Has the UN Congo mission tried too hard to be impartial?

In its efforts to improve its relationship with the Congolese government, the UN mission in Congo has not stepped in to address abuses during the voter registration process.

By , Guest blogger

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    Police arrest a protestor during an opposition demonstration in Kinshasa, Congo, on Sept. 1. Police fired tear gas Thursday at hundreds of stone-throwing opposition supporters demonstrating in Congo's capital against alleged fraud in the run up to November elections.
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With elections approaching in the Congo, it is worthwhile reflecting on the role of the international community in the process. Since the beginning, it has been clear that foreign partners would play a more marginal role than in the 2006 polls. Then, as the country was coming out of a war, donors financed 90 percent of the elections budget – this time, the Congolese government is shouldering 60 percent of the burden. MONUSCO, the guarantor of the peace process, is now dealing with a sovereign, democratically elected government.

This, however, hasn't stopped many analysts – myself included – from pushing for greater involvement and pressure. Following the rushed constitutional reform that radically altered the electoral process – from a two-round majority-win to a one-round plurality-win poll for the president – there was little protest from diplomats, who suggested that these were internal matters of a sovereignly-elected government. I have some sympathy for this, for as much as the constitutional change was opportunistic and rammed through parliament in a hurry, on the face of it, the revision passed (more or less) legally.

Where I am less sympathetic is regarding the voter registration. What little observation has been carried out suggests that there may have been significant flaws in this process – children, foreigners and "ghosts" (fictitious voters) registered, and we know from election officials that there are people who have registered numerous times in different offices (one observer mentioned one man registering eleven times). The problem is, because the political opposition (and to a certain degree, civil society) was not really present to monitor the process, we don't know how widespread this abuse was. Could it compromise the presidential election? What about the legislative elections? Difficult to say.

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At the very least, there should be a mechanical audit to get rid of "doublons," people who have registered more than once. Since registration was biometric, this should be relatively easy to complete in several days in Kinshasa. Getting rid of other abusers – children, foreigners, etc. – would probably have to be done in a decentralized fashion, by publishing the voting list locally and then allowing each community to verify the identities of those registered. This would be difficult and would take time, although the electoral law did require each registration office to publish the lists of those who registered there (they sometimes didn't).

The election commissioner said he would agree to two delegates from the opposition to have access to the voter register for an audit – the opposition put forward two such experts two weeks ago (Valentin Mubake from the UDPS and Jean-Lucien Busa from the MLC), but now the commissioner is questioning their qualifications. In the meantime, the electoral countdown clock is ticking. (Just after I published this posting, Radio Okapi announced that an agreement had been found for the audit – see here).

Here, the donor community could have weighed in; after all, they are providing a large amount of the funding and logistics for the election. Not only did they not push for this audit, the mission – along with several embassies – called for the swift adoption of the amendment to the electoral law that de facto confirmed the registration figures: it determined how many parliamentarians would be elected per district based on the number of voters there.

MONUSCO has been reluctant to criticize the preparation of elections. In part, as I have written here before, this fits in with the mission's aim of re-establishing good relations with the Congolese government. To an extent, they are right: Little can be achieved by the mission without cordial relations with their counterparts, and this relationship slipped badly during the latter year of Alan Doss' term. When Roger Meece arrived as the new head of the peacekeeping mission last year, he took it upon himself to re-dynamize that relationship, and has in large part succeeded.

However, this has meant that the mission has at time shied away from criticism, particularly with regards to the electoral process. MONUSCO officials have been insisting in public and private that they need to be " a neutral and supportive body and to avoid a formal judgmental role," as one official put it.

This last bit refers to the fact that MONUSCO wants to avoid being an accreditor of the elections, like the UN mission did in the Ivory Coast. I agree with that, as that would have been a step too far and the government would have most likely rejected that option. But has the UN been vocal enough "to encourage open and peaceful conditions," as they are mandated to do? In May this year, the mission wrote in a public report that they had evidence of 200 human rights abuses related to the electoral process. However, they have never made public any of this evidence or condemned any of those responsible.

Neither MONUSCO or foreign diplomats are to blame for all of the flaws in the electoral process – the political opposition has been consumed by in-fighting, and the primary responsibility for electoral abuse is of course to be placed on the abusers themselves. But one is left wondering whether MONUSCO has confused neutrality for impartiality – the UN should not take sides, but surely it should denounce abuse where it sees it, especially if it is in violation of the principles the organization stands for.

Jason Stearns blogs about the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Great Lakes region at Congo Siasa.

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