YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – Voters in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are expected to go to the polls Dec. 23 to elect a president. but the country’s bishops are now worried the election will be postponed.
The bishops voiced their concerns to a a delegation from the UN Security Council that was in the country to assess progress on preparations towards the poll.
The bishops complained that public demonstrations by opposition political parties are still suppressed and the public media has been confiscated by the powers that be.
They also said they weren’t comfortable with the insistence by the country’s Independent Electoral Commission to use the electronic electoral machine despite the lack of consent from all stakeholders in the electoral process.
“There are about 6 million voters registered in the electoral register without fingerprints,” the bishops said – a fact that makes the use of the machine by such voters impracticable. They said if the various parties to the election do not agree on the use of the machine, it would be preferable to return to traditional voting methods.
While progress has been made in terms of showing respect for the electoral calendar, registration of candidates, and the publication of electoral lists, the bishops believe there are still several issues that need to be resolved to give credibility to the December election.
The Secretary General of the Congo Conference of Bishops, Father Donatien Nshole, says he is perplexed at the government’s decision not to seek international aid for the complex logistic machinery necessary to organize the enterprise across the vast nation, which is also experiencing security problems, especially in the east of the country.
“The government raised funding problems to postpone the planned elections at the end of 2016. But now at the last minute we have enough money to the point of not being interested in external financing? Was it a matter of financing or political will? It is ridiculous that a rich country like Congo cannot have the money to organize the elections within the terms imposed by the constitution. You cannot improvise,” Nshole said.
Fears that Kabila could postpone December’s election are also buttressed by Ann Strimov Durbin, human rights attorney who works for Jewish World Watch.
She cites a report by her organization earlier in the year which states that President Joseph Kabila’s crackdown on political protests was a harbinger of things to come, since “he would go to any lengths to maintain the reins of his kleptocracy.”
“Kabila uses instability as a weapon for keeping his people essentially at the mercy of his regime. It gives him a blank check for state-of-emergency designation that he can wield to either suspend the December elections or cancel them altogether. As civilians lose more and more faith in a government that does nothing to protect them, the government increases its control over the fate of the upcoming election,” the report reads.
Kabila though will not be a candidate in the election, having succumbed to intense pressure to step down from office, especially from the Catholic Church.
His party, the People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy (PPRD), will be represented at the polls by a Kabila loyalist and hardliner, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary.
The Democratic Republic of Congo has been mired in political conflict for years, which worsened when Kabila refused to leave power after the expiry of his second and last constitutional term in 2016.
Kabila came to power in 2001 following the assassination of his father, Laurent-Desire Kabila, by his bodyguard. In 2006, Kabila was declared winner in the first democratic presidential election in four decades, defeating ex-rebel leader Jean Pierre Bemba.
But violence ensued between the Kabila and Bemba camps, killing over 300 people in 2007. In 2011, Kabila was re-elected in a controversial presidential election that was also marked by violence and alleged irregularities.
Intent on hanging onto power, Kabila in January 2015 introduced a bill that would delay the next presidential election, due in 2016, in which constitutionally he was not to stand re-election. Dozens of people were killed in the following protests. The demonstrations carried on throughout the year, with the worst coming on Dec. 20, 2016 – the day Kabila’s final term was supposed to end. At least 40 people were killed in clashes with the security forces, according to the UN.
With continued violence blighting the country’s peace, the country’s Catholic bishops stepped into the picture, brokering a deal on Dec. 26, 2016, that brought together opposition parties and the government.
It required that elections would be held at the end of 2017 in which Kabila would not be a candidate. He would however stay in power until then under a transition deal.
But that date came and went, and no election took place. More protests, organized mostly by lay Catholic organizations, followed. Kabila cracked down and dozens were killed.
The country’s electoral commission finally announced the election for December 23, 2018, but Kabila will remain in power until January 2019.
The bishops say they are worried that if the current electoral process does not end in the organization of a “transparent, credible, inclusive and peaceful election,” the country and perhaps the entire Great Lakes region of Africa could sink into chaos.