waiting for the results. They were supposed to be announced at 6:30 pm, then postponed until 9:00 pm. But we’ve been living that limbo since Tuesday, when people stocked up on provisions and locked themselves in their houses, waiting. And we’re still waiting.

Weeks ago, when Kabila visited Goma, I attended the rally. He spoke of the Cinq Chantiers, of asphalt and electricity. He said Number 3 is the only candidate, and asked Goma to give his mandate an endorsement of 100 per cent in 2011, citing the city’s support in 2006. People gathered and cheered, but without too much enthusiasm. Madame Kabila riled the crowd, and the president screamed, ‘Number Three!’ A few people around me [Sophie] yelled back, ‘Number Five!’ Others just proclaimed their votes for Kamerhe. Many said it doesn’t matter for whom you vote, since Kabila will win regardless. CNDP vehicles were plastered with posters for Number 71, the Rwandophone candidate for Parliament, obscuring the single advert for Number 3.

The crowd disbanded fairly quickly following the speech. The flags for Kabila were quickly stolen from Rond Point Tshukudu, as people scaled the poles to retrieve them. They neither ran with them, cheering, nor burnt them to the ground. The simple act of taking them was more akin to getting a new bit of fabric or a house rag. Same for the t-shirts. People attended the rally because it was an interesting spectacle, of dancing and music and loudspeakers, something to see, rather than to show their political support. On the same day, Tshisekedi held his rally in Goma, but its inhabitants hardly noticed. The violence caused by Tshisekedi back in 1966 has been far too well publicized—and remembered.

Five days later, back in November, Kamerhe visited Goma. I [Sophie] was in Bukavu, but David filmed the event. These reflections are his. People cheered and screamed and jumped up and down with huge posters proclaiming their support for Number 5. People flooded the streets and UNC flags flowed amongst these human currents. People lined the walls and the rooftops, marched through the streets, chanting. Kamerhe was carried in a chair, high over the heads of his supporters, around the roundabout, as if on a victory lap. The streets of Goma were coursing rivers of cheering people. Kamerhe discussed the broken promises of Cinq Chantiers, and stressed free and compulsory education, from nursery through secondary school. He spoke of the corruption in the mineral sector, of the country’s great, largely misappropriated wealth, and promised to return it to the people.

It was the first time Kamerhe visited Goma, and people were curious to see him present his political platform, to see how the man who wanted their support to lead the country carried himself, or was carried. They cheered because they desired change, because they wanted promises kept, and politicians who failed to keep them to be democratically removed from office. All those people, those throngs, accompanied Kamerhe to his hotel, after he concluded his speech. The turnout, and enthusiasm, was certainly more impressive than that of Kabila’s supporters in Goma.

Two days later Kamerhe reached Bukavu, his hometown, and was supposed to arrive at 2 pm. Already, Place de l’Independance was teeming with people. They burst out of high-rise buildings. They tied Kamerhe posters around their necks, raised their open palms in the air—Number Five!—and pounded. Kabila had blocked Kamerhe t-shirts from the country, but somehow, from Kenya, t-shirts advertising Kaherme and the Cinq Chantiers made their way into Congo—with a large Number 5 on the back! Earlier in the day, the demonstrations and street parades in support of Kamerhe had blocked Bukavu’s dusty dirt roads. Now, everyone awaited the candidate’s arrival with patient anticipation. When word spread he was supposed to arrive, the crowds stood and cheered and sang, only to sit back down in disappointment, and then repeat the process. People discussed politics, the benefits and drawbacks of the candidates, the Cinq Chantiers.

The clouds came in from Lake Kivu, filling an already overcast sky. Soon that sky broke open, pouring forth chilling rain, but no-one moved. There really was nowhere to go, but no-one even tried. Drenched, and becoming more drenched, we all stood in place, shoulder-to-shoulder and chest-to-back. We stood in Place de l’Independance, water streaming down our faces. Then the rain stopped, and we continued shivering. Kamerhe finally arrived, carried in on a chair, like in Goma, like a king, and then hills and buildings and the entire roundabout erupted. The waves of bodies rippled with cheers and songs.

Kamerhe spoke at length, unfortunately over a rather poor PA system. Past the roundabout, it was simply impossible to hear him. He spoke of the 148 million USD that Kabila had spent on his campaign, instead of investing it in the country. Of the lack of electricity and water, despite all of South Kivu’s resources. He promised to raise proper barracks for the soldiers, to double their pay, from a monthly wage of 50 to 100 USD. People cheered and applauded. They listened, despite the difficulty of hearing.

PPRD, Kabila supporters, ran about, screaming, clad in Kabila shirts and waving his blue flags, trying to disrupt Kamerhe’s speech. No-one was particularly disturbed by their efforts. No fights broke out. No violence. No-one even shouted at them. At that point, the PA system failed almost completely, night was falling, the rain was starting again, and it was impossible to hear. But everyone stayed. As I left, the roads were completely blocked, and the same PPRD supporters continued to run through the streets. In terms of a true political rally this had been inspirational in terms of political engagement, civility and participation.

Our reveries of past rallies are cut short by the realization that it is 9:06 pm. Everyone quiets down as Sophie changes the dials on the transistor radio, crackling as she tunes between stations. She finds the BBC, and we find that the announcement of the results has once again been postponed, now to midnight. We listen to the program, and once again receive the same information we’ve heard debated for days now. Nothing new. We can answer every question posed by the BBC correspondent.

Back during the campaign, those rallies quickly carried us to Election Day, 28 November. All campaigning stopped. All the posters were torn down. The country started voting. That day, in Goma, soldiers were instructed to shoot to kill, should any disturbance occur. An alert was announced, accompanied by a directive to stay inside, but peace and calm continued. The voting, which was supposed to be concluded the same day, was extended and extended again, until 1 December. The irregularities in terms of the election, outlined in detail and debated furiously in all modes of media, are particular to each province. All too often we forget that the DRC is the size of Western Europe. Some areas are dense, impenetrable jungle, lacking roads much less airports and electricity and even satellite phone service. Additionally, armed groups still reign in some of these parts.

The delivery of election materials, the collection of ballots, and even the voting process itself was impeded by a combination of armed group mobilization and logistical difficulties. Sometimes ballots were damaged or destroyed during transport; at other times, people simply could not reach the polls because of rain and sliding roads. Mishaps with voter lists, the high rate of illiteracy amongst the population, as well as late delivery of ballots or simply insufficient amounts, led voters in some areas to burn polling sites. Then there were allegations of shipments of ballots being flown into Kinshasa from South Africa. Election ballots were found on the streets of Himbi days before the actual election.

This combination of logistical problems, unrest and frustration, and allegations of fraud, has led many here to see the additional voting days as concocted opportunities for Kabila to cheat the votes and steal the election. These additional voting days, while necessary in many remote villages, occurred in cities as well. Even a district in Kinshasa was awarded two additional days to vote. In some urban areas, voters were also offered additional opportunities to vote, due to the rains. Tshisekedi’s UDPC continues to condemn CENI, the electoral commission, for the extended period of voting. People are seeing the process and its irregularities as fraud, as everyone understands that there is one election-day. An election week becomes a prolonged period of opportunities to steal the votes, and the election.

The results, provisional and preliminary, were to be announced on Tuesday, 6 December. People waited, offices closed, markets shut, children did not attend school. The waiting was in vein, and the results were postponed until 8 December. Many breathed a sigh of relief in Goma and in Bukavu, exhaling. The problem is not as much the population, as the leaders of the three parties. If they could accept the results, nothing would happen in the country. Every one of them who does not accept the results threatens to wage war. In Goma, Kabila announced that if he wins, he is uncertain whether his victory will be accepted, and that if he does not win, he himself will prepare for war.

The population understands that anything can happen, that anything is possible, and waits, holding its breath. What people fear is the ‘balkanization’ of the country (yes, this term is actually used in the streets of Himbi and La Bote), with the losers mobilizing their supporters into the streets, to riot, to fight the supporters of other candidates with rocks and broken bottles and flames. Each of the eleven candidates would try to claim the region of his hometown, and Kabila would fight to keep the East.

At the end of the day, ordinary people just want peace, to go to the market, to send the children off to school, to go to work, to prevent another war. Everyone fears what the announcement of the results may bring. Its postponement leaves us in limbo, but that limbo is a postponement of peace, for which many are grateful. Others just want the results announced, so they know whether or not they must prepare for war, for the worst, or if they can finally let their breath out, and exhale.

It is now after midnight. The lanterns are empty and the batteries are nearly dead. We are still awaiting the results, and still holding our breath in Himbi…

***

The electoral commission finally declared Kabila to have won the election on December 9th with 48.95% of the vote. Due to a change in the law, Kabila did not have to contest a run-off against Tshisekedi who received 32.33% of the poll – according to the official results. Kamerhe received just 7.74%.

Many domestic and international commentators rejected the election results.

For the report of the Carter Centre, click here.

For the report of the European Election Observation Mission, click here.

For the most recent report by the International Crisis Group, click here.

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