Planning for disaster

With presidential election results expected to be violently contested, international support has been inadequate.

As the citizens of the Democratic Republic of Congo await the final outcome of their presidential elections most are anticipating violent repercussions. Business owners have started going into lock-down, the government admits to cutting text messaging and some Kinshasa residents have crossed the river into neighbouring Brazzaville. Congo, despite the dampening effects of rain, is preparing for the worst. Curfews have been established in Mbuji Mayi, the Republican Guard has been dispatched to Lubumbashi in Katanga, and everywhere is reporting increasing tensions and military security. The US embassy has already issued a pre-election advisory to its Katanga compatriots for back-exit escapes to Zambia, but most of the locals don’t have the luxury of back-exits. Now hotels in Kinshasa are hastily reinforcing their buildings, and telecommunications systems are bursting. 

What is at stake is a show-down between the supporters of the main challenger Etienne Tshisekedi and the incumbent president, Joseph Kabila. The entire process of the elections has been fraught with tensions, violent skirmishes in Kinshasa and Katanga, and accusations of fraud against the electoral commission. Kabila has been accused of ballot stuffing and Tshisekedi has made barely disguised threats, leading a Bishop to respond to all parties:

The image that comes to mind is that of a high-speed train that is heading straight into a wall. We’re under the impression that there is no one putting on the brakes,” said Bishop Nicolas Djomo, the president of the Episcopal conference of Congo. “We call on all the political actors, on all the leaders to stop this train from slamming into a wall.”

Inadequate preparations

A lack of international assistance in preparation and monitoring didn’t help. In the UK there were desperate calls for volunteer observers right up to the last minute and the United Nations Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) was having arguments in the US about having to draw funding for electoral logistics out of its annual budget.

Generally, donor funding for the DRC is large. The UK’s Department for International Development is increasing aid from about $230 million in 2011 to $403 million a year by 2015 and the World Bank figures for 2009-2011 are $1,078 million and will also be increased. Yet their funding and assistance for the electoral process has been woefully inadequate. Some say that this shows that it does not want to be seen to be ‘doing an Ivory Coast’, others more cynically argue that a negative outcome would impact on UN legitimacy and funding. Everyone expects post-election problems of some sort whether they admit it publicly or not.

Against this backdrop of increasing pre-election agitation Kabila made a request for international assistance for emergency preparedness to the Disaster Relief Emergency Fund. With a budget of CHF67,867 ($75,000) it seems pitiful even if things remain relatively calm. The DRC Red Cross with support from international organisations have been training 300 First Aid team leaders and dispatching materials to the provinces including First Aid and emergency kits and stretchers. There are 10 first aid posts in Kinshasa, complete family kits for 600 families, and a restoration of family links (RFL) strategy to help reunite children and vulnerable people.

There’s been training in Red Cross principals for national authorities and the leadership of the various political parties, media, traditional and youth leaders. Two radio spots on neutrality/impartiality with a TV spot produced. Six hospitals have been made ready, stretchers supplied and disposal of corpses organised. But training and preparedness with international organisations has been up and running since May at least. Thus it appears that either the International Community has been in denial, or is confident of a winner with ‘collateral damage’. Either way culpability is denied and responsibility is untainted by quietly outsourcing the labour to NGOs.

Defeat for Kabila or violence on the streets?

Kabila’s party has said the president would accept defeat. But it accused the opposition of readying people for protests and said he will not tolerate any threats to his authority on the streets in the event of him winning. Tear gas has been fired, and occasional gunfire has been heard. Lubumbashi is also tense but calm and the streets are strangely empty. Meanwhile, the Congolese diaspora in Europe, South Africa and Morocco stage protests in front of embassies and the US Embassy has confined staff to their houses with some international flights now cancelled. Ex-pat workers of various foreign NGOs have been ordered out of the DRC.

A divided UN Security Council is scheduled for a closed doors meeting and the UN General Assembly Committee has hastily recommended a last minute additional $70 Million for MONUSCO. Theodore Trefon has argued that there is an on-going miscalculation by the West in its dealings with Congo’s politicians while others suggest that as long as business can function securely, the general ambient is irrelevant. International NGOs and advocacy groups often dominate the agenda. Sadly, Congolese groups with their hard-earned wisdom and local knowledge have been largely overlooked, leading Congolese writers such as Mvemba Dizolele to observe that the representation of the Congo has been hijacked. More importantly, it has resulted in local, historical causes of on-going conflict being unchallenged and unresolved.

According to DREF: “The analysis of the situation shows that the preparations already deployed by the DRC Red Cross supported by the ICRC, the IFRC and other partners will be not enough to adequately respond to the expected needs.” Sadly, for the people of the DRC and their friends and families waiting anxiously abroad, things do not look good.

Article published in Think Africa Press