Media & Foreign Policy policy report
drc's elections and movement towards peace journalism
The Democratic Republic of Congo has never had a peaceful transition of power. In the early 1900s, the Belgian state annexed Congo with millions of Congolese said to have been killed or worked to death during King Leopold’s control of the territory. In 1959, Belgium began to lose control over events in the Congo following serious nationalist riots in Leopoldville (now Kinshasa). Shortly thereafter, DRC’s first democratically elected leader, Patrice Lumumba, was assassinated in 1961, one year after the country gained independence from Belgium. Following Lumumba’s CIA-backed assassination, President Mobutu Sese Seko ruled until Laurent-Desire Kabila forced him out in 1997. In turn, after Kabila’s assassination in 2001, his son, Joseph Kabila began rule. Al Jazeera reports that Joseph Kabila was declared the winner of elections in 2006 and 2011, but both polls were marred by violence and opposition allegations of widespread fraud.
On December 30, the DRC voted in only its third presidential election in history—and the first in which an incumbent president, Joseph Kabila, had promised to step down before the vote took place. Meanwhile, the U.S. and other donors have focused resources on stabilizing the DRC since the early 2000s, when “Africa’s World War,” a conflict that drew in multiple neighboring countries and reportedly caused millions of deaths, drew to a close. Although DRC hosts the world’s largest U.N. peacekeeping operation and is a major recipient of donor aid, conflict has nonetheless persisted, especially in eastern DRC. Likewise, unrest erupted during the recent elections with security forces brutally cracking down on protests and new conflicts emerge in previously stable regions.
However starting in early 2015, DRC President Kabila expressed an interest in amending his nation’s constitution to eliminate the two-term limit on the head of state, stimulating demonstrations and ceasing discussion about changing the constitution. Yet, Kabila managed to remain in power. The presidential election scheduled for November 2016 received no funding, effectively cancelling it. Of course, the DRC Constitutional Court ruled that in the absence of an election, the President remains in power until an election can be organized. In response to general discontent, Kabila held a number of “consultations” coordinated by the Conference of Catholic Bishops (CENCO) during 2017 and early 2018. The consultations were constructive but they basically served to delay elections and maintain Kabila in power.
The growing instability caused by Kabila’s refusal to consider relinquishing power caused the international community to intervene. Most importantly, U.S. United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley visited Kabila in September 2017, and persuaded him to pledge to organize an election prior to the end of 2018, and to pledge that he himself would not be a candidate. Kabila’s decision constituted a “successful diplomatic action by the U.S. government,” according to the Council on Foreign Relations’ Africa Program.
Likewise, Kabila kept his pledge to Ambassador Haley, but he did it in such a way as to try to maintain himself in power through a “surrogate,” as said by CFR. For the 2018 presidential election, Kabila named Ramazani Shadary as his “heir”. During the election campaign, Shedari was one of three principal candidates. The other two were opposition candidates Martin Fayulu and Felix Tshisekedi. With the regards to historical presidential elections in DRC, most observers expected the vote count to be fraudulently manipulated to give Kabila’s “heir” the victory. However, the authentic election count gave so few votes to Shadary, that Kabila could not possibly get away with declaring him the winner.
In the first twenty-four hours after the election, with so many conflicting claims as to the real winner, the African Union, the Southern Africa Development Community, and the European Union requested that the DRC Government not announce the winner, and instead initiate a recount. The DRC ignored these requests, and the Constitutional Council went ahead and declared Felix Tshisekedi the new head of state. Although the United States did not comment until after the Constitutional Court declared Tshisekedi to be President, the official announcement did in fact congratulate the Congolese people for their peaceful election. The U.S. State Department welcomed opposition figure Felix Tshisekedi's victory in DRC's December 2018 presidential election, applauding the Congolese people "for their insistence on a peaceful and democratic transfer of power.” Election day, largely peaceful, left many Congolese reacting positively to the results.
Whether the election was "democratic" is debatable, however, it has been argued in news media that as is the degree to which Tshisekedi's presidency represents a "transfer of power." These factors, along with evidence that a more hardline opposition figure won more votes than Tshisekedi, have led many observers to speculate that the official election results reflected a power-sharing deal between Tshisekedi and Kabila.
Attention has now turned to gauging President Tshisekedi's performance in office and the extent of his independence, especially since the challenges facing DRC are stark. The country is rich in minerals, forest resources, freshwater, and agricultural potential, but most Congolese live in poverty. Prior to the 2016-2018 standstill over the elections delay and Kabila's political future, international attention toward DRC was overwhelmingly focused on addressing long-running conflicts in the east and supporting the extension of state authority. Security threats, political uncertainty, "endemic corruption," poor infrastructure, and unpredictable regulatory enforcement have contributed to a poor business climate. Ahead of a visit by Tshisekedi to Washington, DC in April 2019, the State Department pledged to work with the new president "to advance his agenda to combat corruption, strengthen the rule of law, enhance security, protect human rights and promote economic growth through increased foreign investment and trade, particularly with the United States."
Ongoing conflict and humanitarian suffering in eastern DRC reflect and contribute to regional instability. Neighboring countries such as Rwanda and Uganda have periodically backed Congolese rebel proxies, and the security vacuum has drawn in foreign-origin militias. There were 4.5 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in DRC as of late 2017 (latest U.N. figure available), one of the highest numbers in the world, while another 825,000 Congolese are refugees in neighboring countries. About 12.8 million people (15% of the country's estimated population) were reportedly in "dire need of assistance" as of late 2018.
Ranked 176 out of 189 countries on the 2018 U.N. Human Development Index, DRC’s per capita gross domestic product (GDP) stood at $449 in 2018, among the world's lowest. Industrial mining—particularly of copper and cobalt—is the mainstay of DRC's formal economy, although much of the population is engaged in informal economic activity (including widespread small-scale artisanal mining).
How the Media Can Improve
In an interview with Grant T. Harris, former senior director for Africa in the White House under President Obama and current CEO of Harris Africa Partners LLC, said Western media focuses on humanitarian disasters and conflict when it comes to African coverage.
“Beyond such platitudes, though, I am not sure what else to add of value. A compounding problem is that Americans don’t learn much about Africa in schools growing up, so it all seems nebulous and far off, and then the void gets filled with stereotypes from limited media coverage,” Harris said.
According to Harris, unfamiliarity and misperceptions make pernicious bedfellows. As a result, many U.S. investors conclude that the cost of gaining sufficient understanding of African markets outweighs any potential investment prospects, especially since good returns can be made in other, more familiar places.
Likewise, Jonathan Gass, Assistant Director, at the Africa Center of the Atlantic Council said, “Africa has generally ranked near the bottom of US foreign policy priorities. Historically, two-term presidents have waited until their second term to establish their legacies on the continent, and many one-term presidents have neglected it altogether.”
However, in December 2018, US National Security Advisor John Bolton unveiled a formal strategy for Africa. The document was originally slated for public release but has subsequently been classified, meaning that many details of the strategy will remain hidden from public view. Nevertheless, Bolton’s comments provide some welcome insight into the Trump administration’s philosophy on Africa and establish several benchmarks against which the administration’s practices can be assessed.
On top of DRC, several other countries including Zimbabwe, Mali, and Cameroon, hold crucial elections within the past year. Some of the polls were likely to be marked by protests as well as clampdowns on dissenting voices as well as the news media and internet access. All this amid the spread of “fake news.” Furthermore, it’s important to consider the role of the media in this heady mix. Likewise, a great deal of attention has been paid to the role of the media in instigating, maintaining, and exacerbating violence through their news coverage. War and conflict sell and make the headlines.
With regards to ways in which media can go about covering issues differently, it is often discussed how it can play a role in creating peaceful and non-violent elections. Research shows that journalists are well aware of the pitfalls of playing up conflict at the detriment of conflict resolution. Peace journalism has been highlighted as such an alternative model because it emphasizes conflict resolution, analysis of the underlying causes of conflict, the use of alternative news sources, and the use of language that does not emphasize or play up conflict. At the token, peace journalism has also been criticized for being too philosophical and idealistic. In some instances critics have likened it to “sunshine journalism.” Foremost, it’s the model’s practical application and implementation that has been queried.
Research among journalists shows that they are well aware of the many pitfalls of covering conflict but they also argue that it’s not their role to act as “peacemakers.” That said, there is agreement that journalism practices could be changed to reflect alternative views, thus showing that consensus or common ground can exist, even between two warring or opposing factions. It seems peace journalism provides a good model for reflection and for training journalists to be more sensitive when reporting on conflict.