Avoiding a Congolese tragedy

The Congo is at a political crossroads in the aftermath of recent elections marred by irregularities.

Etienne Tshisekedi
 Veteran opposition leader and runner-up in the recent presidential election Etienne Tshisekedi  rejects the result [EPA]

I have a recurring debate with a Congolese artist friend that goes something like this. If the story of the Congo were turned into a TV series, should it be a satire or a drama? A variant goes: Which director, Fellini or Spielberg?

The election several weeks ago, as so many events in the Congo, had elements of both genres. Outside shot: peasants queuing for hours in the sun by polling station, women with crying infants on backs, waiting to cast votes. Close-up: a crooked election official enters back door of polling station, pre-marked ballots underarm, stuffs them into polling boxes.

I exaggerate, but only slightly. While the large majority of polling proceeded normally, there were hundreds of incidents that lent a tragically surreal twist to the day. A governor in Equateur province chased observers out of a polling station so he could lock himself in for an hour and stuff ballots; to top things off, he threatened election officials, leading them to seek refuge with the United Nations. In a remote rural area in the east of the country, soldiers arrested farmers on their way to vote, tied them to a tree, then used their electoral cards to go and vote.

The day after elections, I received a phone call from the Congolese artist. “Emir Kusturica,” he said. “Maybe Fellini. Definitely not Spielberg. This is a farce.” He had just heard that a parliamentary candidate in his province had distributed corrugated iron roofing to voters in return for their support. When they snubbed him at the polls, he decided to take his “donation” back from over their heads.

The Congolese electional commissioner dismissed these concerns and declared Joseph Kabila, who has been in power since 2001, the winner with 49 percent of the vote. The runner-up is veteran opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi, with 32 percent. The latter promptly rejected the results and proclaimed himself president. Opposition supporters are now being rounded up across the country.

It is not just the opposition that is critical. The Atlanta-based Carter Center panned the polls, saying they “lack credibility,” with the European Union saying much the same. The Catholic cardinal of Kinshasa went further, saying the results “do not conform with either the truth or justice.” The litany is long: ballots from between 2,000 and 4,000 stations have simply disappeared, resulting in the disenfranchisement of up to 1,6 million voters. In one electoral district, Kabila improbably won every single of the 266,886 votes, and the Carter Center found turnout rates elsewhere to be “impossibly high.”

The Congo is at a crossroads. Joseph Kabila was sworn in on Tuesday as president, while Tshisekedi insists that honor belongs to him, and irresponsibly called for his supporters to arrest Kabila. Hundreds of opposition members are being rounded up and there have been reports of dozens of killings, especially by the presidential guard.

It is impossible to predict how events will unfold over the next few weeks. But it is clear we cannot stand by and pretend, as I heard one ambassador lament, that “there were many irregularities, but we don’t know whether they would have changed the results.” Behind this sentiment lies another: the feeling that flawed elections are better than the instability that a lengthy electoral dispute could foster.

Kabila may indeed have won in a free and fair election. But that is not the point, as this ballot did not live up to those standards. We will probably never know how hundreds of thousands of disenfranchised Congolese voted, citizens who are now deeply angry at their government and the donors that support it.

It may, regrettably, be too late to salvage the legitimacy of the presidential poll. Donors should nonetheless work with the Congolese government to set up an independent commission to establish the truth, or at least the main flaws of the polls. They must exhaust all options to ensure the results of the parliamentary poll, which are currently being counted, do not suffer the same disrespect as the presidential ones.

Even larger questions loom for donors. Foreign governments provide $3 billion in aid – roughly half the budget – to the Congo each year, and doled out several hundred million dollars for the elections. Will they be ready to continue funding a body for the approaching local elections that bungled these past polls so badly? More crucially, will they continue to fund the government’s institutional reform projects after it botched its biggest chance of reform?

These are difficult, thorny questions. But we should recognize that intimidation and fraud cannot bring about stability. Looking the other way may be easier, but is not just.

My Congolese friend called again this morning, exasperated. “Not a farce,” he said. “I don’t even think the big screen can do this justice. I’m thinking Sophocles.” A tragedy is certainly unfolding in Africa’s second largest country. Will the United States be an unwitting protagonist?

Jason K. Stearns is author of “Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa.”

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.