An appraisal of election monitoring and observation in Africa: The case of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s 2011 presidential elections
Written by Helidah Ogude (1)

Four months after a widely disputed presidential election that took place on 28 November 2011, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) faces a legitimacy crisis that is threatening its already fragile democracy. Incumbent President, Joseph Kabila, and opposition leader, Etienne Tshisekedi, both insist that they won the polls and both have refused a negotiated settlement to the crisis. According to results published by the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) on 9 December 2011 and confirmed several days later by the Supreme Court of Justice, Kabila won with 49% of the vote, while his main rival, Tshisekedi, received 32% of the vote.(2) Tshisekedi has since condemned the results and declared himself president, which subsequently lead to his house arrest. Meanwhile, Kabila was sworn in for a second term at aninauguration ceremony on 20 December 2011.(3) This is only the country’s second multiparty, post-independence election andinternational and domestic observers, as well as opposition parties, described the election as “lacking in credibility,” citing “serious irregularities.”(4) In contrast, regional observers, including the African Union (AU), hailed it as “successful.”(5)

This CAI paper presents a critical analysis of the role observer missions play in elections in Africa using the DRC’s November 2011 presidential elections as a case study. It is argued that election observers and monitors play a crucial role in enhancing the transparency and credibility of elections and democratic governance in Africa. However, through the example of the European Union (EU) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) observer missions, the paper contends that international and regional observer missions have their own geopolitical interests that determine the extent to which the credibility of an election is assessed.

A growing culture of political intolerance raises concerns over credibility of November 2011 polls

In 2006, the DRC held its first multiparty elections since independence. Despite daunting logistical challenges the elections were largely celebrated as a success, owing both to the efforts of the Congolese people and the support of the international community. The elections that ended decades of conflict and democratic transition was extensively funded and supervised by the international community.(6) The success of the electoral process was made possible by a significant political, military and financial investment by the EU, the United Nations (UN) and countries that contributed to the Congolese peace process.

In the lead up to the November 2011 elections, various stakeholders expressed doubts that the elections wouldbe recognised as credible, free and fair. Many expressed concernsabout the capacity, efficacy and impartiality of the CENI and the DRC’s Judiciary, citing cases of corruption and nepotism.(7) Others contended that given the DRC’s deplorable human rights reputation and increasing political tension, the elections would likely result in widespread electoral violence and impunity. Further cementing a lack of confidence in the electoral process, a presidential proposal to abandon the DRC’s two-round voting system and change it to a ‘winner-takes-all’ system was adopted by Parliament.(8) This adoption signalled Kabila’s unyielding resolve to circumvent the spirit of the democratic process, secure his power, wealth, resources and patronage.

Perhaps foreshadowing what was to come, in the months prior to the elections, 41 local and international human rights and humanitarian organisations jointly expressed their fears about the increasing “political tension and deteriorating security situation,” urging Congolese and international actors to “take urgent measures to prevent electoral violence, better protect civilians and ensure credible, free and fair elections.”(9)Despite this call, the international support that ensured a largely peaceful and credible election in 2006 fell significantly in the 2011 elections.

International support drastically declines in 2011 elections compared to 2006 elections

Ten million more voters registered for the 2011 polls compared to those in 2006.(10) Although the number of presidential candidates dropped from 33 to 11, partly owing to an increase in a non-refundable deposit for presidential and legislative hopefuls,(11) the number of political parties nearly doubled to 428.(12) Critically, although polling stations increased by more than 10,000 to 62,000, there were only 168 compilationcentres – a striking difference to the 2,528 centres in 2006.(13)Numerous judges were appointed to manage electoral disputes in 2006, while only 27were appointed to serve at the Supreme Court in 2011, 18 of which were appointed by Kabila.(14) EU observers were cut by more than half to 148, and while there were over 2,000 UN observers in 2006, none werepresent at the 2011 elections.(15)The international community financed approximately 80% of the 2006 elections; this figure was halved in 2011.(16)

Numerous analysts slammed the international community, pronouncing that it was a mistake to think that the consolidation of democracy would not require the same level of diplomatic and financial commitment previously made available.(17)This significant increase in political activity, contrasted by a relatively weak electoral support structure, was a clear sign from the onset that the DRC would struggle to effectively manage thehighly anticipated November 2011 presidential elections.

EU and other observers launch their missions while SADC iscriticised for a short-term mission

Several international (non-governmental) observer missions, including the Carter Center, the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES),observed the presidential elections. The SADC Council of NGOs (SADC-CNGO) conducted wide-reaching peace and pre-election consultations as early as March 2011.(18) The observation mission, comprising of 70 observers from 27 countries, was present in the country from 17 August 2011 until 13 January 2012.(19) Non-governmental regional players included, amongst others, the Open Society Initiative of Southern Africa (OSISA), which deployed 5,000 observers to polling stations.(20) Between 25 November 2011 and 15 December 2011, SADC-CNGO deployed 22 observers to three cities – Kinshasa,Goma and Lubumbashi.(21) On the domestic front, the Catholic Church was the largest network of independent observers during polls, deploying 30,000 observers across the country. On election day, Carter Center observers visited nearly 300 polling stations across the 10 provinces and Kinshasa.(22)

The assessments of SADC and the EU, as two influential political and financial stakeholders, were widely anticipated. Both the EU and SADC observer missions are guided by the same international instruments, namely: the Code of Conduct for International Election Observers and the Declaration of Principles for International Election Observation(23) – principles and acode of conduct by which the DRC has agreed to abide.(24) Some of the principles include, but are not limited to, freedom of association, political tolerance, equal access to state media and the independence of the Judiciary and impartiality of the electoral institutions.(25)

SADC launched its biggest electoral observer mission for the DRC on 11 November 2011, deploying over 198 observers in 10 provinces in the DRC.(26) President Jacob Zuma of South Africa, in his capacity as Chairperson of the SADC Organ on Politics, Defence and Security Cooperation, launched the mission.The team was led by South African Minister of Correctional Services,NosiviweMapisa-Nqakula.(27)The SADC mission conducted its activities from their main office based in Kinshasa, while it established three additional satelliteoffices in the North Kivu Province, Katanga Province and the Kasai-Oriental Province.(28)Its activities included extensively covering all “electoral processes in the country before, during and after the voting date.”(29) The mission also attended and observed political party campaigns and rallies amongst other activities. Following a post-election assessment on 30 November 2011, intergovernmental African observermissions issued a joint declaration hailing the polls as “successful.”(30)SADC’s electoral documents are not explicit with regard to how long observers remained in the DRC after the joint press statement was released. However, secondary reports from political analysts and civil society organizations criticize SADC and other African observer missions for having stayed in the DRC for scarcely over a month, statingthat this time period was too short a stay.(31)

In comparison with the SADC mission, the EU observer mission was led by Bulgarian member of European Parliament, Mariya Nedelchev and it deployed 147 peoplefrom European member states, 118 of which were observers.(32)Among them, 46 were long-term observers present in the DRC for 8 weeks from 18 October 2011, while 72 short-term observers were present for 14 days as of 20 November 2011.(33) On election day, the mission was reinforced with 20 DRC-based diplomats from EU Member States. A few teams stayed until 14 January 2012.(34)

Although the SADC mission had some 50 odd people more than the EU Mission, the former was in the DRC for just over a month, while the latter for 3 months.SADC critics highlighted that short-term missions can often result in reports that are not comprehensive or analyses that have the potential to be downgraded from outright“fraud” to “irregularities” because they have no first-hand knowledge of both pre- and post-electoral processes and disputes.(35) SADC was therefore undermining its capacity to detect irregularities and fraud and thereby ran the risk of endorsing an election they may have otherwise severely criticised.

Observer missions make divergent pronouncements

Observers have been strangely divided in their assessment of the elections. In a press release on 13 December 2011, the EU Mission summarized its post-election analysis based on “direct observation.”(36) It highlighted a lack of adherence to transparency, lack of full participation of citizens in the political process and a lack of media freedom and access to information.(37) With regard to full participation, EU officials said CENI failed to count 7.6% of the roughly 64,000 polling stations nationwide, which it estimated excluded about 1.6 million votes.(38) Of the 4,875 polling stations that were notcounted, 2,020 were in the capital, Kinshasa, which is a major opposition stronghold.(39) The EU Mission also stressed that the compilation of results was not transparent. In the South Kivu, Kinshasa and Orientale Provinces, several observers, as well as political party witnesses, were prevented from observing all the compilation stages.(40) Contrary to electoral law, the CENI head office required several compilation centres not to immediately post results prior to sending them to CENI head office for a “consistency check.”(41) Furthermore, the EU Mission reported that a large number of results of polling stations were not computerised, and several polling stations’ results released the evening of the count and observed by EU field teams, did not tally with those published by CENI.(42) The mission further underscored that the “media and journalists have started practising self-censorship” in an environment made more tense by the publication of presidential election results.(43)EU Observer Mission chief, MariyaNedelcheva, also questioned the independence of the Judiciary after Kabila nominated 18 new magistrates during election campaigns.(44)

Numerous international (non-governmental) observer missions, including theCarter Center, the NDI and the IFES agreed with the EU.They declared that the conduct of the presidential election was marred by “significant irregularities and attempted cheating” in several constituencies.(45)The poll was also criticised by the Catholic Church – which holds considerable influence in the overwhelmingly Christian nation. In a post-electoral statementthey called on the election commission to correct “serious errors.”(46) They added that “the electoral commission [must] have the courage to correct [these] serious errors or resign.”(47) The Archbishop of Kinshasa further called for a campaign of disobedience and for the results to be annulled.(48) Several civil society organizations, including La Voix des sans Voix (VSV), one of the most influential and oldest Congolese human rights organizations, called for the cancellation of the polls.(49)

In stark contrast, and in a seemingly vague joint declaration on 30 November 2011, African election observers, including SADC, the AU, the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) and the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR), indicated that “despite the numerous challenges which the country is confronted with, and [they] have noted the technical and logistical challenges...[they] welcome the successful holding of the elections.”(50) The declaration made no implicit or direct reference to some of the principles meant to be adhered to, such as transparency, media freedom, full participation, freedom from intimidation and fear, and others, as did the EU and other international and domestic observers.(51)

Fellow Southern African stakeholders disagreed with SADC’s assessments of the election. The Open Society Initiative of Southern Africa (OSISA)said that “the irregularities are so widespread it will be difficult for anyone to ignore and say they had no impact on the integrity of the vote.”(52) In its post-electoral statement, the SADC-CNGO concluded that “elections in DRC fall short of the SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections and also of the DRC national laws.”(53)

Election pronouncements reflect divergent geopolitical interests

Critics of election monitoring argue that contrary to the idea that monitoring is meant to boost confidence in the fairness of an electoral process and help deter electoral fraud; it is instead “disguised tourism” and a charade.(54) They argue that because observers have their own political interests, they may care more about their particular concerns, rather than the long-term prospects of a country’s democracy.(55)Indeed, observer missions, like any other stakeholders, have their own interests and thus may tend to protect and project these interests to the detriment of the democratic development of the country holding elections.

The strikingly different assessment of the DRC’s presidential poll by regional and sub-regional observers, compared withtheir domestic and international counterparts, casts serious doubt on the basis upon which the elections were declared “successful.”Were decisions motivated by a genuine concern that condemnation of CENI or calling the election results into question, would fan existing tensions and thus stoke violence? Or could it be the case that other African leaders within the regional groups were reluctant to set precedents that may clear the way for their downfall in their own elections? Perhaps the DRC’s mineral wealth andregional economic interests dictated that Kabila stay in power. Indeed, the ramifications of a deeply flawed election or sustained post-election violence throughout the DRC would severely affect neighbouring countries’ economies andtheir upper political echelons.

At the time of the elections, South Africa, in its capacity as Chair of SADC’s Organ on Politics, Defence and Security Cooperation, had influence over pronouncements made. In the lead up to the 28 November 2011 elections and thereafter, Pretoria was keenly eyeing the AU Commission Chairmanship and, as such, would possibly not rattle Congolese politics in the hopes that Kinshasa would support South Africa’s bid. Justmonths prior to the elections, South African officials signed a memorandum of understanding on the Grand Inga Hydro-Electric project in Kinshasa, a major investment both governments would not want to put at risk.(56)Additionally, in 2011, Kabila awarded two oil exploration blocks to companies owned by Zuma’s nephew.(57) Critics of the South African government claim that the latter’s particular interest in the DRC and their lack of criticism of DRC’s political deficiencies is a guise for securing lucrative opportunities for South African businesses.(58)

International observers have their own interests and their take on the elections may also be influenced by self-interest in particular. Some analysts think that international observer assessments were too lenient and in fact, reflected lethargy towards the DRC’s democratic development. According to Jean Marie Guehenno, UN former head of peacekeeping and now a professor at Columbia University, there has been “a gradual political disengagement in Congo. There is definitely Congo fatigue after 11 years and billions of dollars. There is no appetite for repeating the Ivory Coast experience.”(59)

Nevertheless, the assessment of international observers was certainly more comprehensive than that of SADC and made clear linkages to the electoral Code of Conduct which SADC observers failed to do.Given the unsavoury state of civil liberties and political rights, it would be disingenuous to claim that the presidential elections were a clear “success.”Kabila’s inauguration was undoubtedly bolstered by the AU and SADC’s positive assessment. At the same time, questions raised by critical international observer reports have been serious and public enough to pressure the government into accepting a team of international experts to review the electoral process.(60)

On the continent and elsewhere in the developing world, the broader challenge is that multi-party systems presume the existence of, among other factors, “a modern state, a fully functioning civil society and a free press.”(61)Furthermore, in an ideal electoral season, the social contract is such that parties, both those in power and the opposition, understand and abide by the rule of law.(62)This issimply notthe case in the DRC. What is abundantly clear is that offering a stamp of legitimacy for elections that may in fact be deeply flawed does not help in addressing the structural and long-term political issues in the DRC. It in fact compounds these problems, while simultaneously intensifying the frustration and dissatisfaction of the Congolese citizenry and Diaspora.

Concluding remarks

Moving forward, intergovernmental regional organizations in particular, need to reassess how they engage with the DRC. The serious deficiencies within CENI and the Judiciary, critical institutional indicators of democratic development, were not signalled as concerns by African intergovernmental observer missions. Pronouncements made by observers speak to the quality of elections and thus the quality of democracy that is the DRC is attempting to build. Without sincere engagement and commitment to the Code of Conduct, the role of regional observers in this instance is unlikely to have a positive effect on the long-term democratization process in the DRC.(63)The “successful” qualification is meaningless as long as it does not engage the broader problems of democracy, corruption and justice.(64) Critically, if observer missions, especially those in the relevant region and sub-regions, do not prioritise providing frank and objective electoral assessments, the democratization process in Africa will be founded on falsehoods.


(1) Contact HelidahOgude through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Election Reflection Unit ( This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ).
(2) ‘No end in sight to DRC post-election crisis’, Open Society Initiative of Southern Africa (OSISA),
(3) ‘DR Congo President Joseph Kabila begins second term’, BBC World News, 20 December 2011,
(4) ‘The Carter Center International Election Observation Mission Democratic Republic of Congo, presidential and legislative elections’, The Carter Center, 28 November 2011,
(5) ‘Observers hail Successful DR Congo elections’, Congo News Agency, 1 December 2011,
(6) ‘Congo: The electoral dilemma’, International Crisis Group, Africa Report No. 175, 5 May 2011,
(7) Chakravarty, A., ‘The strategic use of electoral mismanagement in the Democratic Republic of Congo’, Carnegie Council, 18 January 2012,
(8) ‘Congo: The electoral dilemma’, International Crisis Group, Africa Report No. 175, 5 May 2011,
(9) ‘Congo-Kinshasa: Security fears for DRC elections’, OSISA, 28 October 2011,
(10) ‘DR Congo: As electoral campaign starts, Congolese and international NGOs call for urgent measures to prevent escalating violence’, International Crisis Group, 28 October 2011,
(11) ‘Election Watch, DRC’, Institute of Democracy in South Africa (IDASA), November 2011,
(13) ‘DR Congo: As electoral campaign starts, Congolese and international NGOs call for urgent measures to prevent escalating violence’, International Crisis Group, 28 October 2011,
(16) Roberts, M., ‘DRC elections 2011: Lessons learned for a faltering democracy’, Institute for Security Studies, 10 August 2011,
(17) Townsend, W., ‘Congo is on the move, but where is it going? Reflections on elections in the DRC’, African Arguments, 17 February 2012,
(18) ‘DRC post-electoral statement: Call for action to avoid degeneration of tense situation into a political crisis’, SADC-CNGO, 15 December 2011,
(19)‘Cater Center: DRC Presidential Election Results Lack Credibility’, Cater Center, 10 December 2011,
(20)‘DR Congo election hailed as a success by African observers’, BBC World News, 30 November 2011,
(22)‘The Carter Center International Election Observation Mission Democratic Republic of Congo, presidential and legislative elections’, The Carter Center, 28 November 2011,
(23)‘Declaration of principles for international election observation and code of conduct for international election observers’, United Nations, 27 October 2005,
(24)Election Watch, DRC’, Institute of Democracy in South Africa (IDASA), November 2011,
(26) ‘SA: Statement by Mac Maharaj, Presidency spokesperson, on the DRC elections’, Polity, 5 December 2011,
(27)‘SADC launches electoral observer mission in DRC’, SADC,
(30) ‘Congo: The electoral dilemma’, International Crisis Group, Africa Report No. 175, 5 May 2011,
(31) Vircoulon, T. and Legrange, M., ‘DR Congo: Learning the Lessons’, International Crisis Group, 9 February 2012,
(32)‘MOE UE RDC 2011: Introduction’, The Election Observation Mission of the European Union, 13 December 2011,
(35) Darnolf, S., ‘Assessing electoral fraud in new democracies’, International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), March 2011,;Vircoulon, T. and Legrange, M., ‘DR Congo: Learning the lessons’, International Crisis Group, 9 February 2012,
(36) ‘MOE UE RDC 2011: Introduction’, The Election Observation Mission of the European Union, 13 December 2011,
(37)Ibid.;‘Election Watch, DRC’, Institute of Democracy in South Africa (IDASA), November 2011,
(38) Peuchot, E., ‘EU slams ‘deplorable’ DRC election results’, Mail & Guardian, 14 December 2011,
(41) ‘MOE UE RDC 2011: Introduction’, The Election Observation Mission of the European Union, 13 December 2011,
(44) ‘Observers cite “irregularities” at DRC polls’,France 24, 1 December 2011,
(45) ‘NDI-IFES Elections experts recommend broad review of electoral process in the Democratic Republic of Congo’, National Democratic Institute, 25 January 2012,
(46) ‘Catholic bishops condemn DR Congo’s presidential poll’, BBC World News, 13 January 2012,
(49) ‘No end in sight to DRC post-election crisis’, OSISA,
(50)‘Joint declaration on the presidential and parliamentary elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo’, Congoplanet,
(52) ‘DR Congo election hailed a success by African observers’, BBC World News, 30 November 2011,
(53) ‘DRC post-electoral statement: Call for action to avoid degeneration of tense situation into a political crisis’, SADC-CNGO, 15 December 2011,
(54)Soremekun, K., 2009. Disguised tourism and the electoral process in Africa: A study of international observer and the 1998 Local Government elections in Nigeria. A Journal of Opinion, 27(1), pp 38-42.
(55) Abbink, J. and Hesseling, G., 2000. Election observation and democratization in Africa. St. Martin’s Press: New York.
(56) ‘Zuma witnesses DRC hydro-power deal’, News 24, 12 November 2011,
(57) ‘Under scrutiny: South Africa’s role in DRC elections’, Daily Maverick, 14 December 2011,
(59) Agyeman-Togobo, K.,‘DRC election “too flawed to be credible” – civil society and Congolese Diaspora speak out’, 5 January 2012, African Arguments,
(60) Chakravarty, A., ‘The strategic use of electoral mismanagement in the Democratic Republic of Congo’, Carnegie Council, 18 January 2012,