“I can give you the final calendar this afternoon. I can’t do it right now because it is in the SEP’s office and he is in Kinshasa.”
“Oh, so he will return this afternoon?”
“…Meme demain – could be tomorrow.”
“But you said I should come back this afternoon.”
“Yes, because he is not here. He is in Kinshasa…”
*** *** ***
The head of the Independent Elections Commission and the President’s good friend finally made the announcement and it came as no surprise that Joseph Kabila was the winner of 2011 Presidential Elections of the Dem Rep of Congo. Ex-pats and observers alike braced themselves for the wrath of Etienne Tshisekedi’s opposition party, UDPS, and those who could, left the country for the friendly warmth of South Africa and beyond.
The last elections I participated in were in 2006. At that time the international community was driving the process. A Washington PR firm had been retained to brand the young Joseph Kabila, and every step of the election process was being spoon fed and hand delivered for the Congolese who got to sit in the back seat, enjoy the scenery and democratize by osmosis. Large Technicolor billboards of Kabila dwarfed the other 32 candidates. The bold captions read: “Artisan de la Paix” – Artisan of Peace – a fitting title for a newly emerging country after a decade of civil war.
So when Joseph Kabila took the eastern provinces by a landslide it did not surprise anyone. His major rivals were Azaria Ruberwa and Jean Pierre Bemba – two warlords responsible for large scale massacres with the backing of Rwanda and Uganda. I remember someone wrote “toka!” on Bemba’s face and voted Kabila. It means — get lost! The vote was annulled because of the double marking yet it encapsulated the sentiment at the time. Kabila had brought peace. He had agreed to share power in a transition that included his adversaries. Who does that in Africa? There was a lot of feel-good to go around and as the polling station drew to a close in the wee hours of the morning I looked around at the dozing witnesses and election agents, feeling happy to be sharing the night with my fellow Congolese at the birth of their new democracy.
To be fair there have been some new roads, mostly to access mineral sites or in the center of town. Kinshasa’s Blvd 30 June, marking the Day of Independence from the Belgians, and previously known as the dilapidated potholed stretch dividing the ex-pats from the locals is now sporting a brand new makeover with street lights, even traffic signs – digital! Some new office buildings have also gone up to accommodate the influx of new players and of course a giant monument is going up commemorating the “5 Chantiers”. However if you should venture out to any of the local quarters, it will be abundantly clear that outside of elite circles not much has changed for the ordinary Congolese.
Five years later the Congolese are running their own elections. I went back as an observer to a distinctly different mood. Eastern Congo is as unruly as ever, exploitation of children, women and minerals is still a reality and the West has had to make room for China who has pledged billions in infrastructure projects and whose Africa policy can only be summed up as “don’t ask, don’t tell”. This year’s elections were all about reconstruction and modernization. The new caption on the billboards read “5 Chantiers” – “Na Rais 100% Sur” – five infrastructure projects – with the President, a 100% sure. The message was hammered close to 100% — 24/7 on public and private airwaves funded by state resources after the constitution was changed from a two tour to a single round plurality of votes handing Kabila the winning cards even before the games began.
The airport route to Grand Hotel Kinshasa is the same garbage infested stretch where hundreds of thousands of marginal lives claim their spots on piles of rubble and putrefying refuse eking out a few hundred francs against a grimy backdrop of crumbling structures. In local neighborhoods, barefoot children, ragged and un-bathed, play in the trash, looking for something that could pass for a toy, and when the rains come, a deluge fills the potholes, swelling up in mud and sewage creating putrid lakes that float across the streets, nurturing mosquitoes and pests until the stagnant waters slowly subside leaving new formations of the old debris.
Across the country, most Congolese live from hand to mouth, civil servants go unpaid for years at a time, scarce employment is a function of ethnic ties, corruption and begging is a major source of livelihood, and the Congolese franc has sunk in a freefall – also 100% since 2006.
Even before Elections, alliances of convenience were forged with Kabila’s PPRD party, and many of the over one hundred parties rallied around the president securing future posts and only presenting candidates at the legislative level. Those with money and resources churned out caps and T-shirts and proceeded to pay off the destitute population to gain support and buy votes. Three weeks into the campaign the exchange rate dropped from 930 to 750 due to the large demand for cash. When the civic education bus rode through town, the population ran up to grab free brochures and the crowds practically mobbed the party official when he stepped into the crowd with a bagful of hats – if it’s free we want it!
We watched kabila’s campaign across the country and marveled at how dirt poor people laid out flat, nose to the ground as he walked past. We spoke to villagers in the hinterlands of his home state and heard a chorus of 100% Rais, not quite sure what a “chantier” was. Traditional chiefs gave out orders to their subjects to vote for the son of their province and opposition flags were torn down, their homes and businesses attacked and burnt in remote enclaves like Malemba-Nkulu and Manono. The message was clear: Don’t even think of it!
The President is from the province of Katanga, Tshisekedi is from Kasai. For some, that is reason enough.
I asked a priest we stayed with in Kamina if there had been any “5 chantier” work in his town. He is from the President’s tribe.
“None. Not even half a chantier”
“You think people would still vote Kabila?”
“Absolutely! People here understand it was not their turn yet. But now we have the Blvd 30 June in the capital. That is something every Congolese can be proud of.”
A Boulevard. One thousand miles away. Even as people live in darkness and go hungry. But what of the hundreds of thousands not from the President’s tribe? Where they happy to go hungry knowing there is a brand new boulevard in the capital?
Less than a week to go, the polling sites were assigned, but there was one problem. Many of them did not exist. We spent hours mapping our observation route walking in and out of primary schools with six or eight small rooms declared as thirty, forty, sometimes fifty stations. We continued to make the rounds of the voting stations to see if the tents had arrived. Nothing. Instead we found hungry policemen posted at every site, unpaid and unfed for two days, waiting to guard the ballots which, come Sunday night had still not arrived.
“Madame – we are hungry. Madame – give me some money.” I thought how easy it would be for anyone to buy a stack of ballots from any one of them at the dead of night — assuming there were any.
“Pas de probleme;” the response of the Commission was ever so non-chalant. “We will send them tents. Or they can just go vote in a nearby site!”
Tents?! Where? It was now two days before E-Day and not only half the stations were missing, the ballots were still sitting in the main warehouse, waiting for deployment into distant territories.
“We are thinking of using either the South African military, or the United Nations or a commercial carrier.” — Thinking?
E-Day was more like D-Day – as in Disaster! The helicopters hired to assist in the deployment, once landed in DRC demanded payment, fuel and lodging before anything. It was not clear who was responsible for that – after all it’s not like they can fill up at a local gas station and bill later. Then at three AM, Monday morning, two jeeps containing ballots were attacked and set ablaze by armed men.
When dawn fell, many polls could not open. For many there were no ballots, not a single tent – worse — there were not enough polling stations, and many could not find their names on the voter’s list. As the sun rose up in the sky, the lines got longer, thousands of people tried to cram inside small compounds insisting they could not walk another 5 or 10 miles to a different site. Some polling agents locked themselves in refusing to face the angry crowds; others took off their uniforms and jumped the walls rather than risk being beaten up. Increasingly our car was targeted as the one with possible answers or solution to problems. At first we reasoned or tried to help, but as the crowds grew ever more furious, anger descended into violence and we fled just as they began stoning our car.
Tshisekedi supporters felt targeted. Was this some sick strategy to discourage voter turnout? No one from their party had been represented on the Election board.
Then another attack took place. Unidentified commandos stormed a voting site, killed several and wounded others burning more ballots. Text messages came in with facts and fiction as to who they were – secessionist groups; angry unpaid policemen; Gideon — the cannibal warlord’s body guard – or was it his cook!? An EU observer texted these elections reminded him of a Monty Python episode; and I began humming the soundtrack to the movie Brazil. Could things get more surreal?
“I have not seen my children in three days now,” begged one woman. “I am going to lay down in the back of your jeep and you take me away with you. Yes — you will do this for me.”
“Yes. I will do exactly that.” I said to her. I had no doubt in my mind that I would too – except that instead, we took off our observer hats and negotiated with the police chief: food for all — provided they let everyone go.
*** *** ***
Rule number 1: If you must hold elections in Africa, do not do so in the rainy season.
The compilation center did manage to be operational after all – well – sort of. The SEP in his usual reactive self had not thought of the logistics of handling over 1,400 polling stations in such a small facility in the rainy season. As yet another brilliant move the two attacked jeeps filled with the burnt ballots had been towed and left in the narrow driveway. As the president of each polling station arrived, exhausted and hungry, they dumped the bag of ballots and certified results outside the entrance and went home to sleep. It then rained furiously every night, others came and more bundles piled up. Soon the front entry looked like a dumpster of mud and soiled bags and the intense foot traffic used them as walkways over to the compilation center at the back. The sight of distraught polling supervisors muttering to themselves and looking for their bags outside the compilation center became a regular scene.
Inside the center a convoluted process of tabulation was in progress. Curiously things had gone from total chaos to super controlled, highly focused and secretive. I walked in just as the president of the tabulation center was making an announcement that his agents were strictly forbidden to give out any information to the observers. Strange. Why invite observers – then proceed to block them? We hovered around playing passive aggressive with the supervisors and tried to get a glimpse of numbers being passed from the tables back to the transmission post whose agents would not even make eye contact. On occasion when we did get a glimpse, some of the numbers looked odd: Kabila at several hundred; Tshisekedi just a handful — with unusually high turnouts. The Commission began to release partial results. UDPS seemed puzzled. So were we. The results did not reflect what we had seen. Could we accidentally have picked a skewed sampling?
Then by pure chance a set of numbers caught the eyes of one of the observers as papers shuffled past the tabulation post. He quickly scribbled them down. This was the center which had been attacked, therefore the last one to close. Several observers had gone back to write down final results posted outside. So had we. It seemed we all matched each other, but not with the compilation center. According to my notes, no station had more than 200 voters at that site, yet the final tabulated numbers reflected a range of 600-800 with Kabila scoring over 90%.
*** *** ***
Grand Hotel Kinshasa was in a festive mood the night Kabila’s victory was announced. The Congolese elite wearing new outfits in colorful Kabila prints danced and drummed throughout the hotel corridors. Bottles of champagne chilled at the Atrium café and couples pranced about the hallways wrapped in yellow PPRD capes and Kabila scarves. A woman wearing way too much make up and jewelry darted forward to kiss me as I passed her in the hallway — probably wishing to thank the internationals for making all this possible. Outside the hotel, adolescent boys wearing Kabila T-shirts and caps blowed vuvuselas and asked for money as hotel clients walked by. Later, around midnight, the crowd fought over provided transport for a ride home.
I left for Njili airport 6:00 AM, the following morning. Tens of thousands were making their long walks into town for another day’s livelihood and the stench of rotting garbage filled the air. Glimpses of the old rusted railroad flashed through the gaping holes of the crumbling walls running alongside the road. Riot police mobilized under ravaged billboards of Joseph Kabila; and ripped up remains of what used to be “Rais Na 100%” curled up in the humidity.
It seems this part of town did not celebrate the night before.
*** *** ***