On Nov. 28th, the Democratic Republic of Congo held an historic election -- the outcome of which will have a major effect on the Sub-Saharan region of Africa, if not the entire continent. Alas, those dependent on taking their news cues from the DC chattering class may have missed this seismic event.
What they missed: a national election in one of the most troubled countries on earth, where citizens stood in line for hours in the tropical sun just for a chance to cast a vote. A balloting effort marred by missing ballots, inept execution, misinformation, allegations of outright corruption and violence. Unfortunately, all of this took place with little more than a peep from Western governments that have devoted billions of dollars over the years to ensuring that Congo, with its vast mineral and agricultural resources begins to shake off decades of war and live up to its potential.
How mismanaged was this election? It started with the current president of Congo appointing a close crony to head the "independent" electoral commission that would orchestrate and oversee the elections. This group, known as the CENI, oversaw a voter registration process that by all accounts was deeply flawed. Indeed, independent reports issued months in advance of the election showed that voter rolls were studded with registrants as young as nine or ten. Hundreds of thousands of people were allowed to submit multiple registrations and women were discouraged from participating -- in direct contravention of the country's constitution.
Unfortunately, things went downhill after that.
Election day by most accounts was nothing short of a debacle in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Polling stations burned; many never even opened. The grapevine hummed with credible allegations of ballot-stuffing, intimidation and other assorted dirty tricks. Election observers reported first-hand instances of voters being gunned down in the streets. Candidates were beaten. Airplane loads of ballots began appearing at the Kinshasa airport days after balloting ended. The government shut off SMS networks across the country, preventing election observers from relaying their reports.
Given these widespread problems, it seems a slam dunk that Western governments, led by the US, would be up in arms regarding the sitting government's conduct during these elections. Instead, official Washington has said almost nothing at all. As Congo expert and blogger Jason Stearns pointed out in a recent post, "western diplomats seem ready to see the voters' verdict sacrificed for a misguided notion of stability."
Democracy is messy; what is occurring in Congo is far worse than that. As someone who has been involved in a number of elections in Africa, I know what fraudulent elections look like. I also know that blood is almost certain to be spilled when the sitting government announces its victory -- seemingly all but inevitable at this date.
At this point, all I would like to see is proof of the win. The US State Department has begun requesting that Congolese election authorities release election tallies polling station by polling station, so that independent observers can verify the result. That's a start (and one the current government seems unwilling to entertain at the moment). I'd like to see more.
I'd like to see Washington and the governments of Europe put Congo on notice that we are all watching, don't care for what we are seeing and don't much cotton to the idea that sitting leaders can retain office on a whim. If we truly believe in the democratic ideals that we love to talk about, we should be taking the lead in pressuring the Congolese government to ensure that every vote is counted - not standing back and hoping that good intentions will finally make an appearance.
Full Disclosure: I am providing informal advice and support to FreeFair DRC, which is an international effort to raise awareness about the upcoming elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo