Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Violence Fears Ahead of DRC Polls

Evidence of badly mismanaged registration process does not augur well for elections later this year.
By Mélanie Gouby
  • Election workers in Bunia, Ituri, explain the electoral process to voters before the second round of presidential and provincial elections in 2006. (Photo: UN Photo: Martine Perret)
    Election workers in Bunia, Ituri, explain the electoral process to voters before the second round of presidential and provincial elections in 2006. (Photo: UN Photo: Martine Perret)

Violence could break out during upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, if the ballot is handled as chaotically as the voter registration process, commentators and opposition leaders have warned.

Experts agree that official efforts to register the country’s estimated 31 million eligible voters have been badly managed, so much so that the June 30 deadline had to be extended by three weeks.

Much of the trouble is said to have been the consequence of poor planning and inadequate resources rather than corruption – although there has been some evidence of the latter.

Concerns that the elections may be similarly disorganised have led to calls for an international monitoring effort on a similar scale to that which supervised the 2006 ballot that saw President Joseph Kabila elected in the first multi-party elections in 41 years.

The international community contributed 80 per cent of the election costs in 2006 but it has cut its contribution to less than 40 per cent this time around.

“We are not at ease with the way the electoral process is engaged. We do not believe all parties involved are committed to free and fair elections. These problems could lead to renewed violence,” said Jemtom Mahundu, a civil society coordinator in North Kivu.

Tensions in the region are already high after the presidential elections were reduced to a single round of voting following a change to the constitution passed by parliament in June, just five months before the polls. Hundreds of opposition supporters took to the streets of Kinshasa earlier this month to protest the change.

Meanwhile, the government’s lack of a clear preparation strategy for the elections - currently scheduled for November 28 - has caused further alarm.

International sources contacted by IWPR have warned that if stakeholders don’t get on the same page about the electoral process and there isn’t enough transparency then several areas of the country, particularly Kinshasa, and certain areas like the Kivus, Katanga, Bas Congo, and Kasai Orientale, could disintegrate into violence.

The Independent Electoral Commission, CENI, claims that 31.2 million voters have now been registered, but the apparently poorly-run enrolment process has raised questions about the integrity of election preparations.

One of the biggest problems was that the number of registration centres was less than half the number for the 2006 polls when the DRC held its second elections since a decade-long war ended in 2003.

With fewer centres, people were forced to travel miles to enroll. In South and North Kivu respectively, there were half and a quarter as many centres as there were for the 2006 ballot. In addition, there were claims that registration equipment did not always work or had not been delivered; youths too young to vote were registered; and CENI staff were not up to the job.

“People [did] not come to register because they[had] to travel long distances and even those who [lived] here in Kisharo [did] not come because we do not have enough registration machines,” said Innocent Kiwangani, who ran one registration centre in Kisharo, a town in the Rutshuru region, North Kivu.

Jean-Pascale Muragaruka, the coordinator of COGESKI, a civil society organisation in Goma, in eastern DRC, said, “The antiquated registration machines, the inexperienced CENI [officials]… the problem of underage youngsters being enrolled, the shortage of registration centres - are all bad signs for the coming elections.”

The lack of equipment resulted in long queues outside registration centres, with people often turned away at the end of the day. For some, it took several days of queuing to get a voting card. 

“People have to get up extremely early and some have to travel as far as 50 kilometres to get a simple card,” one man outside a registration centre in Uvira, South Kivu, told IWPR. “Once they have put their name down on the waiting list, they often have to wait for days before their turn comes. If you have responsibilities, you cannot wait. That’s the case for businessmen like me as well as mamas who must take care of their kids.”

Another complaint raised in Goma and other parts of North and South Kivu was that policemen allegedly asked people to pay a fee for a ticket allowing them to register to vote.

“There are soldiers and policemen in charge of security who are receiving money in exchange for distributing the tickets [for] the registration list,” said one Goma resident interviewed outside a registration centre our journalist was not allowed access to. “There are people who gave five or ten dollars, I even saw someone giving 20 dollars.”

Similar testimonies have been given to IWPR reporters across North and South Kivu.

Local authorities accept that this sort of practice takes place and blame the small salaries paid to policemen. They say they tried to put a stop to it by distributing packed lunches to officers, but results were mixed.

Moreover, the procedure of enrollment itself is said to be prone to manipulation as few people possess ID cards or passports. Successive displacements in the eastern region and the lack of a census for 27 years are believed to make it difficult for the authorities to keep track of who is eligible to vote. It has been alleged that documents such as driving licences and student cards have been allowed as proof of identity.

The CENI president in Katanga, Jacques Djoli, accepts that some minors have been registered in the province. He insisted that those responsible for such malpractice will be disciplined.

Opposition parties, including the Union for Democracy and Social Progress, UDPS, and the Mouvement Bleu, warn that if the kinds of the problems evident throughout registration process occur during the presidential and parliamentary there could be violence.

“The problems we have seen in the voter registration process could carry over to the elections. If nothing is done to hold elections in a more open manner, we will possibly face an Ivory Coast scenario,” said Rubens Mikindo, the president of the UDPS party in North Kivu.

Ivory Coast was plunged into violence following last November’s polls when incumbent Laurent Gbagbo refused to yield power to the run-off election winner, Alassane Ouattara.

Meanwhile, some say that international monitoring of the polls alone may not stave off the violence.

"Beyond election monitoring, it would also be interesting to look at hate speech and the possibility of conflict mitigation leading up to the election, and how we can mitigate any insecurity that may happen as a result of the elections," Dana Olds, assistant director of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, IFES, said.

CENI blames its low budget for the lack of registration centres and the problems experienced during the enrollment process. Questions have been raised about the electoral budget and how much money central government has released for the commission to do its work across the country.

“They have dispersed a very, very small fraction of the funds [allocated for organising elections],” claimed David Pottie, associate director of the Carter Center’s democracy programme which is monitoring the polls in DRC. Pottie said the government’s handling of the commission was a sign of its overall attitude towards the elections.

“If you take a long time to establish the overall management body and do so relatively speaking late in the day and then disperse relatively little of the total funds that you have committed, that could certainly be interpreted as an ambiguous commitment on the part of the presidency to ensure that there is a well-structured, well-capacitated election management body,” Pottie said.

The government’s deputy finance minister, André Shikayi Luboya Bankima, said 116 million US dollars had been given to the commission. However, he admitted that the whole election budget had not been handed over at the outset of the registration process but had been released “according to [the electoral commission’s] needs”.

The total funds the government set aside for elections remains unclear.

CENI insists it did what it could to improve the registration process in the Kivus, particularly by providing mobile registration kits to help enroll people in remote areas.

But people on the ground say that insecurity in some parts of North Kivu has prevented many of those mobile registration kits reaching people. Civil society activists also say the kits are unreliable and do not function half the time.

Mahundu, the civil society activist from North Kivu, said that mobile kits were a good idea in principle, but that “they need[ed] to be monitored to ensure they [were] used efficiently and free from corruption”.

The government’s allegedly chaotic handing of the registration process comes in the wake of severe criticism of Kabila for reducing the voting process in the presidential ballot from two rounds to one.

One round of voting is considered sufficient in political systems where only two parties are vying for the presidency and each only puts forward one candidate, such as in the United States.

But in a multi-party election, votes are typically split between opposition candidates meaning a one-round poll is likely to favour the incumbent president.

“A president elected with less than 50 per cent of the votes will never be legitimate. The population witnesses everything and will react accordingly,” said a young man in a recent radio debate organised by IWPR in Bukavu, South Kivu.

Government spokesman Lambert Mendé denied that the legitimacy of the president would be affected by reducing the election to one round. And the president’s allies say the decision to consolidate the voting process was driven by financial necessity. 

“Congo was not spared by the [global] economic crisis and we now face economic difficulties. In 2006, we organised some of the most expensive elections ever held. At the time, because of a lack of resources, the second round was held 45 days after the first one,” said legislator Nzanzu Kasivita, the provincial president of the People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracry, PPRD, in North Kivu.

Opposition groups and civil society reject this justification for tampering with the constitution, and say that if money was an issue the international community could have been called for help earlier.

“It is not right to change the constitution on the eve of the elections. I think [the president’s allies] understood that they would not win a second round. It is not a financial issue - they would do anything to keep the power,” said Rubens Mikindo, president of the UDPS party in Goma.

In North and South Kivu, civil society activists are calling for renewed support from the international community to ensure that the elections are free and fair, echoing a recent report by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.

“At the moment, the electoral process is very badly engaged. We recommend that international financial aid for the election be put towards a serious evaluation of the electoral process. There are massive risks of fraud and irregularities, therefore the international community should not blindly support a flawed process,” Marc-André Lagrange, an analyst with ICG, said.

ICG and Congolese civil society activists recommend the United Nations Security Council create a panel of experts to monitor the elections and the European Union send a long-term observation mission.

An EU exploratory mission conducted over the past month will recommend that an observation team be sent to DRC, a spokesperson in Brussels confirmed to IWPR. If such an initiative is agreed to by the High Representative “it will entail long term observation in all the provinces of the DRC and would mean an early deployment as from September”, the spokesperson added. 

Meanwhile, the Carter Center will have between 50 and 60 observers on the ground, as well as around 20 long-term monitors, who will be deployed in September. 

At the same time, there are some who believe that the UN mission in DRC, MONUSCO, should also play a role in ensuring the elections run smoothly.

“When you have 20,000 soldiers on the ground, you use them,” Lagrange of ICG said. “Last time elections were badly organised, it was under Mobutu in 1991 and it ended up with the lootings and violence in Kinshasa.”

The 2006 elections, which brought Joseph Kabila to power for a five-year term, passed off relatively smoothly thanks to logistical and financial support from MONUC, the UN contingent in the DRC at the time.

However, MONUSCO says that it is not part of their Security Council mandate to monitor the elections. They also argue that the DRC is much better equipped to run them itself than it was in 2006.

“The situation is completely different from 2006 because then you didn’t have democratic institutions,” Madnodje Mounoubai, a spokesperson for MONUSCO in Kinshasa, said. “You didn’t have a national institution in the country, but today is different, you have elected officials; you have democratic, elected [politicians].”

Mélanie Gouby coordinates IWPR's journalism production in DRC and Passy Mubalama is an IWPR-trained reporter in Goma. Simon Jennings is IWPR’s Africa Editor.