I stand on the tip of my toes in an effort to see the exchange between citizens, community leaders, and election officials regarding the basic tenets of democracy and how these are applicable in the current political environment in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). It is hard to see the proceedings of the Tribune d’Expression Populaires since all the seats in the community church are taken and standing room only has many others craning their necks by the door as well. There are at least 500 citizens here.
Many people are nodding their heads in agreement, and offering additional comments which clearly demonstrates a good understanding of the Constitution and what is at stake. We witnessed this reaction at the Tribune in Bukavu with similar scenes playing out in other Tribunes in Kinshasa and Bukavu the day before. Citizens are eager and interested to hear from their local officials about their role in the country’s future.
Counterpart International’s civil society strengthening program in DRC supports local community groups who are working to help citizens understand their role and their rights in the country’s evolving democracy. Elections are currently scheduled for November — but from all accounts, it is unlikely that they will happen. Electoral authorities are saying in a country as vast as the DRC – the 2nd largest in Africa with the 4th largest population – voting cannot be effectively organized until at least July 2017 because of budget and logistical challenges. While the current President’s term is due to expire in November, the Supreme Court has ruled that President Kabila can remain in power until a new election is held.
It is against this backdrop that Counterpart’s civic education program is becoming increasingly important. The program provides sub-grants to grassroots organizations to organize community dialogues with local authorities focusing on elections, peaceful transfer of power, and upholding the 10-year old Constitution. Local organizations and networks create forums so citizens can voice their opinions in a peaceful way and local authorities can listen and respond to citizens’ demands in a credible space.
My colleague and I glance at each other in amazement at the amount and level of poignant questions being posed by the citizens attending the Tribune in Bukavu. It is clear to us that the average citizen in Bukavu is frustrated and looking for answers. The local authorities are responding with detailed answers to these difficult questions. We are impressed to hear how both citizens and local authorities articulate their demands and expectations in a peaceful and constructive manner. A community radio station is interviewing people to further the message of peaceful and constructive dialogue at the grassroots level. My colleague and I, with 35 years of combined experience in supporting democracy and governance work across five continents, walk away from the event knowing that tough times lay ahead for DRC’s fragile political process as citizens fully embrace their rights and responsibilities in building a better future.
Note — The name of the Tribune in the first paragraph has been corrected since posting.