Cracks in the new democracy
Despite efforts to restore peace, the Congo has struggled with armed conflict since 1996. Millions of civilians have died as a result of the violence and the ensuing humanitarian crises. Conflict persists in the eastern part of the country, where over 70 armed groups are active and 1.7 million people are displaced.
A 2002 peace agreement helped unify the country and produce new democratic institutions — a constitution, national and provincial parliaments, an independent judiciary and a president with a term limit of two five-year terms.
Kabila has been in power since 2001 and was elected in 2006 and again in 2011 by popular vote. The constitution requires Kabila to step down on Dec. 19, 2016, although the constitutional court has issued a controversial decision allowing him to stay in power until elections are held.
Under a new deal with a fringe of the opposition, elections are now scheduled for April 2018. A strong alliance of civil society, opposition parties and Western donors is pressuring Kabila to step down at the end of the year — and to not change the constitution in order to run for a third term. The United Nations and other observers are worried that this standoff could result in a further destabilization of the country and the erosion of its young institutions.
What does this poll tell us about the Congo?
Against this backdrop, we wanted to see what citizens feel about the current impasse. Conducting a face-to-face opinion poll of 7,525 people was a considerable challenge. Our team crisscrossed the country for four months, on foot as well as via bicycles, motorbikes, airplanes, four-wheel-drive vehicles and canoes.
The poll results reveal a deeply engaged Congolese electorate but also point to the potential for persistent turmoil in coming months. Key findings include:
1. Kabila has painted himself into a corner. Eighty-one percent of respondents reject changing the constitution to allow him to run for a third term. Respondents were also tired of the stalling tactics, with 74 percent stating that Kabila should step down at the end of 2016, regardless of whether elections were held by then. In the Congo, where political power is the hub of wealth, status and influence, it is almost inconceivable that Kabila will chose this option.
2. Kabila will have a hard time picking a successor. Our survey, conducted when elections were scheduled for November, revealed that less than 8 percent would vote for Kabila. Less than 3 percent of respondents would back his wife, Olive Lembe, and Kabila allies also fared poorly in our poll. Moise Katumbi, the charismatic former governor of Katanga province and owner of the successful soccer team TP Mazembe — it just won Africa’s club championship — was at the top of a fragmented field with one-third of the poll vote, followed by veteran opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi with 18 percent.
3. There is dissatisfaction with the status quo. Instead of ethnic loyalty, an anti-incumbency impetus shows up in the polling figures, much as in previous elections. Kabila would get only around 8 percent of the vote in his ethnic homeland of northern Katanga, while 37 percent support Katumbi in the north of the country, an area where he has no personal or ethnic ties.
This suggests that for now citizens are more interested in accountability than the ethnic politics and political patronage that has maintained leaders in power in some African countries. A possible explanation is that discontent with the economy and security — only 15 percent say they are better off than five years ago, and 17 percent say they are safer — is so widespread that handouts and appeals to ethnicity do not dominate political opinion.
4. The Congo may be heading for further turmoil. We asked respondents whether they had participated in a protest march, strike or demonstration over the past five years — about 8 percent said they had. While that figure seems modest, it suggests that several million people participated in some form of protest. But if Kabila does not resign or elections are not held, nearly half of our survey respondents said they would join protests.
There is some good news here
In general, this opinion poll portrays a sophisticated Congolese electorate in which class, education, religion and gender have little impact on how respondents viewed the constitution, elections or most other issues of national importance, including who governs next. A poor, uneducated farmer in the remote bush feels broadly the same about the major challenges facing the country as an affluent city-dweller.
Our poll also confirms trends documented by other polls in Africa, suggesting that while citizens are not satisfied how democracy works in practice, there is an increasing demand for democracy. Respondents in our poll said elections were at least as important as security or development issues — an astounding result given the high levels of poverty and violence in parts of the country.
These results provide hope for the long-term. Contrary to stereotypes, this is not a population shackled by ethnic prejudice and beholden to local strongmen. Rather, we find a well-informed public deeply attached to their constitution and the young Congolese democracy.
Jason Stearns is the director of the Congo Research Group at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and author of “Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa.”
Herbert Weiss is professor emeritus at the City University of New York.
Francesca Bomboko is the director of the Bureau d’Études pour les Recherches et Consulting International (BERCI) in Kinshasa.