Michael Abramowitz: Our next panel on elections will be led by Colum Lynch. For those of you-- he’s not a household name in journalism the way Gwen is, but for those of you who follow the United Nations, there are few reporters who are more informed or more knowledgeable about what is going on at the United Nations. He also is one of the few reports who covers events in Africa very carefully, and we’re honored to have him host our next panel on the elections upcoming. Take it away, Colum.
Colum Lynch: Hello, thank you all for coming. Is my microphone working? It’s really an honor to be here today. I came up at the invitation of Mike Abramowitz to talk on an issue that I think everybody realized perhaps doesn’t get enough attention, and it’s great to see such a big audience for the event. We’re going to talk about the elections which are coming up on November 28, hopefully. It’s not an entire guarantee that the elections will occur. But first, I’ll give a very brief introduction to the panelists, and then I’ll talk a little bit more about them when I ask some questions. But right here we have Chouchou Namegabe, who runs an association in South Kivu called Women in Media. We have Donat M’Baya, a prominent Congolese editor and journalist who now heads the country’s top journalism media watchdog, Journalists in Danger, and we have Barrie Freeman with the National Democratic Institute. First thing I want to say is in four months the DRC, the Democratic Republic of Congo, will hold only its second presidential election since the country, which was previously known as Zaire, gained its independence. The question we’ll grapple with today is whether this election represents a step forward in the consolidation of democracy in Congo or whether it will mark sort of the sad end of a deeply flawed democratic experiment. The political contest will largely pit the country’s incumbent president, Joseph Kabila, against the perennial political opposition leader, Etienne Tshisekedi, 78 years old, and parliamentary leader, Vital Kamerhe. But the election will also feature a bid by Jean Pierre Bemba, a militia leader and former politician who is running his campaign, strangely enough, from a jail cell in The Hague, where he is facing trial for his role in atrocities in the Central African Republic. As I’ve said, we’ve gathered a panel of terrific experts on the Congo. They’ll talk about their hopes for the election and their kind of concerns and fears about what it might produce. I had a conversation with Chouchou and Donat last night over dinner, and one thing struck me about what Donat said, which was that he kind of, I think aptly, described some of the disillusionment in the process. He talked about- he noted that before the country’s 2000 election of President Kabila, the first election since independence, he had running water in his home; a year later he didn’t. The refrain in political rallies, he notes, is We want water, we want electricity. I’ll ask Donat to kick off the panel by trying to provide kind of an assessment account of what this election means to the Congolese and what they hope from it, and what they fear. Thank you, Donat.
Donat M’Baya: <through interpreter> Thank you for giving me the floor. I think that we don’t have the same understanding of elections when you’re in the Western world or when you’re in the Congo. The Congolese people think that the elections are a way through which their happiness will come, the solution to their problems will come, for their everyday issues. They go to choose to elect leaders who will manage the country and solve their problems. But unfortunately, I think that since the last election in 2006, that were the subject of all hopes in the people, the people really lost their illusions. They were disillusioned, disappointed, because the living conditions are even more difficult than before and became so. Earlier the moderator talked about water and electricity. Myself, I am an average citizen in my country, but I should tell you that before the elections in 2006 I did have water at home, I had electricity, I could watch TV. But then a year later, I had no water, and it is a situation of many people in the Congo. I live in the capital, Kinshasa. I don’t live in a village. I really live in the capital city where basic services should be exemplary. But since the end of the election, there is no water, no electricity, no transportation. People have to walk kilometers on foot. They leave their home at five o’clock in the morning in order to get to work, so to speak. I don’t say work; I say really make-believe work because the exception is work, and the rule is really unemployment. So they leave at five o’clock in the morning and then they walk four hours to get to wherever they can get something. So the situation is untenable, and there is a feeling thus of rejection by the people with the elections. The elections for them are an official act that will enable people to get richer, even more rich. Thank you.
Colum Lynch: Outside observers, including groups like the International Crisis Group, have been warning that the upcoming election have already in some degree been marred by the establishment of election rules that in some ways favor the incumbent, like the elimination of a runoff election. There was also for awhile some discussion about setting an age limit on the election, which never happened, but which would have prevented Tshisekedi, the key opposition leader, from participating. Maybe if you can give us an idea of what you think the prospects are that these elections can, a credible election, can take place by November 28 and, if not, if they have to be postponed, what will this mean for the Congo? Does this sort of plunge Congo into a great constitutional crisis, concerns about violence, and anything else you’d like to add.
Barrie Freeman: I know going back to 2006, there was great hope in the Congo that this was really- those elections really represented the opportunity to move the country forward on a democratic path. Now we’re seeing there’s quite a lot of regression. So here there’s another opportunity to get back on that path. And I think initially there were some signs with the new election commission that they were really going to try to be more open, consultative. Chairman Mulunda made efforts to reach out to the political parties. But that seems to now have gone into reverse as well. There are likely to be- there are a number of things that are already delayed, a number of tasks that the commission has to accomplish, and yet they’re not really talking about what’s going on, leading opposition figures, opposition parties to increasing think that, Well, the commission is closing the curtains. They’re going to do whatever they can just to ensure that Kabila wins. I think they’ve got about a six-to-eight-week window to kind of turn this around. And what I mean by that is that the CNE needs to publish an operational plan. They need to do much more to foster dialog with political parties, with civil society, just to kind of open up what they’re doing. That will increase confidence in the process, and that will also provide a path for coming to some consensus on what might need to be done if, in fact, they do have to delay the election.
Colum Lynch: But is there any plan among the parties that if they can’t meet the deadline, there’s some concern whether logistically, technically, it can be pulled off, that they will come up with some plan to get them through a period of uncertainty?
Barrie Freeman: Well, there are rumors that there are- people are starting to talk about plans, but I think, again, it goes to this sort of lack of dialogue. There’s no- right now there’s no place to bring all the players together, and bringing the players together is a very complicated endeavor. The country has over 300 political parties. But I mean, really there does- more dialogue, sustained dialogue mechanisms, need to be put in place. And I think for those to work, they need to be pushed and supported by the international community.
Colum Lynch: Right. Okay, now onto Chouchou. I mean, when most of us in the West think about the Congo and we listen- we heard a lot of it in the previous panel- we’re really struck by this staggering death toll, and we think about the need for accountability. Justice, however, I’m told by the panelists, is not really figured into the political debate leading up to the election. None of the candidates are making it a central, core issue of their campaign. Now, Chouchou runs in operation called the Association of Women in Media, and this was started in Bukavu, her hometown, ground zero in the conflict in Congo, and she has raised her concerns both in Congo, but internationally, sort of meeting with Secretary Hillary Clinton, offering her a set of recommendations to try and improve the situation of human rights in the east, including a request for a U.S. support for assembling and training an all-female police force in Congo. I want to ask Chouchou to talk about the role of human rights in this election. I’d be curious to see what sort of response you got from Secretary of State Clinton, and also just to give us any idea of why human rights is not on the table in a way that I think everybody in the outside world thinks that this is sort of one of the core issues in Congo.
Chouchou Namegabe: <through interpreter> Thank you very much. The elections of 2006, the different candidates, it was really to vote for peace. But the east, we had the conflict, we had the war, and it was a possibility at that time to try to search for peace, and it was the first experiment of that sort. But unfortunately, the population voted and they voted for the government we have right now, and we were arriving in centers where we had 200 percent for the candidates, even though only 100 percent are possible. So it was really a possibility at that point for the population to say, Well, we can now choose peace. But it was unfortunately not the case, because after the elections it was worse than before the election. The population continued to live in the situation of insecurity. There have been continuously attacks from commanders who violated human rights but also attacks by weapons, and the situation made it so that the society became dissolved. And if you look at the social situation of the people, it’s really bad, because people are moved. They are removed from one place to the next, and nobody is looking really after the displaced populations. So people have to live in misery, in an extreme situation of poverty. The women, the majority of the women, have been raped. I mean, 55 percent of the women have been raped. And so there’s these women who really had so much hope that this violence, aggression situation would stop. And she was the first who was disappointed because the aggression, the violence continued. And we have now many more cases of rape. And in Kivu, there has been especially-- in June we have seen lots of rapes, more than 350 rapes in one village, but nobody talks about it. Even the government doesn’t do anything. One journalist was sent to the village for a visit, but the population is abandoned to its own poverty because the government doesn’t talk about it. The institutions and the organizations, they were pretty much forced to give up the situation. Then there is the sanitary situation. There is absolutely no medical help for these women who will bleed to death. And if you look at the women who were giving birth to babies, the nurses were raped as well. But nobody is there who is able to talk about it and stand up for these women. That’s the situation. We work together with the victims. Our work is to give voice to the victim, to help them out so that the victim can express what the victim had to go through. And really we have this witnessing which is absolutely atrocious when you hear what those people had to go through, the Congolese women, because of the rapes. It’s just a practice of war. It is used like a weapon, because
Colum Lynch: You talked a bit about the candidates, and somebody in the audience was asking about the issue of the role of ethnicity in the election. Perhaps you can tackle this, Donat. Give me a sense of what role ethnicity does play in the elections. When we spoke yesterday, you talked about this sort of issue of the problem of the cult of personality in Congo. And maybe if you could talk a little bit about- give us a sense of the players, the personalities, and how this is playing out in the election.
Donat M’Baya: <through interpreter> First of all, I would like to tell you a general point of view which has been given by one of the people here concerning the ethnicity in Congo. I believe you have to look at this from a very serious perspective because the possibility for Congo is that there is no majority ethnicity. There is no tribe, or no ethnicity which is a majority. So nobody can win the elections based on ethnicity because there’s no tribe which has the majority. So you have to absolutely have an alliance with other tribes or other ethnicities to obtain the majority. However, there is a problem. There is a problem of people who cannot read or write and there is the extreme poverty. These problems make it so that the candidates who run for the elections, they need to- they put up texts, but you see the texts, they can’t be read by the majority of the population, and then there is no debate. So that they could do for society, where people will be just happy to go and to base themselves on subjective, very subjective criteria like ethnicity. But I tell you directly that ethnicity cannot help anybody win these elections. And I remember in 2006, you saw a woman on television, and she said on television for whom she voted. And then they said, Well, why did you vote for this person? And the woman said, Well, because he is good-looking. So it was the good physical aspect of the candidate which pushed this woman to vote for him. So I mean, if most of the country of course is going to vote for the beauty of the candidates, the family cannot nourish their children based upon that. And here- well, I was there, I saw what happened during the media campaign. And also that was not a job well done for the national debate, what the media did. The media were following the politicians, but there was no real debate, especially with regards to the debate on society. There was really nothing. You had to direct the debates to something else. But the media weren’t allowed, or didn’t allow [candidates] to talk about things which were really important. Now, in some months, when the electoral campaign is going to start- I believe it will be at the end of November- then it should not be a debate on society, but people should stop climbing five kilometers of road or base the elections on the physical aspect, on the beauty of the candidate. Well, who are the candidates these days? Well, we have first the outgoing candidate. He has not officially said that he is going to be a candidate but everybody says that he is going to be, and that he tries to be his own successor; and then there is the veteran of the opposition since times of Mobutu, Etienne Tshisekedi. He said openly that he will be a candidate. He came to the U.S., and I believe it would be a good possibility for you to follow on what he’s supporting. He is going at the end of the month into the province of Katanga, and one of his challenges will be to have this candidate responsible for the whole entire campaign. So it’s important that as not only one village, we should only talk about one candidate, but every candidate should be allowed to go to every village so that people would get an idea, general idea, of what is going on and who they can vote for. So in 2011, they said that some candidates were banned to go to a province other than their own province, and that is a problem.
Barrie Freeman: Well, I think that would be my response: What is the alternative? Particularly in a country like the Congo, just to let the incumbent continue to rule in a way that is increasingly less transparent, where corruption- as my colleagues here said earlier to me- corruption is now considered to be institutionalized in the DRC in ways that it wasn’t during the Mobutu years. So I don’t- there’s really no option but to hold an election. But I do think that the international community, I think, wary of the investments that are required in an election in a country this size, of the DRC, was really slow to put funds, to put support into the election process, and I think that has in part led to where we are today with preparations slowing down, with a lot of concerns over the credibility of the voter register, concerns over kind of how this process is going to take place. There’s so little information that has come out, and in particular, a security plan. For the election in 2006, the U.N. played a major role in guaranteeing the security of the election. Now this election, they will have a role to play, but it will be alongside Congolese forces. Congolese forces themselves have been accused of quite a lot of violence themselves. So there are so many worrisome signs, but there are also, I think, solutions to all of them, if the international community is speaking with one voice, really insisting that measures are put into place to make this a transparent election, to ensure that it’s a peaceful election. But I don’t- I understand that, yes, tensions rise in an election- political competition in a country where politics has traditionally been the pathway to riches, it does create tension. But you’ve just got to have systems in place to counterbalance that.
Colum Lynch: Again for Chouchou, maybe we can sort of follow on this. And in terms of your concerns in terms of human rights, the real prospect for the election descending into violence. And are there certain sort of pressure points coming that give you particular concern? Is there anything that you would recommend or suggest could be done by the international community, by the Congolese police, the Congolese authorities, to try and address some of these sorts of issues? I had a conversation with the two of you yesterday in which one of you had mentioned that you were kind of concerned that the followers of the key supporters, both Tshisekedi and Kabila, that their loyalists are more inclined to fight each other than they were in the past, either during demonstrations, that the atmosphere is more volatile. So maybe you could talk a bit about that.
Chouchou Namegabe: <through interpreter> In
Donat M’Baya: <through interpreter> I believe that the opposition should really think about this carefully. And there are these preconceived ideas, so they take some people and affect to their personality some idea of safety. But just like in the case with Egypt and Tunisia, people were wrong. Nobody could have anticipated what happened in Egypt and Tunisia because they thought that Mubarak and Ben Ali were stable pillars against Islamic development. But it was just the opposite, and therefore we had the situation. I’m afraid that we will be surprised in Congo as well, and that the West will be very surprised about what is going to happen, because the Congolese, they don’t care who will be the next Head of State, whether it will be Mr. X, Y or Z. They just like to have somebody there who thinks [about the] country, would like to see development, who wants to have the natural resources to be exploited so that people could get wealthier, so that there would be a better life quality for the people, and that everybody would become happy in their own country and so that they would not need to live in poverty in a country so rich with resources but only where other people and other countries come and exploit these resources. And maybe there are candidates which have a greater advantage. Well, the campaign hasn’t started yet, but if you look around who is candidate, then you see that in a certain way for the people in power, the campaign has started, because you see the billboards everywhere. And this should be denounced by civil society, denounced by the political parties of the opposition, but it does not get any echo from the outside of the country. It is as if those people close their ears and their eyes. Those are very small things. But these little things could lead to an explosion, and if the government could go that far to say that results are not right and they already
Donat M’Baya: <through interpreter> It should be a point of national debate because during the recent years we have had this discussion about the national resources. This was this contract that gave rise to local societies- they could come into our country to exploit these resources. But I believe that somehow this didn’t come, did not come to play because there have been inefficient meetings, and these agreements did not come to play, so that these individuals were not able to make money instead of the government. These contracts, however, need to be- they need to be renegotiated, and we, when it comes to the elections, we say that the Congolese does not have to have any strongman. In Congo, of a general manner, we don’t need to have a strongman. We need to have strong institutions with honest men, because if we have honest people at the head of these institutions, then all of these contracts will be reviewed so that not one company can get the lion’s share of the contract and we can protect that way the villagers and we can help the country. But if the people who is going to have to- the people who will have run the country after the elections will again use and take recourse to corruption, we are going to lose our riches and we will again face corruption, and the elections will not bring about peace and happiness for the citizens.
Question and Answer Period
Colum Lynch: I think we could open it up to the floor, and if anybody wants to step up to the microphones- and please, if you will, very brief, a question. We don’t have a lot of time, so I’d like to get as many in as possible. We’ll start with this gentleman right here, please.
Dr. George Alula: Thank you. I’m Dr. George Alula. I’m the author of the book The Ignored Economic Genocide in Congo. And my question is about
Colum Lynch: Thank you. Would anybody like to take a crack at that? Essentially there has been this determination- the mapping report- that there are signs of genocide in Congo. The U.S., at a very early stage, declared genocide in Sudan, hasn’t done so in the Congo. So perhaps- would anybody like to take that?
Chouchou Namegabe: <through interpreter> Civil society in Congo tried
Colum Lynch: Over here please.
Audience question: Thank you. I’m from an organization called What Better Looks Like, and I would really welcome a suggestion, particularly from Chouchou, if possible. We are organizing a campaign to bring 100 thousand people to the Congo on International Women’s Day, March 8, 2012, to bring attention to the Congolese people, and particularly to the women and children. When we took a trip there last year, the women rape victims indicated that they wanted to be heard, and we are gathering people in Goma, and intend to march from Rwanda to Goma and have people gather around the world as well to say, We hear you. And my question is, we need a call to action, is what I keep being told. And we have a few ideas, but just wonder if you have something in particular that you can suggest that we can do here to have people do around the world and to focus on that. Thank you.
Chouchou Namegabe: <through interpreter> Thank you. As to the call to action that the organizations, the U.S. organization that work in different campaigns to fight against sexual violence to children and women, there are multiple actions. For instance, pressure on the U.S. government that could pressure the neighboring countries so that they reject militias, for instance, that are in the east of Congo and that continue their degradation against women. In November, when there was an attack against villages, they said this time we are tired with raping old women; now we need virgins. That’s what they requested. They said, We need virgins, and a ransom of 10 thousand dollars. You can imagine for a village that is poor, their being asked for 10 thousand dollars and virgins, that was done under the eyes of the authorities, who did not react, didn’t do anything. So this is what we see every day- every day I’m telling you. Right now there are women that are kidnapped into forests in the province and are sexual slaves. The first action is to talk about it. We have to act, because we talk about it. So talk about the situation in the Congo- this is already something. And also there were doctors, specialists, who came to help women, because we only have one doctor in Bukavu, another in Goma, for all the cases of women who were sexually disfigured. We have one million cases, so we need experts. This is really a true catastrophe. We do not have enough doctors, and then we should do something for the psychology and the social reinsertion. We do not have enough psychologists for these women. Not only the victims, but the whole community, even the ones who are in contact with the victims. We are traumatized also by their stories. We’re traumatized by the atrocities. So we really need specialists in psychology to help in this trauma situation. There are many actions that could be carried out. If you would like, let’s get in touch with each other and we will keep on talking about this.
Colum Lynch: That’s a good idea. Maybe we could get together right afterwards. I just wanted to clarify one thing. I just said that the U.S. has not declared genocide in Congo, and I’m not entirely sure that that’s correct. Do you know, Anneke, have they? Pardon me?
Colum Lynch: That is correct. Okay. Why don’t we take this young woman here, and then we’ll come back over here.
Victoria Cooke: Hello, everyone. My name is Victoria Cooke. I’m with the Bringing the Lessons Home youth leadership program, and my question, I wanted you to elaborate more on what is the role expected upon younger women to help stop what’s going on in the Congo?
Colum Lynch: It sounds a natural for you, Chouchou.
Chouchou Namegabe: <through interpreter> For young women, tell them that there is hope that something better will happen in Congo. There are two facets: What will the future of the Congo be when there is violence, rape, publicly, that are being committed on women, on young women, in the presence of their families, of everybody, publicly? Even children are brought to rape their mothers publicly. So what will the future of the Congo be tomorrow? We’ve seen children soldiers that were recruited by force that were forced to rape other children and young girls. So young women-- it’s a hypothesis. Nothing is sure. Even for us, who work in awareness-making, we fear the future. When you give birth to a girl now, you’re afraid, because you don’t know what their future will be. Will they have a future? Will they have the same unfortunate lot [luck] as their mothers? What we’re trying to do, what you’re trying to do, we have hope for changing the future, for changing the situation. As a matter of fact, I believe in women, so we have faith in women. God will help us. We will help ourselves. Things will change. We have to have women in decision-making roles, and then things will change.
Colum Lynch: I’m afraid we only have time for one more question, so I’ll take it. You’ve been waiting patiently.
Tom Austin: My name is Tom Austin, and I blog at Congo Peace, and my question is for the moderator. Here we are the Holocaust Museum where there is a belief that genocide would never happen again, that it’s not acceptable. And now we know that close to six million people have died in the Congo as a result of this conflict, and we also know that U.S. economic and political interests are involved in the Congo, in the region. We know that there’s been a destabilizing effect of neighboring nations, including Rwanda. And my question for the moderator is: Given this backdrop, why is there so little in-depth reporting in the media, including the Washington Post, on this conflict?
Colum Lynch: It’s a very fair, and it’s a good question. The Washington Post has, as you’ve known, gone through a lot of financial troubles in the last couple of years. We’ve reduced a lot of our reporting firepower. We used to have at one point three reporters in Southern Africa, in West Africa and East Africa. We still have a reporter based in East Africa, a terrific reporter. The demands of issues in the Middle East, the changes in North Africa, have pulled away a lot of that capacity into covering some of the conflicts in North Africa, Yemen. I do a lot of- I have been trying to cover as much of the diplomatic side as possible, writing quite regularly on the Ivory Coast conflict, on Sudan. I’ve written a lot about Sudan over the last couple of months. Congo- I’ve covered the mapping report. But I mean, I take your point, that unfortunately we are not- we have become, with all the financial pressures, focused quite intensely on Washington. We don’t have the manpower that a lot of other publications, wire services have, and there are- I mean, one of the interesting things is that if you want to have information on the Congo, you don’t have to go- there are multiple sources. I mean, you know- I mean, on my iPhone, I will see the AP’s coverage and the Reuter’s coverage, and Bloomberg’s coverage, and Al Jazeera’s coverage, and the Washington Post coverage all coming to me equally on my iPhone. And so I probably see more extensive coverage of some of these issues than I would have before. So there are upsides and downsides, but I think a lot of media organizations are trying to find a spot in the whole kind of universe of media where they can flourish and survive. And some will be doing less of what they did, and others will be doing more. So I think that that’s an answer.
Chouchou Namegabe: <through interpreter> I would like to go back to what we just said. We saw indeed that the situation in the Congo, the issues of the Congo, is really in the small pages of the media. The Congo never had the front page in newspapers, in U.S. newspapers, and this is something that we would like to raise as an issue because we feel abandoned. The Congolese are not talked about. The sexual violence is banal. You see, okay, there are 300 cases, 200 cases, but it’s like nothing happened. It doesn’t show that it’s really a really real issue, a crime that the whole community should bring their attention. It seems that the media really are making the whole thing rather banal, common. Please, please, I would like- it’s my appeal that the media, that the main U.S. media, talk about the fight against sexual violence. Thank you.