Ahead of elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, experts explain what’s at stake


By Adam Twardowski

After a two-year delay, the people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) will head to the polls in December to elect a successor to long-time President Joseph Kabila. As experts discussed at an October 11 Africa Security Initiative event at Brookings, security remains at the forefront of the DRC’s many challenges, with 600,000 Congolese having been forced to flee to neighboring countries amidst protracted internal conflicts. Despite the country’s vast natural wealth, which is valued at $24 trillion by some estimates, poor governance, internal fighting, and external intervention have kept the vast majority of the DRC’s people in crushing poverty.
While there are deep concerns about whether December’s elections will be free and fair, the next administration will face an enormous slate of social, political, economic, and security challenges that will long outlive this election cycle. These are the dynamics, among others, that experts John Tomaszewski (regional director for Africa at the International Republican Institute), Emily Renard (senior policy advisor for Africa at Open Society Foundations), and Sasha Lezhnev (deputy director of policy at the Enough Project) discussed. Brookings Senior Fellow Michael O’Hanlon moderated the conversation.

Tomaszewski began by noting that parliamentary, presidential, and local elections are going to take place simultaneously, a considerable first-time feat in the DRC. With 40 million registered voters and thousands of new poll workers, the election is a daunting logistical challenge. O’Hanlon asked Tomaszewski about the risk of electoral fraud, to which he said that new electoral technologies can certainly elevate the risk of fraud if there are not sufficient outside election observers to monitor the integrity of the process. Tomaszewski noted that out of 25 candidates, the opposition has been trying to coalesce around two or three individuals, while expressing concern that the process by which some candidates were excluded from running was not transparent or fair.

Lezhnev—asked how he assesses the likelihood of a free and fair election in the DRC—discussed the extensive corruption of President Kabila’s family, senior advisors, and international financial facilitators, explaining how this permeates the political landscape in the DRC. With the Kabila family trying to protect their financial interests, Lezhnev said that the West should not respond to the challenge of corruption and the risk of rigged elections by focusing on things that it cares least about—such as reducing foreign aid—but rather on things that the Kabila family actually cares about, namely the security of its financial interests.

Lezhnev recommended that the United States strengthen existing sanctions on corrupt officials and focus on networks of companies and financial advisors, rather than single corrupt actors. He also noted that U.S. anti-money laundering efforts against the Kabila family would have a strong impact on their internal political calculations. He noted that if the United States and Europe can enact such financial pressure now, that can have a positive impact on the elections by changing Kabila’s calculations of how much he would stand to lose financially if the government does not make the process free and fair. Asked about how the regime could skew this December’s election results, Lezhnev said that voting machines have been shown to have major security vulnerabilities, and with reports of candidate intimidation and voter suppression efforts, the risk of an unfair election is significant.

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