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Democratic Republic of the Congo: Presidential Elections

Volume 651: debated on Tuesday 18 December 2018

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mike Freer.)

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is scheduled to hold a presidential election in only five days’ time, on 23 December. This historic election could see the country’s first-ever democratic transfer of power, or bring further instability and violence to a country riven with human tragedy and despair. It is essential that this House and the Government send the strongest possible message today that we will settle for nothing less than a free and fair election, and that working with our international allies we will take punitive action against the regime should they attempt to steal the election. Conversely, as the DRC’s second largest bilateral donor, in the event of a free and fair election, we stand ready to support a new democratically elected President to face up to the mammoth challenges that lie ahead.

The country will only move forward with new leadership committed to a vision rooted in economic growth and poverty reduction. That will only be possible with better governance and a plan to end horrendous levels of violence and endemic corruption.

How will this election affect the endemic corruption in the DRC, which is even worse than in Nigeria where I am a trade envoy, and how will it deal with the 2.7 million internally displaced people?

I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman’s concerns. The international community has poured billions of pounds into the DRC over many, many years. Until the leadership of that country changes so that it is transparent, open and accountable to the people, and free of corruption, we will not see the kind of changes that the people of the DRC have a right to expect. That is why this presidential election is so crucial. Without a change of leadership, we will not see the kind of changes that are so necessary and which the hon. Gentleman articulates.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing forward this matter for an Adjournment debate. I have always had an interest in the politics of Africa, in particular the DRC. He knows that the level of violence against those who are eligible to vote, in particular women, is very high. How does he see the elections taking place when that violence is being targeted at voters? How does he feel the Government can ensure that people are safe to vote? The democratic process must go ahead and the voters must be safe. How will that happen?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the question of violence. As any Member of this House who has visited the DRC and spoken directly to victims of violence—particularly, women who have been victims of sexual violence—will know, there is not a more horrendous or horrific example anywhere in the world of rape being used as a weapon of war. Therefore, the ability—I will come to this later—of that country to protect voters from the threat of violence is central to having free and fair elections.

As hon. Members have alluded to, it is important to understand the scale of the challenge. The DRC is a country of some 80 million people and has a landmass the size of western Europe. According to the World Bank, with its 80 million hectares of arable land and over 1,100 minerals and precious metals, the DRC has the potential to become one of the richest countries on the continent and a key driver of African growth. That is almost the irony of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Between 2005 and 2012, the poverty rate has decreased only from 71% to 64%, and the DRC ranks among the poorest countries in the world. It was 176th out of 187 countries on the UN human development index. As of 11 December, as hon. Members will be aware, there have been 505 suspected cases of Ebola, including 457 confirmed cases, and at least 296 people have died. I know that this country has made a tremendous contribution to trying to contain the outbreaks of Ebola that we have seen.

UNICEF said that the humanitarian situation in the DRC has deteriorated dramatically just over the past 12 months. That is from an incredibly low base. A surge in violent conflict in the Kasai and eastern regions has forced more than 1.7 million people from their homes. The number of internally displaced people has more than doubled since January 2017, reaching 4.1 million, the highest number in Africa. More than 13 million will need humanitarian assistance this year alone, including 7.8 million children, and 13.6 million people are in need of safe water and adequate sanitation and hygiene facilities. Some 7.7 million people are facing severe food insecurity, which represents a 30% increase since 2016, and a shocking estimated 2.2 million children will suffer from severe acute malnutrition this year alone.

The country continues to experience frequent and deadly disease outbreaks, including measles and malaria, and is undergoing one of the worst cholera outbreaks of the decade—that is in addition to Ebola. Grave violations of children’s rights, including forced recruitment, killing, maiming and sexual violence, are key features of the conflict. Violence and insecurity are seriously impeding access to basic education for 3.4 million children across the country.

Recent UNICEF data show that more than 3,000 children have been recruited by militias and armed groups over the past year alone. According to an April 2014 UN report, sexual violence remains “extremely serious due to” its

“scale…systematic nature and the number of victims.”

Human Rights Watch talks about the “horrific levels of rape” and other forms of sexual violence used by all armed groups in the conflict, which has been destabilising the country for several decades. Unfortunately, members of the country’s armed forces are among the main perpetrators of this violence.

As the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) suggested, as the DRC goes to the polls, the stakes have never been higher. This election will decide who succeeds President Kabila, whose second and final term expired on 20 September 2016. The promised elections have been delayed until now. Kabila has been in power since 2001. Many had feared that he would never relinquish power, but largely as a result of pressure from the international community, he reluctantly agreed to step down. However, he has nominated a chosen successor, Emmanuel Shadary, who, due to his actions as a member of the Kabila Government, is currently subject to European Union sanctions. Opposition parties in the country fear that the electoral process will be a sham, orchestrated by Kabila, who wants to stay in power at any cost. They believe that the regime will do whatever is necessary to steal this election.

Kris Berwouts, of the African Studies Centre, wrote only last month: 

“If the Congolese government manages to organise the elections in time, it will organise them in order to win them. It will deploy all the pressure, fraud, intimidation and violence necessary to do so. The chances of free and fair elections are nil. That is why the authorities are deploying heavy repression against any potential watchdogs. Congolese journalists and observers bear the brunt of this, but foreigners are also targeted.”

If the international community is serious about its commitment to peaceful, credible elections, it would be wise not to ignore the wisdom of the Congolese people regarding the conditions needed for legitimate elections.

In that context, I should like the Minister to address a number of specific concerns. I thank him in advance for his politeness in contacting me today to discuss some of them.

Electronic voting machines will be used for the first time in these elections, and civil society groups fear that they are not secure enough and there is a possibility of the results being rigged. The United States ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, has affirmed the US belief that the DRC should stick to the tried and tested method of paper ballots. The technology for the machines was created by a South Korean company which built similar machines for elections in Argentina last year, but the devices were subsequently rejected because of security issues that made them vulnerable to hackers.

In fact, Congolese law does not provide for the use of voting machines, although that has been denied by the electoral commission in the DRC. I should add that there is a question mark over the commission’s independence in the entire process. It has also claimed that changing the system would mean delaying the election. According to a review of the devices by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, they have not been thoroughly tested, and there is a potential for long delays and also, crucially, for abuse and misuse.

Earlier this month, 7,000 of 10,000 voting machines in an electoral commission warehouse in the capital, Kinshasa, were destroyed in a fire. The Kabila Government blamed unidentified “criminals” for the blaze, but the warehouse was being guarded by their army. The destruction of the machines is therefore highly suspicious, and, obviously, reinforces the concerns about the use of such machines. There are also concerns about the voters’ roll, which has revealed that 6 million voters have not been fingerprinted. It would aid transparency, and would be incredibly helpful, if the UK Government could argue that the electoral commission should publish the names of the people concerned and the areas in which 50% of fingerprints have not been obtained. That would establish whether it was a case of random distribution or evidence of dubious practices.

It is also essential, even at this very late stage, for the international community to seek an agreement between the armed forces and the United Nations Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo—or MONUSCO—for a MONUSCO brigade to be deployed to guarantee safe, free voting in eastern and central parts of the country. That point was made by the hon. Member for Strangford. If such an independent force is not deployed, there is a real risk that people will be intimidated by the threat of violence. There are also concerns about the lack of observers. Analysts and activists have warned that if polls are seen as fraudulent, the country could face years of protests. Civil society organisations are operating in a highly restrictive political environment, with regular threats to employees and their families.

Finally, should the outcome of the elections become a matter of intense dispute, that could lead to further upsurges in violence across the country, some parts of which, especially the east, are seriously affected by intractable conflicts. Africa Confidential reports—this is shocking—that some national army officers are even talking in terms of a “third Congolese war”, with troops from neighbouring countries potentially becoming drawn into the DRC once again. Although the international community has poured much money and effort into the DRC over the last 20 years, there are justified fears that, in the end, a Shadary victory could be met with international acquiescence.

Let me make this point very strongly to the Minister. In the past, our Government and others of successive political persuasions have chosen perceived stability over democracy and free and fair elections, and, on those grounds, have often not called out elections as being illegitimate when they clearly have been. This country’s last best chance for the next decade, in the context of the human tragedies that I have described, is to determine whether the result of these elections demonstrates that they were free and fair. I call on the Minister, and the UK Government—who, because of their donor status and their diplomatic reputation, still have a tremendous amount of influence in that country—to take a very tough line, even at this late stage, in putting pressure on the DRC Government.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis) for securing this timely debate and I know he has considerable expertise on the DRC. He is a long-standing advocate for the Congolese people, and I think I am right in saying that he has visited the DRC very recently. The Minister for Africa, my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin), would have been delighted to respond on behalf of the Government tonight, but unfortunately she is unavailable and it is my pleasure to take her place.

I note the concerns expressed about the presidential elections that we hope will take place on Sunday and whether they will lead to the first peaceful and democratic transfer of power in the country’s history, and about whether the UK is doing enough to help ensure that they are free, fair and credible. We of course want an election result that is all of these things, and most of all we want a result that can be readily accepted by the people of the DRC, and over the next few minutes I hope to reassure the House that we are doing all we can to help to bring this about.

The Congolese people are understandably impatient for stability and security, and this Government agree, and this is important not only for the DRC but for the region as a whole. We have always been clear in our messaging that only credible and inclusive elections will deliver that long-term stability, and indeed the prosperity, that the DRC desperately needs. So this Government will always condemn acts that hamper democratic processes wherever they take place, but it would be wrong to prejudge these elections before they have happened, and the UK’s approach will be informed by reports from local and international observers, who must be allowed the space to make a full assessment.

Members might recall that in 2016 the UK joined the international community in condemning President Kabila for holding on to power after the expiry of his second presidential term, contrary to the country’s constitution.

I declare my interest as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to the DRC. What assurances has the Foreign Office received about the impact of the warehouse fire and the destruction of voting machines in Kinshasa in a strong opposition area? The Minister referred to the observers, who have largely been paid for by Her Majesty’s Government; we have recruited some 22,000. What assurances has the Foreign Office got that those observers will be doing an entirely independent and effective job?

I will come on to the issue of electronic voting in a moment, and if my hon. Friend has further concerns I will ask my hon. Friend the Minister for Africa to write to him.

In order to prevent Mr Kabila from amending the constitution to permit himself a third term, the international community pressed him to sign the Saint-Sylvestre accord, setting out the terms for establishing a transitional Government which would work towards elections in 2017. Since the accord was signed in December 2016, the UK has repeatedly called on Kabila to honour both the DRC constitution and the Saint-Sylvestre accord, and to enable a peaceful transfer of power through credible elections. Our then Minister for Africa made these points directly to the President when he visited Kinshasa in November last year.

The UK continues to work with the international community, including the African Union and the Southern African Development Community, to press the DRC authorities to meet the democratic aspirations of the Congolese people by electing a new president.

I understand that this is not the Minister’s portfolio, but I want to ask again about something the hon. Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis) mentioned and I referred to in my earlier intervention. We were very clear that we are having all the observers there but it is also important to have security so that people can physically go to vote; has an assurance on that been sought and given?

I totally accept that someone can only be an effective observer if they have the security around them, so the hon. Gentleman makes an important point.

With our regional and international partners, and through a variety of channels, including our seat on the UN Security Council and our embassy in Kinshasa, we have continued to impress upon the DRC authorities the importance of adhering to their commitments. I am pleased to say that this concerted pressure has helped to persuade Kabila to agree to hold elections this month, in which he will not be a candidate. This is welcome news, but we remain concerned about the credibility and openness of these elections. My hon. Friend the Minister for Africa raised these concerns with two of the three main presidential candidates in telephone conversations this week. She discussed the need for the parties to engage fully in the electoral process and to condemn any violence or incitement to violence. She hopes to speak to further candidates in the coming days.

In addition to engagement at ministerial level, the UK has committed significant resources towards practical support for the electoral process. This totals nearly £19 million, and it includes support for voter education programmes, for election observations and for strengthening institutions such as the justice and peace commission. UK-funded civic education programmes have reached nearly 3 million people through face-to-face campaigns and over 10 million more through various media campaigns. We have also trained 425 long-term observers to help to ensure the credibility of the elections, and we have funded 20,000 local observers through the local Catholic Church’s committee for justice and peace. This represents one third of the anticipated number of local observers.

I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend and to Her Majesty’s Government for all their support. Will he particularly commend the role played by the Catholic Church and other Churches in the Saint-Silvestre accord of 2016, and also their continued striving for peace and democracy in the DRC?

My hon. Friend has an amazing reputation for his interest in Africa, and I totally share his judgment. I agree with what he has just said.

We are concerned that some candidates have been prevented from moving and campaigning freely around the country, that activists from all sides have been subjected to violence, and that some candidates have used inflammatory language. The UK issued a joint statement with the American, Canadian and Swiss ambassadors in response, which condemned all forms of violence as well as expressing regret at the news of the recent fire at an electoral commission warehouse in Kinshasa, to which the hon. Member for Bury South referred.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the fact that electronic voting machines were being used for the first time in this poll. The DRC electoral commission—known as CENI—will be responsible for their operation. In response to a request from CENI in February, we funded the Westminster Foundation for Democracy to carry out a technical analysis of the electronic voting machines. The WFD’s report is publicly available on CENI’s website, and it notes that it is not best practice to introduce the machines on this scale without a pilot. However, it does not endorse or reject their use, because this is a sovereign decision for CENI and the DRC. The report provided a number of recommendations to mitigate the risks associated with using the machines, many of which have been adopted by CENI. All the major presidential candidates have now indicated that voters should use the machines.

In addition to our support for the electoral process, we also run an extensive programme to alleviate the humanitarian situation in the DRC. This includes our support for the World Health Organisation-led response to the Ebola outbreak in the east of the country, where we are the second-largest bilateral donor. More broadly, we are working to improve the humanitarian and human rights situation in the DRC through advocacy work, through bilateral projects and programmes and through our support of multilateral interventions such as the UN peacekeeping mission, MONUSCO.

We help to fund a programme run by the UN’s Joint Human Rights Office to document human rights abuses. We continue to call on the DRC Government, as a member of the UN Human Rights Council, to demonstrate their commitment to the highest standards of human rights and to take decisive action against abuses and violations. With the EU, we have established a sanctions regime against members of the Government responsible for the violation of human rights. We have made it clear that we are prepared to take further action as necessary, including against those who seek to obstruct the democratic aspirations of the Congolese people. We will continue to use all channels available to us to end human rights abuses in the DRC, to press for accountability, and to demand a better future for the Congolese people. I hope I have shown that the UK is engaging closely with the electoral authorities and civil society in the DRC to support free, fair, safe and credible elections on Sunday.

Given that this is not the Minister’s portfolio, I thank him for giving such a comprehensive response. Will he make it clear today to the current regime that if there is strong evidence that the elections were not free and fair as a consequence of its actions, there will be accountability through whatever measures the UK and the international community deem fit, including the potential for further sanctions?

We want to see the highest standards applied to these elections, and we will monitor them very closely. If we feel the need to express a view afterwards, we will of course do so both in this House and more widely.

I hope that what I have said on the Government’s behalf tonight shows that we hope that everything we are doing helps to address some of the root causes of the DRC’s many problems and that the elections provide the political stability the country needs in order to build the secure and prosperous future that the Congolese people rightly crave. That stability is vital not only for them, but for the region. This Government are clear that we will continue to provide support to help the DRC to achieve that longed-for stability and prosperity.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.