After several postponements, voters in the Democratic Republic of Congo voters will on Sunday go to the polls to elect a replacement for incumbent President Joseph Kabila, who has ruled the volatile nation for nearly 17 years.
The unique thing about this particular election, the second in five years, is that everybody, for whatever reason, wants it to go ahead. Congolese citizens who have long felt that they were robbed of the dividend accruing from the transition from Mobutu Sese Seko’s three-decade rule hope that a new ruler will organise the state and make it work for the collective good.
Development partners are cautiously holding on to expectations that a new regime in Kinshasa will bring to an end the endemic corruption and dysfunction that characterises the Congolese state and create the conditions for a national reconciliation that will douse the conflict that continues to exact a heavy human toll.
Neighbours hope that the DRC can stabilise and become a source of robust and safe regional trade.
Yet the past few weeks have revealed disturbing cracks. The Congolese want an election but don’t agree on the mode of its execution.
A mysterious fire consumed a major facility storing election materials in the capital forcing a postponement first to December 23. There have been violent protests in the eastern province of North Kivu as residents opposed a decision to postpone voting in some areas there to March 2019.
CENI, the Independent National Election Commission, cites violence by non-state actors as well as an outbreak of Ebola for postponing the poll in Beni and Butembo in North Kivu while inter-communal clashes are the reason for the postponement in the southwestern province of Yumbi.
Though no cause has been assigned to the fire, which besides vehicles destroyed electronic voting machines, there had been voices opposed to the use of electronic voting in a country known to have suffer huge infrastructure deficits.
Threads of that mistrust can also be traced in the current protests against the deferral of the vote in some areas. The concerns of the people in North Kivu should not be just be dismissed first of all because CENI has no control over the events that are making a postponement necessary.
What then is the way forward? Cancellation of the vote nationally is not tenable given the anxiety around the poll. Neither is conducting the ballot in Ebola-infested areas tenable.
In the circumstances, CENI can still offer a middle ground. First of all, it must institute and adhere to ground rules that ensure that the outcomes from the December vote and the later date in areas where the vote has been deferred don’t confer undue advantage on any of the candidates. Security can also be enhanced in areas where militias are active.
Security enhancement would reduce the margin of excluded voters to less than the current 3 per cent of the 40 million registered voters and make the emergence of an outright victor possible.
Alternatively, CENI can also effect a compromise by agreeing not to announce a winner if the margin separating the top contenders is less than three per cent in the initial poll.