Anthony Gambino, an expert on the Congo, addresses the importance and difficulties of the country’s elections scheduled for November 2011.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: Welcome to Voices on Genocide Prevention. Today’s episode is part of a special series on the Democratic Republic of the Congo. For information about the entire series, please visit our website at www.ushmm.org/genocide.
With me today is Tony Gambino, a Congo analyst and former USAID mission director. Tony, thank you for joining me today.
TONY GAMBINO: Thank you very much.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: As many people in our audience know, the situation for civilians across the Congo is now, and it has been for years, amongst the most dire in the world. But we also want to start looking into the future a little bit more to-- at major national and parliamentary elections that are scheduled for November 28th of this year. Can you help our audience understand how significant are these elections in the Congolese political history?
TONY GAMBINO: These elections are hugely significant. In 2006 Congo coming out of two terrible wars had its first free and fair democratic election since independence in 1960, so the country had gone 46 years without free and fair elections. But as all experts on democratization and electoral processes know, first elections are great, very important that those elections went reasonably well. But second elections are at least as important, if not more important, because they test whether the process of democratization is starting to set down any roots, and whether something enduring and sustainable is starting up in the Congo.
In 2006 the Congolese transitional government and the international community, Congolese civil society and ordinary Congolese citizens put together a tremendous effort supported by organizations and citizens from around the world to make the elections work. Unfortunately we’re not seeing such an effort yet in 2011. So at this juncture in time for the elections that are scheduled to take place towards the end of this year, more and more people in the international community are expressing louder and louder concerns about whether genuinely free, fair, and transparent elections will take place in the Congo.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: Let me pick up on that. How much attention are the elections garnering inside Congo? Is there a sense among common people that this momentous occasion is coming and there’s a potential for change? And then if you could also talk a little bit more about the international role and what attention has been paid to the elections thus far.
TONY GAMBINO: The situation inside the Congo is complex. On one level people are tremendously interested in the elections. There is a large group of political leaders and political parties that have been formed that are in constant discussions. There have been efforts at campaigning by various actors. One of the leading political parties known, it’s initials is the UDPS, held a huge rally in the capital city of Kinshasa in April that was attended by 50 to 70,000 people, a very significant moment in the Congo. So people are following the elections with great, great interest.
But the second thing to know right away is that there is tremendous cynicism among the Congolese population about the elections. They know better than any of us that this is a country that since its independence in 1960 has not been a place with lots of free, fair, and transparent democratic elections. And as they look and see that the signs for this year’s elections are not particularly promising, many people are detecting a growing cynicism on the part of more and more Congolese about whether genuinely free, fair, transparent elections can take place.
Now regarding the international community, there is a regrettable deep contrast between the tremendous engagement and excitement across the international community about Congo’s elections in 2006 where the United Nations, with its large presence in Congo that was then known as MONUC, various other UN organizations, all sorts of governments from the United States, to European countries, to South Africa, international organizations like SADC, election monitoring groups like the Carter Center, all sorts of private organizations. There was a logistical support, technical support, financial support on the order of a half a billion dollars coming from the international community, and then hundreds and hundreds of observers observing the elections that occurred starting in the summer of 2006.
This time around, oddly enough, the international community has been strangely disengaged. Obviously they know that the elections are coming, that’s no secret, that there was a five-year mandate. That’s been the case since the elections occurred in 2006. No mystery there at all. But as the preparations started slowly and have not gone well, rather than beginning to step up and offer assistance and indicate how important it was for the country to have free, fair and transparent elections, there has been silence or even worse. Sometimes statements by senior diplomats that all these things were just matters for the Congolese people and were not particularly matters for the international community. So grosso modo, the efforts of the international community to date have been extremely disappointing. This is starting to change in a minor way, but as of today the international community is not playing the role that it must play.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: And you mentioned the growing sense of cynicism among the population as they see signs that the elections won’t be free or fair. Can you talk about what some of these signs are, more specifically?
TONY GAMBINO: I think the first sign that really shocked people who were observing the run up to elections occurred at the beginning of this year when the Congolese government, for reasons that can only be called cynical, rammed changes to the constitution through the parliament. And when I say rammed, there were widespread reports that the government paid large bribes, tens of thousands of dollars per vote, to actually members of its own coalition to enact these constitutional changes.
The changes were clearly designed to make it easier for the president and his grouping to win the elections. The most significant of the changes was the reduction in rounds of voting so that instead of having to win ultimately with more than 50 percent of the vote, now it is just one round of voting, and whoever gets the most votes wins. The other changes were clearly designed to centralize power in the office of the presidency.
When all this occurred the international community was silent other than comments that these were matters for the Congolese and not matters for the international community to comment on, which were to many of us very disappointing and actually incorrect statements by those diplomats who said those things publicly.
Next we have a new report that I recommend to anyone interested in further understanding the situation in Congo just published by the International Crisis Group. The conclusion of that report is that as of May the Congolese people say it’s a horrible choice because the preparations for the elections are so far behind they either rush towards elections in late November when they’re scheduled, but it looks very unlikely to electoral experts that proper elections can be organized in this timeframe. So you would have bad elections on time, if you will. Or if you want to focus on having fair elections, you may have to postpone the date, but that would create a constitutional crisis because the mandate of the present government runs out on December 6th. And opposition political leaders have been very clear that they are adamantly opposed to any extension, any extra constitutional extension of the present government’s mandate. Either way you turn now, because of disorganization, lack of focus, you are faced with a series of very unfortunate bad choices.
The final example I’ll give is that one might ask, what’s the standard for free, fair and transparent elections in a country like the Congo that is just starting to have such elections again? And I think the answer is very clear. The standard has to be based on what occurred in 2006 when, as I said, the elections were imperfect but acceptable.
In 2006 there was a very effective, well-organized effort to register voters in the Congo, and 25 million Congolese citizens registered to vote, and on election day 18 million of them voted. As of today the process registering voters is a mess. And it may turn out that something like 50 percent of the number of voters who were registered 2006 are registered in 2011. I don’t see any way that one can call the process a success, and it’s in a country that has had population growth, so there are probably more like 30 million people who could register to vote now. If we end up with something like under 20 million people registering, that clearly is a failure. And if we have more things like this it becomes harder and harder to see how any vote is the actual expression of the free will of the people of the Congo.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: The Museum’s interest in Congo has been because of the scale of the atrocities against civilians. I wonder if you could put in perspective for our listeners what your concerns are for how these elections will impact Congo’s longer term possibility for greater stability and protection of human rights, let alone it’s political, social or economic progress.
TONY GAMBINO: We’re seeing all around the world now, particularly in North Africa and the Middle East, but also in parts of Africa, a tremendous expression of the importance of people, in being at the heart of the governments of their states. That’s what ultimately democracy is about. Democracy is about, as we talk about in the United States all the time, that it’s the people who ultimately are ruling. The people give power to their elected officials for periods of time, and then can either reelect or choose others.
In countries like the Congo, this is a concept that is new and fresh, and still being thought through by the political elite and citizens of the country. And what is on the table, as we’re seeing in so many other countries in the world today, is whether one privileges the state and says we will take all kinds of actions to support present officials and others in the government -- even if those actions are prejudicial to the citizens of that country. Or whether we will say we actually support the people of the country and their right to choose their leaders in regular, free, fair and transparent elections. If those elections result in the incumbent government returning to power, if that’s the will of the people, that’s fine. If it results in some changes at whatever levels, that’s fine, too. It’s up to the people of the Congo to decide.
But what one sees both inside the Congo and in the international community, is tremendous confusion today about whether to focus on the governments or on the people. The people who are focusing on the government are looking for excuses right and left for why these elections can be extremely flawed and imperfect. Those of us who focus on the people of the Congo are absolutely unwilling to accept all those excuses, and insist that a way be found to get to a point where the Congolese people can express their own will, and then based on those decisions a stronger democracy can grow in that country.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: Tony, I want to thank you for your time and your insights today.
TONY GAMBINO: It’s my pleasure.
NARRATOR: You have been listening to Voices on Genocide Prevention, from United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. To learn more about responding to and preventing genocide, join us online at www.ushmm.org/genocide.