Ahead of elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, experts explain what’s at stake

By Adam Twardowski

After a two-year delay, the people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) will head to the polls in December to elect a successor to long-time President Joseph Kabila. As experts discussed at an October 11 Africa Security Initiative event at Brookings, security remains at the forefront of the DRC’s many challenges, with 600,000 Congolese having been forced to flee to neighboring countries amidst protracted internal conflicts. Despite the country’s vast natural wealth, which is valued at $24 trillion by some estimates, poor governance, internal fighting, and external intervention have kept the vast majority of the DRC’s people in crushing poverty.

While there are deep concerns about whether December’s elections will be free and fair, the next administration will face an enormous slate of social, political, economic, and security challenges that will long outlive this election cycle. These are the dynamics, among others, that experts John Tomaszewski (regional director for Africa at the International Republican Institute), Emily Renard (senior policy advisor for Africa at Open Society Foundations), and Sasha Lezhnev (deputy director of policy at the Enough Project) discussed. Brookings Senior Fellow Michael O’Hanlon moderated the conversation.

Tomaszewski began by noting that parliamentary, presidential, and local elections are going to take place simultaneously, a considerable first-time feat in the DRC. With 40 million registered voters and thousands of new poll workers, the election is a daunting logistical challenge. O’Hanlon asked Tomaszewski about the risk of electoral fraud, to which he said that new electoral technologies can certainly elevate the risk of fraud if there are not sufficient outside election observers to monitor the integrity of the process. Tomaszewski noted that out of 25 candidates, the opposition has been trying to coalesce around two or three individuals, while expressing concern that the process by which some candidates were excluded from running was not transparent or fair.

Lezhnev—asked how he assesses the likelihood of a free and fair election in the DRC—discussed the extensive corruption of President Kabila’s family, senior advisors, and international financial facilitators, explaining how this permeates the political landscape in the DRC. With the Kabila family trying to protect their financial interests, Lezhnev said that the West should not respond to the challenge of corruption and the risk of rigged elections by focusing on things that it cares least about—such as reducing foreign aid—but rather on things that the Kabila family actually cares about, namely the security of its financial interests.

Lezhnev recommended that the United States strengthen existing sanctions on corrupt officials and focus on networks of companies and financial advisors, rather than single corrupt actors. He also noted that U.S. anti-money laundering efforts against the Kabila family would have a strong impact on their internal political calculations. He noted that if the United States and Europe can enact such financial pressure now, that can have a positive impact on the elections by changing Kabila’s calculations of how much he would stand to lose financially if the government does not make the process free and fair. Asked about how the regime could skew this December’s election results, Lezhnev said that voting machines have been shown to have major security vulnerabilities, and with reports of candidate intimidation and voter suppression efforts, the risk of an unfair election is significant.

Renard then discussed the role of civil society in the DRC. Civil society organizations are operating in a highly restrictive political environment, with regular threats to employees and their families. She highlighted a number of legislative and regulatory efforts to constrain the freedom of NGOs, appealing to the donor community and external observers in particular to amplify and bolster those groups, whose role in establishing an authentic democratic process in the DRC will be essential. Renard stressed that in the upcoming December election, there is not necessarily a preferred candidate for the West, but rather that an honest and transparent electoral process is itself the preferred candidate. She said that to ensure future fair elections and a robust rule of law, there must be strong efforts to support civil society in the DRC.

Finally, O’Hanlon asked the assembled panel about the many complex issues facing the DRC, which all ultimately concern the well-being of its people, whom the Gates Foundation has concluded are among the most economically vulnerable populations in the world. Ongoing security intervention, internal fighting, the risk of an Ebola outbreak, and overall economic stagnation are projected to continue. With economic, judicial, security, and political reforms at stake, O’Hanlon asked which candidates are actually talking about these issues.

Renard said that she is concerned that DRC candidates are not running on substantive issues, and that in fact the primary target audience for substantive issues that do come up are Western observers and not the people of the DRC. Lezhnev responded that the Kabila government, to protect itself from a coup or external intervention, has had to keep its loyalists and military happy, leading Kabila to promote a number of human rights abusers and sanctioned individuals to senior positions in the military as well as to allow them to be involved in the illicit natural resources trade, particularly gold. The next administration will have to promote accountability among the armed forces and senior levels of government, reform its payment system, better integrate the military, and improve transparency and good governance of the DRC mining sector.

Tomaszewski noted that while the solutions to the DRC’s problems ideally should be generated on the ground through the unfolding electoral process, political parties aren’t necessarily focused on ideas and instead function as political vehicles for ambitious candidates. Tomaszewski said there should be less focus on elections taking place at the presidential level—as important as that process is—and instead more on legislative and local elections to bolster individuals with good, actionable ideas that can help ordinary citizens in their day-to-day concerns. Given that future presidential contenders will come out of the crop of local leaders emerging in legislative and local elections, there must be investment in them.

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