Paul Turner, the author of the following article, serves in Congo as a Consultant in the development projects of the Church of Christ of Congo’s Disciples of Christ Community. His latest message reports on progress in preparations for a presidential election in Congo before the end of this year. His title “Give Us the Ballot” refers to the 1957 speech by Rev. Martin Luther King at the Lincoln Memorial which focused on voting rights for all citizens of the United States.
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On December 19th, DR Congo witnessed large protests in several major cities such as Kinshasa, Lubumbashi and Goma, in response to the opposition’s call for demonstrations against President Kabila’s refusal to relinquish power. Police and military personnel were well-organized and out in force. The government went so far as to shut down social media throughout the country to slow the opposition’s ability to organize and share information concerning the number of arrests and detainees.
In the midst of this tense situation Catholic Church Bishops began facilitating negotiations between the government and opposition groups. An agreement was reached whereby President Kabila would leave office at the end of 2017 following elections, and there would be no attempt to change the constitution to allow for a third term. This agreement was a welcomed development because it kept the peace and solidified the importance of holding elections in 2017.
There is another piece of the story that has not been widely reported. At the same time protests were happening throughout the country, Congolese were also signing up to register to vote and receive their voter identification cards. Perhaps this was another form of protest expressing the people’s eagerness for democracy and elections. It was an encouraging sight to see men and women lining up to receive new voter ID cards at Nouvelle Cite Parish. In fact, five churches affiliated with the Community of Disciples of Christ in Congo (CDCC) are hosting National Independent Electoral Commission (CENI) Enrollment Centers. Rev. Eliki Bonanga, President of CDCC, was asked why the CDCC partnered with CENI to help boost enrollments, he said, “it is our will and hope that people will register and participate in elections so that government will one day respond to the people’s needs.” He also mentioned that the church is a member of civil society and must do its part to secure a hopeful future in DR Congo.
The CENI Enrollment Centers are not operated by the government. As the name implies, it is an independent institution designed to be an objective agent in the electoral process. A recent visit to one CENI Center in Mbandaka revealed that this particular enrollment center had distributed 200 new voter ID cards in the first two weeks. Half of the folks coming through were issued voter ID cards for the first time, suggesting these would be new voters who didn’t participate in the last election in 2011. The other half were older people seeking to replace their old and worn voter ID cards because they are used for identification in the same way a driver’s license is used in the US. The enrollments will continue through March and end around the second week of April. This time frame suggests that elections could take place by the end of the year.
Pro-democracy advocacy is a key strategy for establishing the long-term benefits of good governance, anti-corruption and full citizen participation. In the past few weeks Congolese were making sure their voices were being heard in the streets and at the enrollment centers as they walked away with new voter identification cards. When Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “Give Us the Ballot” speech, he was addressing voting rights and the suppression of the vote in the American South. Yet, the same sentiment of empowerment that comes from exercising the franchise of voting ring true in DR Congo.