Voting in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) against all odds: An account of the 30 December 2018 elections in one of the polling centres

Author: Trésor Makunya
Doctoral Candidate & Academic Associate, Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria

The presidential and legislative elections at both national and provincial level that Congolese including those living in the diaspora have been waiting for almost two years finally and against all odds, took place on Sunday 30 December 2018. Although elections are always regarded as part of the DNA of a democratic state, these elections were particularly of utmost importance because, if properly conducted, it is expected that they mark the first peaceful alternation of presidential power.[1] Since 2015 when the incumbent president Joseph Kabila demonstrated his desire to maintain his grip on power, many young people, most of whom were from prodemocracy groups, have been killed through excessive use of force by law enforcement officers, arrested or jailed when they protested to urge President Kabila to abide by Article 70 of the 2006 DRC Constitution that sets a  maximum two presidential terms and to finance the electoral commission so as national elections may take place in December 2016. Since then, President Kabila has been enjoying a de facto third-presidential term, just like members of the national assembly whose five years-term has been prolonged for two years now. Equally surprising was the fact that elections of governors, of senators and members of provincial assemblies were yet to be organised since respectively 2007 and 2006. Such an unthinkable prolongment had rendered provincial assemblies and the senate illegitimate in the eyes of voters although they had continued to enjoy a semblance of legality. This is the background against which around 39 million Congolese woke up (or were expected to wake up) early that morning and go overwhelmingly to polling stations.

I was one of them that morning. And being part of the younger generation of Congolese who have little knowledge of Mobutu’s presidency – I was born during the last decade of Mobutu’s 32 year’s reign, I was very excited. Because these elections were important to most of us, as Congolese, and  the many controversies and scepticisms that have surrounded them, the overall aim of this piece is to suggest another reading of the elections based on my own experience as voter and that of some of my friends and relatives. I will start by making a number of clarifications. My reading does not cover the counting and the tallying of votes and the transmission of voting results to the vote-tallying centre (Centres Locaux de Compilation). It equally does not cover the entire 21 000 polling centres countrywide. My observations are limited to one polling centre that had 26 polling stations in Nord-Kivu. My reading will, however, be incomplete if I do not make the following three observations as part of the background against which elections were organised.

Firstly, the fact that four days prior to the organisation of elections, on 26 December 2018, the electoral commission decided not to conduct voting operations in Beni, the city of Beni,[2] Butembo and Yumbi on grounds of insecurity and the fear to spread Ebola virus brings to question the inclusiveness of the process and the conformity of the process to international human rights standards regarding political participation as a whole. Despite the fact that the postponement of elections in part or entire country remains legal, particularly in the case of force majeure, one would, however, argue that this had to be approved by the regulator of the electoral process, which is actually the Constitutional Court rather than the electoral commission. The Court would have at the same time responded to relevant legal issues that have remained burning, one of these being the violation of the right to vote (Article 5 of the 2006 DRC Constitution) and to political participation of over 1 000 000 voters living in the above four districts.

Secondly, the lack of consensus among political actors around the use of the voting machine (machine à voter) to serve as a printer of the ballot paper has arguably seeded possible contestations that may arise around electoral results, I think, irrespective of who may be declared winner. Opposition political parties, and a vast majority of civil society organisations have blamed the electoral commission for leaning on this machines as a means to rig millions of votes for the ruling coalition’s candidate, Emmanuel Shadary. This is notwithstanding clarifications by the Commission that only ballot paper printed by the machine will be tallied, implying that the machine à voter would not electronically tally and transmit the votes to an established tallying centre.

I find relevant to add one more issue here: electoral campaign violence. In some parts of the country, opposition presidential candidates, such as Felix Tshisekedi and Martin Fayulu, sawtheir planes being denied landing permission (the case of Martin Fayulu in Kindu, Maniema province on 9 December 2018 and Felix Tshisekedi banned from going to Walikale, Nord-Kivu) or permission to hold rallies in some districts. In the city of Kinshasa, the two candidates did not even, but this also includes the candidate of the ruling coalition, have the opportunity to organise the last rallies of the campaign following a decision, almost unconstitutionally, by the governor of Kinshasa banning rallies for security reasons. These reasons were not properly explained. Although the city of Kinshasa harbours strong supporters of the opposition, the fears of clashes among political party supporters were overestimated. These reasons appear to having been rather manufactured to forbid opposition candidates from convening their supporters in a city that always vote in favour of the opposition. What remains of course stunning is the fact that none of the political leaders marginalised by these decisions had sought to challenge the legality or the constitutionality of these decisions before relevant courts, and most importantly the Constitutional Court. Although they might have assumed, probably rightly so, that judges were not independent enough to rule in favour of an opposition party, or not to have sufficient time to prepare a consistent lawsuit, such a reluctance is rather evidence of the limited role courts play in strengthening rule of law and constitutionalism in Congo.

Thirdly, issues of ego, which in the opinion of the government are issues of ‘sovereignty’ and ‘dignity’ had rendered the assistance of the ‘international community’ and particularly the United Nations mission in Congo (Monusco) to this electoral process impossible. The nationalistic decision by the government to entirely sponsor the electoral process had raised suspicions over the entire electoral process. Civil society groups and the opposition had the strong belief, that the support of the international community would have assisted in the dispatch of electoral materials and spared elections from the tremendous shortcomings that were observed on election day. That the government had the capacity to finance the entire process is not part of our discussion here. Indeed it would not be accurate to suggest that the malfunctioning of electoral materials – for instance the delay in the distribution of machine à voter and its accessories such as battery, ballots, list of voters per polling station – is due to the rejection of the international support. However, this decision and the assumption that elections were rigged in advance had warded off international observation missions from the elections. Notwithstanding the fact that the relevance of these missions has been brought to question since the 2017 Kenyan general elections, the presence of observers arguably increases legitimacy of the electoral process, particularly for international consumption. Nonetheless, AU and SADC observers in addition to 40 000 catholic observers’ country wide, were scattered in various polling centres in DRC. With these observations about the electoral process being made, let me now focus on the central point of this piece which is to suggest another reading of Sunday’s elections based on my own experience as voter

I reached the queue of my polling centre, down town Goma (North-Kivu province) at 11:11am, five hours after it had been opened and had started to receive voters. As this was a Sunday, just like each Sunday of elections, people had the choice to either start with voting then go to church or the other way round. This polling centre, unlike others opened on time and people started to vote early in the morning. The voting procedure was simple, particularly for educated voters. There were two set of queues – one to access the polling centre, one to access the polling station – and one would spend between an hour and half and two hours in the queue, depending particularly on whether the polling station they were allocated to, had many voters. Because voters were allocated to the 26 polling stations on the basis of alphabetical order, some polling stations had many voters than others.

The next step – and this was crucial – was to verify whether one’s name was actually allocated to a particular polling station. Although I did not encounter any issues with finding my names, other voters particularly those that had registered themselves more than once, les doublons, in different registration centres (which are now polling centres) had difficulties finding their names chiefly because they have been either erased in the data base or their names featured in the polling centre where they were last registered, which might probably not be the one where they presently were. The reasons why myself, and a number of other voters managed to find our names easily, and this is one of the innovations brought forth by the 2018 electoral process, is because we were able, using the voter card number, to obtain our exact polling station code and number by sending the voter card number to 170 using one of the four mobile operators (Vodacom, Orange, Airtel or Africell). A relative later told me that finding the names required some patience and a closer verification of alphabetical order up to the third letter of one own’s name on each list. She even assumed that every name was screened on the appropriate polling station; contrary to the view of a number of voters that they could not see their names.

The crux of the voting time, for me, and probably for many other voters, was when I had to use the voting computer, machine or printer (machine à voter), whichever name on may call it, so as to cast my vote. When I first voted in 2011, we used printed ballots that contained pictures of candidates and their party affiliation. Voters were merely required to tick a box on the right hand beside their candidates. This time on, Congolese were required to use the machine à voter. I will read the problem relating to the voting computer in two ways. Firstly, I will present the manner in which it allowed voters to cast their votes and secondly, I will talk about fears and worries that it raises. But before getting to that, I think it is fair to commend police officers (two at the entrance of the polling centre and two at each polling station) for their professionalism in the guidance and assistance provided to voters, particularly to voters with visual impairment and other forms of disabilities, pregnant women and older persons. Having said that, my first argument, which is largely empirical, is that the voting computer, might be a perfect solution to delays of voters at the polling booth and might render the voting process much quicker than before, when voters are properly educated about its usage. I said when voters are properly educated because this computer had made it difficult for voters that are unfamiliar with computers, to identify their candidates particularly for legislative elections. For instance, for the legislative elections, there were more than 32 candidates competing and the first page of the computer only displays 32 candidates. So, voters were required to press next until they get to the candidate of their choice. This exercise was hardly an easy task for those unfamiliar with computers. I completed the voting in less than a minute but I was told that some people took 10 or more minutes. The voting computer makes it impossible to have spoilt ballots. Also, the ballot can be printed only after the voter has voted for the three types of elections. So, I made sure I voted for my future President, my national and my provincial assembly representatives in a row.

Let me be clear on denounced irregularities: for the two hours and half I spent at my polling centre, I did not notice nor did I hear about voting computers being insufficient or lacking batteries or having technical problems. Also, voters that required assistance on the use of the voting computer were provided with such an assistance. Insufficiency of machine à voter, the lack of battery, difficulty starting machine, difficulty with finding one own’s name on the polling station or to identify one’s candidates were, however, among other irregularities that journalists and many observers noted with regards to many polling stations countrywide. I intend here neither to minimise their impact on the electoral process itself nor to deny their accuracy. I can, however, suggest my own reading of some of these issues. For example, although many of these irregularities are to be blamed on the electoral commission and its stubborn insistence to use the machine à voter, some voters went to vote into polling centres where they were not registered, hence they could not see their names. Equally, some voters who claimed not to having found the candidate of their choice for legislative elections in the machine à voter, later realised that during the voter registration, they were mistakenly registered in districts (circonscriptions électorales) other than those where their candidate was running and could logically not see their candidate on that electronic ballot paper. So, some of these problems were understandable and could be avoided by both the electoral commission and voters in advance.

My second argument is that owing to controversies and scepticisms that marred the use of the voting computer within and without the Congolese political arena, the printed ballot papers are those that should be considered when tallying each polling station results. Such a proposition is of utmost importance because the electoral commission has the latitude to tally polling results on the basis of electronic tallying conducted by the machine or the manual tallying of printed ballots or the actual records of results (procès-verbaux de résultats) signed by polling station staff and political party agents. Political stakeholders, including the electoral commission agreed upon this proposition on the eve of elections. Still, there is this belief that the voting computer is provided with a system that enables it to electronically transmit results to the tallying centre. This is despite the denial by the electoral commission that it will have recourse to such a mechanism. This last option is very dangerous and might likely create more tensions around an electoral process that is already marred with controversies and the success of which rests on the ability of the electoral commission to allow independent observers and party agents to attend the entire tallying process. I am not sure whether the electoral commission actually cares about the electoral process being seen as fair or credible. What I strongly believe is that the tallying process should be manual, inclusive and transparent to minimise electoral dispute and mistrust in the whole process.


[1]  Known as the most giant Belgium colonial enterprise of the late 19th and midst 20th century in Africa, Democratic Republic of Congo has thus not fared well with its democratic records having been led by four presidents (Joseph Kasavubu, Joseph-Désiré Mobutu Sese Seko, Laurent-Désiré Kabila and Joseph Kabila), none of whom was elected to the presidency directly by the people. Violent overthrow of presidents had remained, until 2001, the mean to change president.

[2] The people of Beni had surprisingly organized their own elections and promised to proclaim their own results. These ‘fake’ elections will not be taken into consideration said the electoral commission. The grounds invoked for the exclusion of these districts from 2018 elections have rather been seen as an alibi to exclude people that are in favor of opposition candidates.


About the Author:
Trésor Makunya is a doctoral candidate and academic tutor at the Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria. His research interests are human rights, democratisation and constitutionalism in Africa

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