With the July 30th elections just days away, many pro-opposition Congolese bloggers remain deeply cynical about the prospects of a free, fair and peaceful electoral process. Violent repression of opposition demonstrations and the killing of several journalists in the last few months have left many wondering whether, even if successful, these elections alone are enough to set the Congo on a better path.
Congolese bloggers also continue to question the role and interests of foreign donors who are footing the multi-billion dollar bill for this election.
Writing for Le Prince du Fleuve Congo, opposition blogger and journalist Anthony Katombe describes two recent protests that were violently suppressed by state security forces, an act Katombe sees as part of an established pattern of government repression of opposition candidates.
Kinshasa, boulevard du 30 juin, mardi 11 juillet 2006. La police congolaise, formée et équipée par l’Union Européenne, s’est déchaînée contre les 19 candidats à l’élection présidentielle du 30 juillet et les manifestants du Front pour la Défense du Congo (FDC) conduits par l’Union pour la Démocratie et le Progrès Social (UDPS).
En effet, la police a réprimé les manifestants, avec sa brutalité légendaire, au moyen du gaz lacrymogène, des balles réelles et des grenades d’assaut dont l’une a arraché les mains du manifestant Didier BONGEYA qui a attrapé la grenade lui lancée au vol pour la renvoyer à l’expéditeur…Plusieurs personnes, dont des journalistes, ont été étouffées et intoxiquées par le gaz.
La police, comme à sa fâcheuse habitude, a invoqué le défaut d’autorisation pour justifier cette répression disproportionnée. Pour une fois, le Comité International d’Accompagnement de la Transition (CIAT), dont les Congolais garderont à jamais un désagréable souvenir, s’est départi de sa partialité coutumière pour condamner cette barbarie d’un autre âge en rappelant aux autorités congolaises les termes de la constitution et de la circulaire du ministre…de l’intérieur consacrant la légalité des manifestations pacifiques qui ne devraient plus souffrir d’autorisation, laquelle autorisation n’étant généralement jamais accordée.
Kinshasa, June 30th Boulevard, Tuesday, July 11, 2006. The Congolese police, created and equipped by the European Union, unleashed their forces on the 19 presidential candidates running in the July 30th election and the Front for the Defense of the Congo (FDC) protestors led by the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS).
In effect, the police punished the protestors with their legendary brutality, with tear gas, bullets and assault grenades. One of the protesters, Didier BONGEYA, caught a grenade that had been thrown at him, and when attempting to throw it back, got his hands blown off…Many people, including journalists, were suffocated and intoxicated by the tear gas.
The police, in their usual manner, invoked le défaut d’autorisation (i.e., the power of their own authority) to justify this disproportionate crackdown. For once, the International Transitional Committee (CIAT), for which the Congolese people still harbor bad memories, departed from its usual partisanship and condemned this outmoded savagery by reminding the Congolese authorities of the provisions of the Constitution and of the Interior Minister's circular…affirming the legality of peaceful demonstrations, which never need authorization, and for which authorization is usually never given.
Bis repetita ! Kinshasa, boulevard du 30 juin, avenue Président Kasa-vubu, mardi 18 juillet. L’UDPS est revenue à la charge avec une autre marche gigantesque. Au passage, les manifestants s’étant improvisés agents commis à la salubrité de l’Hôtel de ville de Kinshasa, ont décrété une opération ‘‘ville propre’’ en arrachant et brûlant les banderoles et affiches de propagande des candidats aux élections présidentielle et législative. Les banderoles et affiches, aux dires des manifestants, rendaient sale la ville de Kinshasa.
L’objectif de ces nombreuses marches initiées par les forces du changement est clair : requalifier le processus électoral en le rendant plus crédible, plus égalitaire et plus inclusif. En clair, l’UDPS et alliés veulent se rassurer que tous les candidats ont le même degré de contrôle des rouages de la Commission Electorale Indépendante (CEI) qui a connu jusqu’ici le désaveu de toutes les composantes, sauf d’une seule, avec laquelle elle est en troublante symbiose depuis le début du processus. L’UDPS veut surtout être impliquée dans le processus afin de participer aux élections qui du reste sont voulues inclusives pour être porteuses de paix et de légitimité des dirigeants qui en seront issus.
Kinshasa, June 30th Boulevard, Avenue of President Kasa-vubu, Tuesday, July 18. The UDPS made a comeback with another large march. Along the way, the demonstrators…launched operation “Clean City,” tearing down and burning legislative and presidential candidates’ campaign banners and posters. These banners and posters, said the demonstrators, made the city of Kinshasa dirty.
The goal of many of the marches initiated by the forces of changes is clear: retool the electoral process by making it more credible, more fair and more inclusive. Clearly, the UDPS and its allies want to ensure that all the candiates of the same level of control over the inner-workings of the Independent Electoral Commission (CEI), which has been abandoned by all of its constitutents, save the one with whom it has had a troubling symbiosis since the beginning of this process. The UDPS, first and foremost, wants to be involved in this process so that they might participate in the election which should be inclusive if they are to bring peace and legitimacy to the leaders that will be chosen.
Ali M at The Salon has photographs of violent protests organized by UDPS, a major opposition party which is boycotting the upcoming election.
In the wake of the murder of Bapuwa Mwamba, a journalist who was tried to expose government corruption, several bloggers have also been critical of the lack of press freedom in the Congo and its effects on the freedom and fairness of this election.
Fleur d'Afrique suggests a pattern of media repression and persecution of the opposition, leading her to question the value of having elections at all:
- Constant threats against journalists
- The murder of Franck Ngyke & Hélène Mpaka (the trial starts[fr] tomorrow) and now Bapuwa Mwamba (more in French here). All in the space of 8 months.
- The authorities expel RFI journalist[fr] Ghislaine Dupont to prevent [fr] her from covering the elections. Eh they knew what they were doing, since RFI is widely listened…
- Opposition candidates and political parties voiced their concerns on transparency and fairness. And who gathers everyone and tries to appease the situation? The one and only Omar Bongo. oh the irony!
Ali (i.e., of The Salon) said I was too cynical and that I needed to be hopeful. For a moment I thought he was right, and that maybe I was just too angry or something. But seriously now: does all this seem normal and democratic to you? I know we tend to do things in unusual ways in Congo, but they’re about to take this too far. Should I sit here and say “well at least we’re having elections”? What’s the point of having them if it’s clear who’s running the show?
Ali at The Salon, however, points out that many Congolese are getting more balanced information about the election from Radio Okapi, sponsored by the United Nations, which offers an important, apolitical platform for disseminating the viewpoints of all candidates.
If there is one entity that is helping to make this a real election, and that is contributing to the education of the Congolese people in this process, it is the UN-sponsored Radio Okapi. This tuesday, however, it was put before quite a dilemma. Last week, a journalist, Bapuwa Mwamba, was murdered, and Congolese media people decided to organize a “media-less” day, with all the radios and newspapers not working for the entire day. They also organized a big march in Kinshasa [video, fr], to show their solidarity, and to shout their anger at the fact that the government does not seem to care about their safety. Being a UN radio, Okapi had to be neutral, and therefore broadcasted as usual, with one exception: All the shows were giving room for journalists to express their views on their safety situation. A creative way to fulfill all their duties. But back to the elections, Okapi features 1-on-1 interviews with all the presidential candidates[fr] (so far about 20 out of the 33), and they have been trying to stage mini presidential debates[fr], with some success. Okapi is the only radio that can put itself above politics, and have the neutrality needed, because they do not belong to any politician, and although the journalists are Congolese, they have UN-protection.
Questioning the International Community
The Salon, writing in both French and English, critiques the recent show of force by European Union peacekeeping forces meant to impress Congolese politicians, military and media, echoes doubts that have been expressed by other bloggers in recent months about foreign peacekeepers’ real interests and their capacity and will to respond should violence erupt in the wake of the elections.
Now that there are numerous irregularities in the elections in Congo, and the International Community seems hellbent on organizing them, regardless of the situation on the ground – who can blame them: they have been shelling-out a lot of money, and seeing his record, they stand to gain a lot more if Kabila is elected – I cannot help but wonder if any of the above-stated vital needs will even be remotely addressed. I am still wondering…
Well, that's good… but I still think they are there for show, and to evacuate Western foreigners in case of a post-electoral catastrophe. After seeing what is happening in Lebanon, with a flotila of soldiers coming to rescue Westerners, it seems quite logical. The Europeans do not want 1960 to repeat itself, and they want to be able to cut their losses. Pragmatically speaking, I can't say I blame them. Ethically, well… they colonized us once, so ethics is not always something I expect from their governments. And their superpower-of-a-cousin to the West is indifferent at best, accomplice at worst. So as Congolese people, we are left alone, facing former rebel leaders, powerful government officials, and popular/populist opposition parties, all claiming to want the good of our people, and all intent on being in power, some at any cost. Hence my slight apprehension of these elections. The UN is already denouncing irregularities, and people are less and less convinced that the elections will be free and fair.
Extra Extra wonders whether in pushing for elections, foreign donors may have placed too much faith in ability of a single round at the ballot box to solve long-standing challenges and lost sight of the bigger picture: ownership and sustainability.
“…one can ask whether in its eagerness for progress ‘the international community’ might have lost sight of the notion of national ownership…Not to mention that other development buzz-word, sustainability. With all those helicopters and Antonovs buzzing so busily, this election is expensive. (The EU has spent at least 150 million euros, not including bilateral contributions from member states, e.g. 22 million pounds so far from the UK, to pick the most generous donor.) But the really spectacular bill is for the peacekeeping force, whose annual tab rounded out at US$1,136,875,200 at the last count. It may be a lot cheaper than war, but it’s not easy to find this sort of money, and it’s a safe bet that DRC will struggle to repeat the exercise next time around.”
Similarly, The Salon cautions that elections – even when they are picture-perfect – are not a cure-all.
It is no small task at all, even if the elections were free and fair, and the new leaders legitimate. My source of hope was always Timor-Leste, because they were coming from chaos, got help, and seemed to function well. We have recently seen how that went. And their elections were perfect, with tearjerking moments, and heartfelt promises, etc.
Katombe has frequently discussed the international community's role in the Congo, and here uses that experience to mount a more general critique of the West, suggesting that the “War on Terror” might detract from still more pressing battles:
Personne, même dans cette communauté internationale qui croit avoir réponse à tout, n’est assez malin pour prévoir la réaction d’un peuple lorsqu’il se convainc d’avoir un sort scellé d’avance par le mépris de ceux qui s’estiment sortis de la cuisse de Jupiter. C’est une chose de déplorer aujourd’hui le terrorisme arabe et islamique. Une autre est de se poser la question fondamentale de savoir ce qui a pu pousser ces citoyens du monde à se couvrir de bombe, à détourner des avions pour tuer en se tuant. Tant que l’occident croira avoir toutes les réponses, il parlera d’intégrisme là-bas et de xénophobie ici, et continuera de gaspiller pour combattre de fausses causes, des sommes colossales qui auraient pu éradiquer la pauvreté, la famine et plusieurs maladies de la surface de la terre si elles avaient été investies et utilisées plus humainement?
Dans l’indifférence et le mépris, préoccupant pourtant, les signes du pourrissement et de radicalisation foisonnent.
In indifference and ignorance…the signs of derioration and radicalization accumulate.
These conversations are part of an ongoing debate on the upcoming elections. (For more see: “DRC Roundup: Elections, Mining Corruption, Peacekeepers & More,” “DRC: Coup Attempts and More Questions on the Upcoming Elections,”and other posts on the Democratic Republic of the Congo)