On Monday, November 28, millions of Congolese will go to the polls to elect a president and the members of its National Assembly. Sadly, at least with respect to the presidential race, there are worrisome indications—the country’s rather ironic official title as “the Democratic Republic of the Congo” (DRC) notwithstanding—that today’s vote will be little more than “an election-like event,” to borrow the succinct characterization with which then-US Ambassador John Campbell damned the fraud-tainted Nigerian general elections of 2007. Such a flawed result, far from resolving tensions, is likely to lead to greater conflict. 

By every right, the DRC ought to be one of the richest countries in the world. The young Belgian geologist René Jules Cornet whose work in the 1890s uncovered the Congo’s immense mineral reserves—valued at some $24 trillion, including 70 percent of the world’s coltan, 30 percent of its diamond reserves, as well as vast amounts cobalt, copper, gold, and many other sought-after primary commodities—dubbed the territory a “veritable geological scandal.” The real scandal, however, is that this treasure has yet to serve the people of Africa’s second-largest country. To the contrary, the most recent edition of the United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Index ranked the DRC at the absolute bottom of the 187 countries and territories included in the survey. 

Tipped to “win” a second—and, in theory, final—five-year term amid a field of eleven candidates is incumbent President Joseph Kabila, whose only qualification for the top job when he first assumed it a decade ago as a 29-year-old who spoke neither its official language, French, nor its lingua franca, Lingala, was that he was the son of the assassinated Laurent-Désiré Kabila. Kabila was a brigand hiding out in the eastern province of South Kivu until he was plucked out of obscurity and proclaimed president by the armies of Rwanda, Burundi, and Uganda as they marched through the Congolese jungle in the mid-1990s to overthrow the kleptocratic despot, Mobutu Seso Seko, who had lorded over the country (then known as “Zaïre”) since he had overthrown his predecessor three decades earlier. Kabila fils was formally elected in an internationally-supervised poll in 2006 when a backroom deal with the octogenarian third-place finisher allowed him to narrowly edge out a challenger who is currently on trial before the International Criminal Court on two counts of crimes of humanity and three counts of war crimes. 

This time around, Kabila faces far more credible opponents, including elder statesman Etienne Tshisekedi, widely hailed as the “father of Congolese democracy” for his long opposition to Mobutu; and former parliamentary speaker Vital Kamerhe, who fell out with the younger Kabila when the latter had the constitution amended to eliminate need for a second round even if no presidential candidate wins 50 percent plus one of the votes. Moreover, despite the billions of dollars in aid which the international community has poured into the country (the European Union alone pays nearly half of the national budget) and his own lavish promises of investments in infrastructure, the incumbent president has few real achievements with which to make a case for giving him another five years in office. About the only public work that has been completed is the garish statue of his father that Kabila had erected by North Koreans in Kinshasa’s Place de la République. The campaign posters featuring Joseph Kabila’s portrait next to a high-speed train are almost a cruel joke on the Congolese people considering that the country’s rail network has actually shrunk several times over since the Belgian colonialists withdrew five decades ago. Fewer than one in four Congolese has access to clean drinking water and only one in ten has electricity in his or her home. Suspicions that a fix was in place have been par for the course ever since the supposedly “Independent National Electoral Commission” (CEPI) unveiled an electoral calendar that scheduled voting for November 28, the certification of a winner on December 5, and the inauguration on December 6—all this in a country that is half the size of the European Union and yet where it is physically possible to reach only four provincial capitals by road from the national capital of Kinshasa. 

The lack of development comes as no surprise when one considers the quality of office holders in the government of Joseph Kabila. While undoubtedly there are well-intentioned and patriotic Congolese who serve in the government, there are also indicted war criminals like Jean-Bosco Ntanganda, who is still a general in the army despite an outstanding warrant for his arrest from the International Criminal Court; and National Assembly candidate Ntabo Ntaberi Sheka, who was accused in a July 2011 UN report of ordering mass rapes in eastern Congo last year. The ne’er-do-wells in the regime have shown less interest in long-term development than short-term self-enrichment. While, to the east, as the New York Times reported over the weekend, Uganda is preparing to reap a bonanza from the oil discoveries on its side of Lake Albert and Rwanda tapping into gas supplies in Lake Kivu, Kabila’s ministers have not only failed to ratify a number of licenses given out several years ago, but have resold some of them multiple times—with the net result being disputed titles and no development. Meanwhile, back in the capital, in what may be a simple attempt to squeeze what can be squeezed while it is possible to do so, there are reports that while some businesses have been subjected to whole rafts of tax bills apparently conjured out of thin air, others—presumably better connected politically—have been buying up state assets at a fraction of their value. 

Meanwhile, no one can accuse the president’s supporters of being complacent about the elections. A joint report published earlier this month by the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights documented no fewer than 188 violations of human rights perpetrated against political opponents, civil society activists, and journalists, mostly by police and the national intelligence service. At one point Tshisekedi was unable to campaign because the civil aviation authority would not allow the airplanes his campaign chartered in South Africa to land in the DRC. When he tried to campaign through the media, independent television and radio stations that broadcasted interviews with him were shut down for airing “treason,” which was how the regime characterized some of his statements. Over the weekend, what is left of CEPI’s tattered credibility was further shredded by the discovery of numerous phantom polling stations that exist nowhere except on the books—and, one supposes, in the tally sheets—of the electoral commission. Meanwhile on Saturday, Tshisekedi was blocked in at Kinshasa’s airport for eight hours by police, who used tear gas to disperse thousands of his palm frond-waving supporters who had lined the streets in anticipation of his motorcade. 

In its recent report on violence in the run-up to today’s poll, the United Nations warned that “the continued repression of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the pre-electoral period may increase the likelihood of individuals and political parties resorting to violent means, endanger the democratic process and lead to post-electoral violence.” While it is not in the international community’s interest to see further instability in Central Africa—the last time things broke down here nearly a dozen other countries were dragged into “Africa’s World War,” as Gérard Prunier, senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Michael S. Ansari Africa Center, dubbed it in the title of his magisterial 600-page chronicle of the conflict—if there is no other way to defend themselves and the country from the predations of the regime, one can understand why Kabila’s opponents might be considering “self-help” should the poll indeed prove to be little more than an “election-like event.” 

Fifty-one years after they achieved independence from one of the most brutal colonial experiences in Africa—King Leopold II literally ran the Congo as a private plantation for a quarter of a century, only ceding it to the Belgian state on his deathbed—it is heartbreaking to acknowledge that the Congo’s 71 million people still have little say in their fates and, indeed, by almost any measure of progress or welfare are worse off today than they have ever been in their history. No one argues that brutal subjugation and exploitation of the Congo under the colonial regime was anything but a crime of monumental proportions. Nor can it be disputed that the country’s longtime ruler, Mobutu Seso Seko, another disaster visited upon the unfortunate peoples of the Congo, was kept in power thanks to the Cold War. But neither of these historical catastrophes need be accepted as justification for a third monstrosity, the abandonment of the Congo to the tender mercies and questionable competence of yet another ruler who lacks a legitimate political mandate. 

J. Peter Pham is director of the Michael S. Ansari Africa Center at the Atlantic Council.

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