Felix Tshisekedi, leader of Congo’s Union for Democracy and Social Progress, was announced as the winner of the presidential election. CNS photo/Baz Ratner, Reuters

African bishops, Canada’s D&P charge Congo election results of ‘monumental cheating’

  • January 17, 2019

Who really won the election in Congo matters immensely to the Congolese people, but it also matters to Canada’s Catholic development agency, which spent the last three years helping ordinary Congolese get ready to vote.

“We created a team of 10,000 animators, who in the last two-and-a-half years reached more than 18 million Congolese in 800,000 local meetings,” explained Development and Peace Africa program manager Serge Blais.

Having prepared people for an honest, democratic vote, the gap between what Congo’s national bishops’ conference saw through its 40,000-plus election observers and the results reported by Congo’s election commission constitutes a huge disappointment for Blais.

“It’s really bad. It’s a huge deception. The numbers given by the national-they-say-independent election commission — those numbers are monumental cheating,” he said.

After a week of delays, Congo’s election commission reported that Felix Tshisekedi of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress party won with 38.5 per cent of votes cast. The Congolese bishops have not publicly stated who did win, but did say Tshisekedi is not a legitimate winner.

“We find that the results of the presidential election as published by the CENI (electoral commission) do not correspond to the data collected by our observation mission,” said a statement from the bishops Jan. 10, the day after the result was announced. “We urge everyone to show civic maturity and especially to avoid any recourse to violence.” 

The bishops’ understanding of the results was confirmed by “all major observation missions, including from the African Union,” Reuters news agency said Jan. 10, quoting unnamed diplomats.

Development and Peace, along with other Catholic development agencies, helped Congo’s bishops organize their immense observer mission and the 10,000 volunteers who taught people about their democratic rights in villages and urban neighbourhoods across a country of 2.3 million square kilometres.

“It’s important to speak about the courage of the Congolese bishops. Doing what they do, they are with the poor. They are really involved,” said Blais. “They put themselves in dangerous situations and they have the courage to do that.”

With that courage comes credibility, said UK-based Congo expert Anneke Van Woudenberg, executive director of Rights and Accountability in Development.

“The Catholic Church is an incredibly important force in Congo,” Van Woudenberg told The Catholic Register. “If anything, they are indeed the opposition to the regime (of outgoing president Joseph Kabila). Now, I wouldn’t call them a political opposition. I think they have very much tried to stay away from some of the politics. But inevitably they get dragged into it time and again. They play this crucial role of being observers, alternate voices, truth-tellers in a country where the truth is hard to find.”

From social services to health care to running a fair election, Congo’s bishops have been forced into roles that government should play, said Canadian Congolese emigre Marcellin Kwilu Mondo, who was once a youth leader in Tshisekedi’s UDPS, back when the party was led by Tshisekedi’s father, Etienne.

Kwilu Mondo has now turned his back on his old party, claiming the son turned his father’s political party into a hollowed-out vehicle for his personal ambition.

“They (the bishops) are the only ones helping the people. They are in a better position than anybody to recall the truth of what the Congolese people did at the polls,” said Kwilu Mondo, who serves on the parish council at Toronto’s African Catholic Community. “I don’t see my Catholic Church giving up this hard task of moving the country forward.”

But Kwilu Mondo doesn’t think the bishops’ warning against violence will necessarily be heeded.

“Yes, I’m worried,” he said.

Kwilu Mondo’s best guess is that outgoing strongman Kabila has made a deal with Tshisekedi that will allow the opposition leader to be president while Kabila remains in control of key institutions behind the scenes. It’s not ideal for Kabila, whose own candidate to succeed him was so roundly rejected he couldn’t even pretend to have won. But a deal with Tshisekedi is better for Kabila than presumed winner Martin Fayulu, who rejects Kabila and his collaborators outright. 

If there is a deal between Tshisekedi and Kabila, it will leave ordinary Congolese in extreme poverty living in one of the richest countries in the world, Kwilu Mondo said. Despite its vast mineral wealth, the DRC remains number 176 out of 187 countries on the United Nations’ Human Development Index.

Amid calls for a recount from other African countries, a proposal for a negotiated unity government from the southern African regional group known as Sadc, and a legal challenge to the official results by Fayulu, who insists he really won, Van Woudenberg believes the bishops’ 800,000 community meetings and three years of voter education was not wasted.

“For Congo, this is a moment where we’ve seen the philanthropic and aid money that has been going to civil society groups, of which I would include the Church as one, as having been money well spent. If there’s anything that this election teaches us, it is that that support of civil society is absolutely critical to stopping tyrants,” she said. 

Because of Church-sponsored aid, the Democratic Republic of Congo is finally developing a democratic culture. 

“A president who was attempting to cling to power by hook and by crook, by violence and intimidation, failed,” said Van Woudenberg. “President Kabila failed because the Church and civil society and youth groups stood up against him. They couldn’t have done that without many years of civic education and support and ideas and training by a host of philanthropic and donor organizations. Of course the most important educator of that civic space and of civic duty is the Church. I would say it’s money well spent.”

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