Congo Wanted an Election. This Isn’t What It Meant.

The country will vote for a new government, and then brace for a violent aftermath.

Michée Yolona Selenga of the Independent National Electoral Commission tests an electronic voting machine during a voter information session in Mbenzale near Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, on Aug. 21. (Holly Pickett for Foreign Policy)
Michée Yolona Selenga of the Independent National Electoral Commission tests an electronic voting machine during a voter information session in Mbenzale near Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, on Aug. 21. (Holly Pickett for Foreign Policy)

MBENZALE, Democratic Republic of the Congo—The road that stretches through Mbenzale is unusual for this country: Not only is it paved, but it’s smooth, not a pothole in sight. The village has the good fortune of lying along the route from the capital to President Joseph Kabila’s personal ranch. But the benefits of this location don’t extend to reliable electricity, so when election commission officials arrived in August on the wide, flat road for a demonstration of the voting machines set to be used in Congo’s upcoming election, they also brought another crucial piece of equipment: a generator.

Residents waited in red, yellow, and blue plastic chairs arranged in a semicircle under a sprawling mango tree. An electrical extension cord snaked through the sand from the generator to a plastic table where the officials placed the voting machine, a large-screened tablet propped up on a stand. Unripe mangos dangled overhead. The crowd watched intently as an official called up a volunteer to demonstrate the voting process. They waited as the machine malfunctioned and had to be restarted.

Finally, the man fed his paper ballot into a slot in the tablet, and a series of options appeared on the screen: provincial assembly, national assembly, and presidential candidates. He touched the image of his preferred candidate for each race, and the tablet spit out his marked ballot, which he deposited into a waist-high transparent plastic bin. As more would-be voters stepped up to try the machine, the election official reassured them that the machine was a safe way to vote. It was basically just a printer, he told them. But a din grew, and soon the crowd drowned him out with shouts. “We don’t want this machine! It’s a trick! Trick! Take it away! You’re thieves!”

The upcoming election, which on Thursday was pushed back again until at least Dec. 30, is theoretically a historic opportunity: since 1960, when Congo earned its independence from Belgium, the country has never transferred power through peaceful or democratic means. For the first time since, the country’s ruler is holding a vote in which he is not a candidate and has pledged to step aside for the winner. But there are deep doubts about the election’s credibility. Kabila, who accrued vast wealth during nearly 18 years in power, handpicked his former interior minister Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary as his preferred successor. Last week he invited a succession of journalists to his ranch and told them he might run for president again in 2023, raising suspicion he was planning to use Ramazani as a placeholder to circumvent term limits.The postponement—the electoral commission said it needed more time to print ballot papers—immediately enraged the opposition and ratcheted up the tension. There are broad indications of an uneven playing field: problems with the voter rolls, disqualified candidates, and attacks on opposition campaign events. And many are concerned by the sudden introduction of voting machines. As in Mbenzale, Congolese citizens across the country worry the tablets will be used to rig the vote, ensuring Ramazani’s victory and the continuation of Kabila’s regime.

That virtually guarantees a contested result, which risks unleashing wider conflict in a country where millions are already suffering from violence. Congo’s citizens have spent years demanding an election, but the upcoming vote is not what they asked for.

Pascal Maloji Bunyengu of the Independent National Electoral Commission describes the correct way to feed a paper ballot into an electronic voting machine during a voter information session in Mbenzale near Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, on Aug. 21. (Holly Pickett for Foreign Policy)

When Kabila became president in 2001, he was just 29 years old. His father, a rebel leader who seized power from the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, had just been assassinated amid a war involving multiple neighboring countries and rebel groups that killed millions. The younger Kabila was inexperienced, but there was hope Congo might have finally been headed toward stability and democracy. A peace agreement led to a transitional government, a new constitution, and, in 2006, an election. Kabila won after a runoff, and the vote was seen as largely credible despite some problems. Before the next election in 2011, the constitution was amended to eliminate runoffs in the presidential race. That vote was marred by fraud, giving Kabila a second term but eroding his legitimacy. At the end of his second term in 2016, he refused to respect constitutional term limits, delayed the election, and remained in office. In the face of widespread protests and international pressure, he announced in August he would step down.

Under his rule, Congo’s 80 million citizens continued to be some of the poorest in the world while politicians and the elite profited from Congo’s vast mineral wealth. Conflict also dragged on, with dozens of rebel groups fighting over resources, control, and local and national grievances, creating humanitarian crises and worsening an Ebola outbreak in the east. And Kabila cracked down on dissent, arresting protesters and imprisoning political activists. A poll conducted by New York University’s Congo Research Group in April showed the president’s deep unpopularity: 80 percent of respondents had a negative view of Kabila, and nearly 70 percent said they did not expect the election to be fair.

“I think the push for elections now, by hook or by crook, is really aimed at that legitimacy question,” said Tatiana Carayannis, the director of the Social Science Research Council’s Understanding Violent Conflict program and a longtime scholar on Congo. “I think that’s important for the government to be able to say they had elections and if Shadary wins, which most observers believe that would be the case, that he won not by the imposition of force, but by an electoral process.” But for many Congolese, she said, “the election won’t be credible or seen as legitimate unless an opposition candidate wins.”

Preparations for the election have been problematic from the very beginning. The body overseeing the vote, the Independent National Electoral Commission, is not impartial despite its name. An audit of the voter roll by the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie found more than 6 million registered voters had no fingerprints on file. Some international observers, including from the European Union and the Carter Center, were refused accreditation. The electoral commission declined an offer of logistical help from the United Nations mission in Congo, MONUSCO, despite the significant challenges of holding a vote in a vast country with little infrastructure. Two popular opposition figures were barred from becoming candidates, and since campaigning began, security forces have forcibly dispersed opposition campaign rallies, killing seven people, wounding 50, and arbitrarily detaining dozens more last week, according to Human Rights Watch.

The voting machines, which have never before been used in Congo, are perhaps the defining complaint. The government paints the tablets as a way to avoid unwieldy paper ballots in a country with more than 400 political parties. Some ballots in the past have included hundreds of candidates. But, apart from the logistical issues of deploying electronic machines in a country where many communities have unreliable electricity, many Congolese have never used a computer or a touch screen. Denis Kadima, the executive director of the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa, said the responsible introduction of such technology in an electoral process “needs a lot of confidence-building measures.” Ideally the machines would be first tested on a smaller scale during a by-election, feedback would be used to improve the next implementation, and all of this would take place over at least two electoral cycles—a decade. “Here they introduced it very suddenly. People don’t want it, and all the measures of transparency and accountability have been completely ignored,” he said.

His organization studied the machines and made a raft of recommendations for improving their use. “No one knows if they have been taken into account,” he said. “The software has not been inspected by anyone, which is a huge issue. And the server, no one knows where it is. … The procurement was not done in a transparent manner.” The commission has sought to allay fears by pointing out that paper ballots will still be used and counted. But Kadima said the machines themselves can tabulate votes, and if the commission relies on those tallies—or if there is a discrepancy between the electronic tallies and manual counts—it could lead to chaos. “So transparency is key here, and the credibility is not there,” he said.

The voters in Mbenzale were proof of that. The electoral commission official who led the demonstration, Michée Yolona Selenga, blamed the angry reaction on “enemies of the nation” who were manipulating the population, and incomprehension of technology. “I think it’s just about ignorance,” he said. “They don’t know exactly what’s going on. So they forget the world is going, technology is advancing.”

Guy Songo, a mechanic who watched the demonstration, may not have experience with computers, but his lack of trust did not lie with the machines themselves. He brought up the suspicious voter roll entries. “I think they are planning some tricky things,” he said. “What’s the need of this machine? Why did they bring it? I won’t vote if they use this machine. For me, no. It won’t be credible.”

Nearby, Chemina Nzuzi sat on the roots of the mango tree, holding her two young children. She was unsure about the machine, and the vote. What she is sure of is that life hasn’t gotten better in Mbenzale. “There’s no market here, no electricity, no water,” she said. “I would like things to change after the election.”

Despite the numerous problems with the election, the opposition is forging ahead. Two major opposition candidates are running against Ramazani, after an agreement to unite behind one candidate quickly fell apart. If the vote is seen as fraudulent, both the opposition parties and the peaceful pro-democracy movements that pushed Kabila to step down are certain to protest. What is less certain is what will come after that. Some Western embassies have ordered nonessential staff to leave the country ahead of the vote in anticipation of violence. In 2006, followers of former rebel leader-turned presidential candidate Jean-Pierre Bemba (who was barred from running this year) fought with security forces in Kinshasa after he lost the race to Kabila. Political instability could throw fuel on the flames of long-running insurgencies, particularly in eastern Congo, where government control is weak and where war raged from 1998 to 2003. Carayannis of the Social Science Research Council worries that faith in nonviolent protest as a means for change is waning, and that an illegitimate election could boost popular support for armed insurrection.

“What’s interesting is that even though … most Congolese see the election as being rigged, the push to go to elections, and all of the campaigning that you’re seeing, really shows you that the Congolese population also sees these elections as sort of their last hope for peaceful change,” Carayannis said. “So you’ve got this duality, both of not having faith that these elections will be free and fair, but really putting all one’s hopes on the election for peaceful change.” That could prove to be a combustible combination.

The International Women’s Media Foundation supported the reporting and photography for this story as part of its African Great Lakes Reporting Initiative. 

Kristen Chick is a journalist based in the United Kingdom. She writes about human rights, migration, and the effects of conflict on women.