Beyond the US Elections: The Congo

The Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Parliament will resume session this month. Some of the items that will not make the agenda, however, are those related to the looming November election cycle. Growing international anxiety about this year’s election in the Congo has led many to speculate about the weight placed on both the result of these elections and the process of them actually happening. Some commentators are looking at chaos in Burundi and the tension in the Congo, remembering the very recent “African World War” of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

As we here in the U.S. experience our own election cycle, I want to draw readers’ attention to events beyond our borders and beyond our own self-interest abroad because elections that are as — if not more — important are happening around the world. The election situation in the Congo requires our attention.

As in the U.S., the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s constitution allows a president two terms in office. Joseph Kabila, the Congo’s current president, was elected in 2006 after already serving nearly a full term as president. This comes after his father, the previous president, was assassinated. Kabila was then re-elected in 2011. The international and domestic anxiety flows from the fact that Kabila has not announced that he will step down after this term expires later this year.

Elections require enormous amounts of preparation. The only preparation the Kabila administration has demonstrated is hesitancy and delay. The most recent example of this was in December when the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) distributed a timeline that allowed “13 to 16 months” for the redistribution of parliament seats, a process that is required before an election can take place. From December 2015, 13 to 16 months would place the earliest possible election time between February and May of 2017, when the constitution mandates a November 2016 election.

The erosion of constitutional requirements is exactly what the opposition in the Congo is worried about. The opposition to Kabila, constituted of civil society organizations and opposing political leaders, fear that Kabila is simply stalling in order to enact a constitutional change that would allow him to run for a third term. As reported by Al Jazeera, Jason Stearns, the director of the Congo Research Group at NYU, explained that “the political influence on the electoral commission [CENI] has been clear.” The goal of that influence, and whether it will be successful, is not clear at this time.

Photo courtesy Jelena Prtoric via Flickr.

The violence that occurred when the Congo government killed 42 peaceful protesters in January of last year, was a response to the same anxiety. The Kabila administration has shown dramatic disregard for the freedom to protest. When protests resumed last month to commemorate those killed in 2015 and to oppose the new delays enacted by the CENI, police responded by arresting between 40 and 100 protesters (reports are varied). Some claim that the police were assisted by “machete-wielding thugs loyal to Kabila who harangued and intimidated opposition activists,” evoking a nervous association between the knife and a very recent, violent history over the eastern border.

We (the U.S.) have commented on the situation in the Congo through the acknowledgement of a crisis in Burundi, where the country’s president, Pierre Nkurunziza, defied the constitution and ran for a third term. Tom Periello, the presidential envoy to the Great Lakes Region, said in a congressional hearing, “A political crisis is building as the Congo prepares, or rather fails to prepare, for upcoming historic elections scheduled for this November. If the Congo chooses the path of Burundi, the scale of human suffering could dwarf what we have seen next door.” Authoritarian leaders in the post-colonial African context have not been uncommon, but they are becoming less so, and they are now always vehemently opposed. The opposition to Nkurunziza illustrates this, and Kabila is now testing the theory.

I am not saying that we, as the United States, must act or inject ourselves into a situation that is not ours. Our action in the Congo, and in Africa in general, has been fraught with bad intentions and worse results. What I am insisting, however, is that we pay attention. The world is moving beyond the ephemeral spectacle of Donald Trump’s penis, and history will remember us by what we ignored.


Originally published at thenewpolitical.com on March 16, 2016.

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