What the Uproar Over Congo’s Elections Misses

The Local Roots of the Country’s Problems

Congolese soldiers on patrol in North Kivu, November 2013. Therese Di Campo / REUTERS

Over the past year, as the Democratic Republic of the Congo has descended into a political crisis, journalists, activists, foreign diplomats, and the leaders of international and nongovernmental organizations have focused mostly on the drama surrounding President Joseph Kabila’s attempts to cling to power by delaying elections.

This narrow political focus recalls the outside world’s approach to Congo the last times the country prepared for general elections, in 2006 and 2011. Now, as then, the preoccupation with elections distracts from the issues whose resolutions are most likely to lead to peace: the poverty, unemployment, corruption, criminality, and poor access to land, justice, and education that are at the root of Congo’s long-standing violence.

Bringing peace and prosperity to Congo will require a change in attitude, away from the crisis in Kinshasa and toward the local actors who have the power to address the deeper sources of the country's troubles.

Supporters of Congolese President Joseph Kabila carry his portrait during a rally in Kinshasa, July 2016. Kenny Katombe / REUTERS


Free and fair elections are relatively new to Congo. The country held its first-ever democratic elections in 2006, in a contest that led to a runoff vote and violence in Kinshasa. Congolese citizens voted again in 2011, but accusations of fraud marred the process. Both times, Kabila and his party took the majority of the votes.

The general elections scheduled for 2016 could have been different. To start, the constitution barred Kabila from running for a third term. More important, Congolese people have been so disappointed with the performance of their president that, according to one of the only reliable opinion polls available, they were preparing to vote for his political opponents.

But the elections have yet to take place. The government has rescheduled them several times under various pretexts. Kabila's attempts to stay in power generated massive protests in September—and, to a lesser extent, in the following months—which the government violently suppressed. Opposition figures and grassroots activists were harassed, threatened, and, at times, arrested, tortured, and killed. Ordinary people have become wary of discussing elections. When I was in Congo last

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