Amid Congo election dispute, rival candidates carefully plan confrontation

Congolese President Joseph Kabila and opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi both claim to have won the Nov. 28 elections. Tshisekedi is now calling for street protests.

Luke MacGregor/Reuters
Demonstrators protest in front of police over the recent elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in London, Wednesday. President Joseph Kabila and opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi each claim to have won the Nov. 28 elections

Congo could be at risk of another round of violence, as the two men who both claim to be president of the country draw up strategies of confrontation.

President Joseph Kabila and opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi each claim to have won the Nov. 28 ballot, the second in the country’s history since the fall of the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in 1998. Election observers have called the recent elections “seriously flawed,” and “lacking credibility.” Even President Kabila admits that “mistakes” were made, but says that the number of disputed ballots would still not deny him a victory.

Official results from the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI), gave Kabila the victory, with 49 percent of the vote, compared with Mr. Tshisekedi’s 32 percent.

It all comes down to mathematics: If the opposition can come up with enough disputed or missing votes, 1.5 million, it can claim victory.

Opposition leader Tshisekedi, whose party the Union for Democracy and Social Progress is conducting its own vote tally from polling station results, has meanwhile called for “peaceful and democratic demonstrations.” Neither Tshisekedi nor Kabila appear to be reaching out to each other for a negotiated solution, and diplomats are working behind the scenes to prevent a clash that could cost civilian lives.

In Kinshasa, US Amb. James Entwistle cast doubt on the official CENI final results, telling the Reuters news agency, "The United States believes that the management and technical execution of these elections were seriously flawed." The elections, he said, “lacked transparency and did not measure up to the positive democratic gains we have seen in recent African elections." 

While Africa has witnessed a kind of democratic renaissance in recent years with the end of authoritarian regimes such as Zimbabwe, Sudan, and Uganda, disputed elections still have the potential for horrific violence. In Kenya, after the disputed Dec. 27, 2007, elections, more than 1,300 people were killed and 300,000 displaced before the two main parties agreed to sit down and negotiate their way into a power-sharing agreement. In Cote D’Ivoire, the Nov. 2010 election gave a clear victory to opposition Alessane Ouattara, but President Laurent Gbagbo’s refusal to step down pushed the country dangerously close to civil war.

Congo, of course, is well acquainted with war, following the 1998 invasion of Congo by Rwanda and Uganda to overthrow the government of President Mobutu Sese Seko. Five million people were killed in that war, and Congo’s inability to extend its authority across much of the east of its territory is a fact that makes Congo a safe haven for armed militia groups, and a source of instability in the region.

For now, a tentative calm has descended over the country, as citizens wait for their leaders to make the next move. Small protests in Lubumbashi and in Kinshasa have been broken up, harshly, by Kabila’s elite Presidential Guard.

Yet if both sides are moving toward an open civil conflict, they are doing so with baby steps. The arrest and extradition of Cote D’Ivoire’s former President Laurent Gbagbo to face human rights charges at the International Criminal Court at the Hague may serve as a reminder of what can happen to those who go too far.

“Between the two sides, there is no process of negotiation at all,” says Anneke Van Woudenberg, a senior researcher on the Democratic Republic of Congo for Human Rights Watch, who observed the election process from Goma and remains in Kinshasa. “With the UN, the question is what can they do to save the process. The opposition has no faith in the CENI, it has no faith in the courts, which they feel will favor Kabila.”

“I think they need time to find a solution,” Ms. Van Woudenberg says. “Right now, the opposition feels it has very little recourse but to go to the streets.”

David Pottie, head of the Carter Center’s observer mission in Kinshasa, says that the irregularities were so persistent that the entire election “lacked credibility.” But mathematically, the Carter Center has not been able to point to enough disputed votes to cast doubt on the order of the candidates, with Kabila leading the pack with a sizable lead.

For his part, President Kabila admitted to Al Jazeera that there were “mistakes” in the Nov. 28 vote. But his government contends those “errors and dysfunctions” should be chalked up to inexperience and to a “climate of violence that prevailed in a number of electoral districts.”

In a statement issued Dec. 14, Congo’s Minister of Communication Lambert Omalanga urged opposition leaders to take their objections to court, and “to create ideal conditions for a permanent dialogue among the Congolese political actors.”

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