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news - Red Flags in DR Congo’s Electoral Process: Time for Consequences

march 8th, 2018

Note: This blog originally appeared on

Although the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo promised to hold elections by the end of this year, there are strong warning signs that a credible democratic transition is at risk. Now is a key moment for the United States, African states, and Europe to influence that process and get the country back on track. In its 58-year history, the Democratic Republic of the Congo has yet to have a peaceful transfer of power through democratic elections. Current President Joseph Kabila’s term of office expired in December 2016, but his government has repeatedly failed to hold elections. Each time the Kabila administration delays elections, it trots out a smoke screen of technical excuses, and some of these are the government’s own making. The true reason Congo has not held elections is lack of political will – because the will rests principally with the financial interests of those in power.

In October 2017, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley met with Kabila and delivered a clear message – hold elections in 2018 or face consequences. Following Haley’s visit, the national electoral commission (CENI) published an electoral calendar. However, in the nearly four months since, the CENI has shown itself to be up to old tricks.

The CENI’s new proposal to use electronic voting machines is a worrisome red flag in an electoral process already characterized by violent repression and delays. The CENI states that using this technology will save time and money by reducing costs. However, Congolese and international electoral experts strongly question the use of the machines due to lack of budget transparency, logistical impracticality, and risk of data tampering . Opposition and civil society express deep mistrust in the CENI’s ability to manage this technology, with some stating that they fear the government will use the technology to perpetrate mass electoral fraud. Other groups express concerns that the government will use hiccups in implementation as an excuse for further delays.

During a February U.N. Security Council meeting, Rushdi Nackerdien of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems stated that the CENI’s current strategy leaves no room for error: “On a single day it is proposed that roughly 106,000 machines must work flawlessly across 90,000 polling stations.” Mr. Nackerdien added that the CENI has not taken steps to test or deploy electronic voting technology. Indeed, several machines malfunctioned own during test demonstrations in Congo.Jeune Afriquereported that the machines currently only function in French and not in any other local languages.

Donatien Nshole of Congo’s National Episcopal Conference of Catholic Bishops (CENCO) expressed concern that the technology will further exacerbate popular mistrust in an already tense environment, stating, “We are perplexed about the … voting machine project launched by the CENI that does not … reassure the population. This will lead to contestation of elections results.”

Moreover, there is the question of cost – and who will benefit from the awarding of a lucrative contract. According to the electoral budget released by the CENI in December 2017, the total cost for provision of electronic voting machines is approximately $150 million. The CENI has not produced a budget estimate for the use of paper ballots as a point of comparison, making it impossible to assess its cost saving argument. There has been no public bidding process for the contract.

During the U.N. briefing, Ambassador Haley frankly stated, “The U.S. has no appetite to support an electronic voting system,” and called for the use of paper ballots, “so there is no question by the Congolese people about the results.” In response, the CENI President Corneille Nangaa stated that if the CENI does not use this controversial technology, there will be further election delays.

This argument might work if we hadn’t heard a very similar one in 2015, 2016, and 2017. If only the international community gave us more money, we could hold elections. If only voter registration was not so complex, we could hold elections. Rinse and repeat. Meanwhile, the government ratchets up violent repression of protests and civilians die attempting to exercise their basic rights of freedom of expression. CENCO reported that security forces crackdowns during February 25 peaceful protests resulted in two dead, 32 wounded and 76 detentions.

There must be consequences for the Congolese government’s failure to meet key benchmarks for a credible democratic transition. The government of the DRC has already failed to meet key benchmarks set by the December 31 San Sylvestre agreement, DRC constitution, and the CENI itself. The government’s ban on protests and repeated shutdowns of social media, the killing of protestors, continued criminal charges against activists and political figures in exile, the non-release of many political prisoners, lack of transparency in the electoral budget, and Kabila’s failure to publicly declare that he will not stand for an illegal third term indicate that the process is in serious danger.

Ambassador Haley’s engagement and U.S. and European pressure, including several rounds of targeted sanctions on Congolese officials and against Kabila’s business partner and business tycoon Dan Gertler, are positive indicators that the international community is capable of hardening its stance toward the Kabila government.

However, much stronger consequences for failure to meet electoral benchmarks are needed to move the Kabila government toward a credible democratic transition. First, the U.S. and European Union should enact immediate additional sanctions on individuals in Kabila’s inner circle of business and financial networks, including their international partners. These sanctions should be accompanied by anti-money laundering measures against banks involved in illicit activity, visa bans, and enforcement actions against already listed individuals, as well as “derivative sanctions” that name additional companies and associates of those previously targeted.

The international community should also press for full transparency in the CENI’s budget and public tender process, CENI must ensure access for civil society groups to the provisional voter list for the purposes of conducting a citizen’s audit and increasing public confidence in the integrity of the process. Finally – and critically – the CENI should abandon the use of controversial and divisive voting machines.

These actions should combine with consistent public messaging that Kabila must follow through on the promises he has made or risk even further alienation.

The international community should not wait to take action – it is critical to do so now in order to influence the window to hold a credible democratic transition. So long as it’s profitable for Kabila and his senior associates to remain in power, they will stay there.

December 2018 represents the first opportunity for a peaceful transfer of power through democratic elections for the Congolese people. They have a right to a credible democratic transition and a real chance at peace.

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