Friday, July 14, 2006

Below is an overly simplistic synopsis of the social and political situation in the Congo and context for the project I am working on. I am sure I’m doing more harm than help by simplifying, but as I learn more, I will do my best to color the picture with the shades of gray that make up this complex situation, and try not to overwhelm you - or me - in the process. My personal learning process will be, like FEWER’s analyst Jean-Marie calls the situation in Congo, an evolution.

Two successive wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – the first in1996, and the second in 1998 - have claimed more lives than any other conflict since the Second World War. More than three and a half million people have died from massacres, disease and starvation directly linked to fighting. Hundreds of thousands of people have starved to death because they were afraid to leave their homes. Women have been disproportionately affected by the war. A 2004 study concluded that over 40,000 women have been raped in the Eastern region of the country alone. Though the wars have been officially been stopped through a negotiated peace, conflict continues, especially in the East.

What caused the situation? Here’s where it gets complicated. We could point all the way back to_____, to colonialism, the imposition of foreign interest on groups of people. We could analyze it through the lens of legacy of the Mobutu dictatorship (dates?) in which a single person acted on an entire population and served only the interest foreign nations and ultimately his own. We could look at the influx of refugees from the Rwandan genocide and the wars leading up to that date back to the late 1950’s – refugees from Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi – and the pressures put on them to struggle for economic, social and political power. In this case, power literally meaning life. We could blame it on the international plundering of geological wealth in regions like Katanga, whose richness in copper, gold and especially colton (a rare mineral used in cell phone technology) made its land a target for the greedy and a minefield for inhabitants. And all of these causes would be correct. However, I am not going to try to repeat an analysis I myself am just trying to wrap my feeble, foreign mind around. Nor do I wish to skip ahead to the “so what can we do now” interpretation, as lunging for an overly simple conclusion leads to a overly simple solution – and that leads to one thing: the wrong one.

My answer at this point: I don’t pretend to understand the situation, let alone what caused it. I’m not from around here, and the press we get back home paints a picture of Congo using sporadic dots of black and red – and all it forms is a portrait of a never-ending, bloody mess. “Reportable” incidents are devoid of any context other than “as the ____ continues in the DRC…”
Maybe I’m exaggerating. But I don’t think I am. What I am is confused.
But I digress…

So. In July 2003, after five years of fighting, parties involved in the second war signed an agreement that distributed power in a transitional government and called for a new constitution and nationwide elections within two years. In May of 2005, a constitution was proposed by the council of ministers and the parliament and proposed for acceptance via a popular vote. The country’s first voter registration in nearly half a century was successful. It was, after all, the first time in most peoples lives that they felt they had an opportunity to be recognized as citizens of Congo. And as many of Congo’s inhabitants are refugees from neighboring countries, it was an opportunity for many to feel a sense of citizenship anywhere, ever.

Civil society groups were key in promoting the registration. Local groups were particularly successful in mobilizing women, who constitute 51 percent of the electorate. 70 percent of all registered voters turned out to vote on the proposed constitution. In December of 2005 it was accepted.

Which brings us to today. An estimated 28 million people have been registered to vote. There are 33 candidates for president and 9,000 candidates for 500 seats in parliament. The DRC will hold its first free and fair national elections in over 40 years on July 30, 2006. Local elections will be held soon thereafter.

The national elections are the most heavily funded election by the int’l community ever. Upwards of 422 million dollars have been put towards them, with the largest contributions coming from the European Union, the UN and the US. (Note: none of these funds have been allocated towards post-election support - and the feeling of some is that supporting nations feel that by enabling democratic elections that they are absolved of any responsibility to engage in the situation in the future.) A large percentage of these funds were put towards a voter registration that has been uniquely challenging due to lack of popular documentation, lack of infrastructure and lack of sense of personal agency amongst the public. The most recent census was performed over 20 years ago. There are hardly any birth certificates or other forms of identification. There are only 500 kilometers of paved roads in the entire country and vast areas have no telephones. In some areas, registration workers had to carry generators and computers for over 30 kilometers. A large percentage of the population is non-literate, making education and sensitization difficult.

For these same reasons, voting itself is tremendously challenging for much of DRC’s population. Many people will walk over 50 kilometers to reach a voting station. A lack of understanding around government, the democratic process and voting procedure itself prevents people from participating or feeling a sense of agency and inclusion. Furthermore, because of the country’s social and political history, people do not feel a sense that they have the power to make choices that contribute to their everyday life. This above all else is at the root of the challenge facing the DRC if it is to become a functioning democracy. Well, that and the fact that its hard to concern yourself with voting when you don’t have water…

Several different groups have made efforts to educate the population around civic engagement, including the DRC’s government (the Independent Electoral Commission, or IEC), the UN, and international and local non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Generally speaking, the IEC’s efforts have been regarded as biased and/or inadequate. The IEC has used major media channels to disseminate information. The state run media is supposed to provide balanced election coverage. However, most media are affiliated with or owned by politicians who favor the current president’s party. This is one of the reasons why the civic education efforts of NGOs are so important. (NOTE: See below an interview with the President of the IEC regarding civic education programs and local NGOs and community groups. Very ironic – as his comments about the problems with local groups prove the argument of why they are necessary…)

The organization that I am working with - FEWER - is one of these organizations. Working with local community groups in the Eastern region of DRC, FEWER developed a civic education program that involves distributing crank-powered radios and using peer to peer communication to enhance information distribution, ensure cultural relevancy, overcome barriers of non-literacy, and promote individual and community empowerment. FEWER is unique in its efforts in that it incorporates a thorough analysis of the social and political systems into its grassroots work. There is no easy “1-2-3, we are a democracy” in their efforts. Going back to my earlier comment, complex situations rarely lend themselves to simple solutions, so this makes their work more challenging - not to mention my own. But what I feel we must remember, what I must remember, is what Jean-Marie reminded me of today: though much of the population are not formally educated, are far smarter than I am about their own situation. They navigate the complexities and grey areas every time they step outside. So although FEWER’s approach might not be simple, it might not provide a simple solution, their work is relevant to the people that they serve.

There is no simple solution when the the situation is complex. This is not just the case in Congo. It's the same everywhere.


*****MONUC Interview with Independent Electoral Commission president Apollinaire Malu Malu:

Q: One of the findings of the IEC last week in relation to the voting process was that the majority of voters do not understand the voting procedures. How does this finding relate to the IEC’s public awareness campaign?

A: … We have confronted the problem of illiteracy. Everybody should know that even if we continue with this public awareness campaign all the time, we will still have problems. What further operations are we planning to do? All through the month of July, during the weeks to come, we will lead a large campaign on the voting procedures. We have advertising in place to explain, more or less everywhere, how one should vote. We have also demanded of the religious organizations to take a strong lead in this regard, and they have accepted. But we do not have a real budget for the electoral awareness campaign, and we can only work with the funds that we have at our disposal.

Why? Because certain members of civil society have demanded that they take control of the budget for public awareness and not the IEC. And our donors have accepted this. Simply put, the civil society elements do not understand that fundraising is not an easy matter. Even though there are deficiencies because of the lack of a budget for the public awareness campaign, I believe that we will still raise public electoral awareness to the highest possible level.


I’m going to keep an running list of sources in case anyone wants more info - I will list them periodically. Sorry not to provide more formal referencing, but in the interest of time, I’ll risk being called a plagerist.

Human Rights Watch, Democratic Republic of Congo: Elections in sight: “Don’t Rock the Boat”?, December 15, 2005.

Steve Crawshaw, London Director of Human Rights Watch, published in the Independent - Congo; Bringing Justice to the Heart of Darkness,

FEWER Africa, Civic Education in Ituri: National Elections and Local Accountability

FEWER Africa, Elections and Security in Ituri: Stumbling block and opportunities for peace in the Democratic Republic of Congo


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