November 28, 2011 was historic in the DRC; the first ever democratic national election organized by the Congolese themselves. Indeed it was only the second time since independence in 1960 that a multi-party electoral vote would be set to determine the presidential seat. However, this relatively undeveloped voting system left the electoral process wide open to systemic and local corruption that could erode its very legitimacy. Two years ago I visited communities affected by violence in the eastern DRC. So when Christian Aid offered me the opportunity to help monitor and evaluate the election, I felt compelled to return in the hope that a fair election would improve the livelihoods of the Congolese people.
I was one of ninety international observers who flew into Kinshasa as part of the European Network for Central Africa’s (EurAc) observer mission. At the invitation of Congolese civil society organisations working together in the Action for Transparent and Peaceful Elections (AETA) network, EurAc’s observers were deployed in locations across Congo’s eleven provinces. EurAc’s objective was to ensure a transparent and fair electoral process by supporting the Congolese observation effort, working in partnership to ensure a peaceful and reliable process which respected Congolese electoral law and human rights.
On arrival, I was particularly struck by how little French I actually remembered. While this may seem to be a trivial matter, it was one that grew in significance over the course of the weekend – especially when it transpired that this was to be the language of delivery for our first day of training! Luckily, I had plenty of willing translators on hand and, as each day passed, my linguistic skills improved.
Not too dissimilar to the electoral process in the UK, school buildings serve as the majority of polling centres, with individual classrooms serving as polling stations.
On Saturday 26th November, we were tasked with ensuring that preparation was underway at the polling centres, checking whether the buildings were secure and if lists of voters had been posted. On Sunday 27th November, we took notes detailing whether materials, such as ballot papers and boxes had been delivered to the centres and securely distributed to individual classrooms.
By the time election day arrived, the atmosphere was electric. We arrived at the first centre at 05.30. In the wee hours of the morning, it was an inspirational image to see nearly 100 people who had begun queuing for the anticipated 06.00 door opening. As voting clerks made final preparations for the hours that would ensue, the polling centre finally opened at 06.20. Congolese citizens literally ran into classrooms, eager to be among the first to cast their vote.
As I spent time observing several voting sites on Monday 28th November, I was truly inspired by the Congolese people’s enthusiasm and genuine desire for a transparent and truly fair electoral process.. Despite the ballot paper amounting to more of a ballot book due to the sheer number of parliamentary candidates, most people voted for both their future president and their parliamentarian of choice. People took their time to ensure they adhered to the rules of voting, eager to do it properly. Most poignantly, it was apparent that people simply wanted to vote; they wanted their voice to be heard.
As we travelled to various polling stations, it was evident that the majority of voters not only wanted to participate in a fair and open election, but were genuinely grateful for the presence of the international observers. There were four or five situations where tensions flared between voters, but these were in many ways similar to the aggravation caused by party activists in any typical British election. On receiving complaints of misconduct, our role was to report such instances through the appropriate channels, and note any patterns or discrepancies.
At the end of the day, votes were counted in each classroom and witnesses for candidates signed in agreement of ballot figures, before these were transported in a sealed bag to the National Results Centre for verification.
While I bore witness to several amateur practices – including loose ballot papers, sloppy admin, and human error in vote counting – overall, the election day itself seemed to be quite successful. The EurAc/AETA Official Report highlights several violent incidents in the Kananga province, and there was clearly intimidation in other areas. But the vast majority of Congolese did vote peacefully. With determination and high spirits, the majority of the people in the DRC tried to do their part to contribute to an effective and reliable democratic electoral process. This should not be discounted or overlooked.
It is vital that the DRC’s Independent National Election Commission (CENI) works diligently and transparently to publish the election results from individual polling stations. The storm of controversy surrounding the inauguration of Joseph Kabila for a new term only reinforces the need for an open and accountable voting system. As vote counting in the parliamentary elections continues to be suspended, with officials seeking assistance from foreign election experts, I fear that time is running out for a credible election result that Congolese citizens were so desperately hoping would boost the reputation of their country, both in Africa and beyond.
A large part of the international community has responded to the elections with condemnation and frustration. However, it is vital that criticisms of a few do not negate the sincere efforts and genuine hopes of the many. My personal experience is that the majority of the Congolese believe in a credible and honest democratic election, and went to great lengths travelling near and far to participate. A complete dismissal of their efforts risks undermining their faith in democratic values, the very values which the international community has worked hard to support. It is imperative that global criticisms of corruption of the Congolese few should be met equally with admiration of the Congolese many who have endeavored to participate in the election openly and fairly. And that the international donors, like the UK and the EU, insist on lessons learned so that the next Congolese elections meet the aspirations of the Congolese people more consistently.