The Catholic church overcame internal divisions this week in the national assembly of their episcopal conference (CENCO) to fiercely denounce the elections. In a message entitled “The Congolese people are hungry and thirsty for justice and peace,” the CENCO came out with its firmest denunciation of the electoral process yet. Saying that the elections had been “marred by serious irregularities that call into question the published results,” and “what is currently happening with regard to the compilation of legislative results is unacceptable,” CENCO concluded that “one does not build a state of law in a culture of cheating, lies and terror, of militarization and flagrant attacks on the freedom of expression.”
While Cardinal Monsengwo, the head of the Catholic church in the Congo, had previously made critical remarks, other members of the Catholic clergy were said to be more reticent to oppose the government. This joint statement is an important step for the church, which is very influential in Congolese society. While the previous Cardinal Etsou had also been critical of the 2006 elections, the church had been much less united in its opposition then. The church’s stance, along with the numerous local NGOs that have said the elections are not credible – Voix des Sans Voix, Toges Noires, Linelit, Ligue des Electeurs, and others – may augur a more confrontational relation between the government and civil society. Nonetheless, some Congolese media suggested that the statement could have been much more severe, as the bishops did not ask for the government to resign or for a national unity government. (They did ask for the CENI to resign if it was unable to correct its mistakes). Nor did they ask, as some bishops close to Monsengwo had before, for the population to protest the elections.
The church’s statement is in contrast with what the Congo’s international partners have said. While France, Belgium, the EU, the United Kingdom and the United States all expressed varying degrees of concern and criticism after the deep flaws in the polls became obvious, major donors have since been relatively quiet. One notable exception has been Belgium, whose new prime minister recently sent a letter of congratulations to President Kabila. He said: “As I take up my position as prime minister, I would like to congratulate the Congolese people for holding elections that brought you back to the post of President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.” The letter was criticized by some in the opposition in Belgium as a “diplomatic gaffe,” and Foreign Minister Didier Reynders had maintained that he will wait until the legislative elections (the results of which have been postponed to January 26) have played themselves out.
While American policy-makers have been more vociferous in their condemnation of the elections, internal rifts have appeared there, as well. In December, US Senators Coons and Isakson called for a transparent review of the elections, while Secretary of State Clinton said she was “deeply disappointed” in the Supreme Court’s failure to evaluate the allegations of irregularities.
Will these policy-makers walk the talk? Denouncing the elections is one thing, taking concrete steps another. There are many governments around the world that hold seriously flawed elections and that continue to have cordial and financially beneficial relations with donors – Ethiopia, pre-revolution Egypt, Rwanda, etc. It will be interesting to see what impact the electoral fallout will have on donor aid.