Imagine a country where the results of 2,000 polling stations in the capital disappear the very evening of the elections, where at the end of polling day presidents of voting centres take the ballot boxes with them and where soldiers in rural areas force people to vote for the incumbent. These and many other serious irregularities took place in the Democratic Republic of Congo last year, on November 28. Little wonder that three days after the Electoral Commission declared Joseph Kabila – in power since his father was assassinated in 2001 – the winner. Cardinal Monsengwo Pasinya, archbishop of Kinshasa, said that the results “conformed neither to truth nor to justice”. One month after, the Catholic Episcopal Conference went even further and stated: “What happened was unacceptable. It is a shame for our country”. When the bishops of the 47 dioceses of the country released their message on 12th January it found a resounding echo in a country where the Catholic Church yields an enormous social influence.
In December, Monsengwo had to face a campaign of insults orchestrated by politicians close to Kabila, who used the media to smear his name. The Congolese prelate stood his ground and during a press conference held on 5th January at his residence, he criticized the changes made to the Constitutions a year ago to make presidential elections a one-round, simple majority affair. “If I see that the State respects the Constitution and cares for the common good, we shall work together, otherwise they can’t count on me and I shall tell them”, said the cardinal.
The Congolese bishops judged the situation so serious that they decided to hold an extraordinary assembly early in January. On the 12th, the message they had prepared was presented in Notre Dame du Congo Cathedral in Kinshasa. Thousands of worshippers who followed the event interrupted the reading several times with standing ovations and cries of approval.
After defending the Cardinal‘s reputation, the bishops stated that “the electoral process was marred by serious irregularities that call into question the credibility of the published results”. Acknowledging that citizens were “frustrated”, they exhorted all not to yield to pessimism or violence. They also denounced the climate of “physical threats, human rights abuses, kidnappings, intimidation and the confiscation of public media by one political family” and they conclude that “there several incidents of trickery were truly planned beforehand”.
The message has clear recommendations for all political actors. The bishops ask the Electoral Commission either to correct the serious mistakes they made or to resign. The Parliament, they say, must review the composition of this Commission. Members of the Government must stop using public funds for their own personal interests. Army and Police personnel are told to never obey unjust orders. “The international community must give priority to the interest of the Congolese people and support its search of justice and peace”, they added.
These elections were the second held in four decades. In 2006, when the Electoral Commission was chaired by Apollinaire Malu-Malu, a Catholic priest from Butembo diocese, polls were hailed as generally transparent and fair. Malu-Malu was replaced by Methodist pastor Leon Ngoy, whose close personal friendship with Joseph Kabila cast doubts on his impartiality.
A number of international actors, like the Carter Centre, the European Union, the United Kingdom and the United States, expressed serious concerns about the elections but fell short of calling it fraud. The African Union said that the exercise had generally been free and fair. During the electoral campaign, the Catholic bishops led a civic education communication programme where they alerted against using public funds for any particular candidate – something that was done consistently by Kabila’s campaign team – and asked for fairness and a climate of peace.
Jose Carlos Rodriguez