After considerable dithering, DRC President Laurent Kabila decided not to stand in the December elections and has named his preferred candidate for the position. But with some of the strongest opposition candidates sidelined and the remaining disunited, will the elections really deliver a new beginning? Thomas Collins reports.
After stepping down in August, Congolese President Joseph Kabila has thrown his weight behind ruling party candidate Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary in the run up to December elections. According to a recent poll by New York-based Congo Research Group and the Congo-based Bureau d’Études, de Recherches, et de Consulting International, Shadary is third most popular with only 16% support. The opposition leader Felix Tshisekedi emerges at this stage as the clear winner with 36% support from the population. Yet despite Shadary’s unpopularity many are skeptical that Kabila will allow a ruling party defeat. Report by Tom Collins.
For the first half of this year Congolese nationals and international observers watched with bated breath as DRC President Joseph Kabila deftly side-stepped the question: would he step down? Constantly referred to in the third person, everyone including the PM Bruno Tshibala assured the world the big man would step down, but the position was never confirmed by the President himself. And he stalled. Till the very last minute. Candidates had until August 8 to register and it was only on that very day that Kabila named former interior minister Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary the ruling coalition’s candidate.
Kabila had been in power for 17 years and overstayed his constitutional mandate by two. Amid speculation of constitutional amendments or point-blank refusals, his decision to step down comes as a great relief. It should not, however, be overexaggerated. Controversies surrounding the election make it all too clear that Kabila will use post-office puppetry to continue to exert control over his crony-state. All the while his country slides deeper and deeper into a worsening humanitarian and security crisis.
Cloak and dagger
Through various means, any meaningful opposition to the ruling People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy (PPRD) in the 23 December elections, has been barred from the political process. At the beginning, fanfares sounded aplenty for the return of the fabled Moïse Katumbi and controversial Jean-Pierre Bemba. These were two figures who carried considerable clout in their respective regions and had the potential to drive their weight all the way to Kinshasa.
Jean-Pierre Bemba, a former rebel leader, returned to the DRC following a 10-year stint in prison at The Hague after being convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity while leading the suppression of a coup in neighbouring Central African Republic between October 2002 and 2003. This year the International Criminal Court (ICC) overturned his conviction and, before being welcomed home as a hero, he registered his candidacy. Shortly after, however, the National Independent Electoral Commission (CENI) cited a separate ICC conviction for witness-tampering to deem Bemba inadmissible – according to DRC law, people convicted of corruption are barred from running for President.
Katumbi’s story is no less fraught. Katumbi, ex-Governor of Katanga Province and a prominent businessman, has been battling the authorities for years. He was forced into exile in 2016 after being sentenced to three years in prison in absentia for real estate fraud, a charge he denies. Further attempts to derail his candidacy came when he was accused of holding an Italian passport from 2000 to 2017. As per Congo’s constitution, nationals cannot hold dual citizenship. Four days before the closing date for candidate registration Katumbi was twice blocked from entering DRC and remains outside the country and the political process.
Out of the 25 candidates who have put themselves forward, a total of six have been barred including Katumbi and Bemba and all have made appeals at the Constitutional Court. Katumbi, at least, has some international backing. Taking up the issue, a UN Human Rights Committee made a recommendation to the government that Katumbi be allowed to enter the country and file his presidential nomination. The committee stated: “The state party is required to take all necessary measures to ensure the return of the author [Katumbi] to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.” The effort has fallen on deaf ears.
À la carte political process
Manoeuvring by the Congolese authorities suggests the rest of the electoral process will be anything but free and fair. Hans Hoebeke, Senior Congo Analyst, Crisis Group, fears as much. “The non-participation of Bemba and Katumbi and the lack of trust in the fairness of the decision not to let them participate, gives the impression of an à la carte political process in which the majority chooses its own adversaries.”
Aside from candidates, the election presents a host of security and legitimacy concerns. CENI, the national electoral commission, has been dogged by accusations of working closely with the government and its proposed electoral methods are facing intense scrutiny. At the top of the list is a brewing controversy over the use of South Korean electronic voting machines. The machines were reportedly bought at a cost of $160m from technology company Miru Systems and were backed by CENI as a means to secure ballot casting. In fact, they have been accused of being a front to achieve the exact opposite: to fix the vote through hacking.
“There are questions about their use to support fraud,” explains Hoebeke. “They have become the symbol of the lack of trust at all levels between the CENI and the opposition, civil society and a large part of the international community.” That said, Hoebeke advises against a move to a paper ballot at this late stage. It would further delay the election and its adoption would carry no greater assurance of security, as was evidenced in the 2011 elections, he says. In 2011 Kabila narrowly scraped to victory over late opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi, which led to post-election unrest amid accusations of vote manipulation and fraud.
A more pragmatic worry is whether CENI has the capacity to guarantee the machines will function throughout DRC’s sprawling and disjointed landmass. To address the challenges, CENI head Corneille Nangaa has announced plans to acquire and fund its own logistic equipment, including planes and helicopters, to transport polling materials across the country.
Nangaa said the purchases will include seven new helicopters, seven planes, among them aircraft made by Boeing and Antonov, 130 trucks and 195 cross-country vehicles. “These materials will be acquired out of the funds provided by the Congolese government which shows its resolve to finance the electoral process,” he said. He also indicated that China and India will assist. According to him, China will supply electoral hardware while India will play a major role in terms of energy, including solar panels. Details were not given.
CENI’s capacity to accurately represent the will of Congo’s estimated 85m people is equally severely comprised by the country’s ongoing security crises. Voting stations may become a target in some of the DRC’s more turbulent areas. “In terms of security, some armed groups in the East and in Kasai have mobilised against the regime and in Kasai this has delayed the voter registration,” clarifies Hoebeke. The barring of prominent opposition figures may also initiate a regional fallout. Katumbi’s supporters in Katanga province and Bemba’s in Kinshasa and parts of former Équateur Province will likely offer some resistance.
As for monitors and observers CENI have thus far been reticent to allow international actors to access the electoral process. Kinshasa is drumming up hostility and aversion towards most outside influence, particularly ‘Western actors’. UN help has been refused. Aside from that, South Africa appears to have rubber-stamped the election following a phone call between CENI and South Africa’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Lindiwe Sisulu, who said: “By the time we left, we felt very comfortable that they had the situation under control.” Protests by DRC refugees outside South Africa’s parliament in Cape Town followed immediately after. Many demand that the regional body, the South African Development Community (SADC), plays a greater role in ensuring Kabila fades from influence as well as view.
The ruling party by no means holds an absolute grip on power. Each differing region in DRC has its own – often competing – power figures and structures. The ruling party, however, is able to self-perpetuate due to its ability to access resources and employ freedom of movement; and due to the divided nature of Congo’s opposition. No candidate has Congo- wide support. Each is supported in their associated region and struggles to draw far-reaching consensus. “None of the candidates – running or not – have a national base,” affirms Hoebeke. “But the ruling party’s unity is stronger than a divided opposition which has to deal with all kinds of tactics to further weaken its unity.”
Felix Tshisekedi, son of the late veteran politician Etienne Tshisekedi, leader of Congo’s largest opposition party, the UDPS, and still in the running, poses the greatest threat. Tshisekedi, however, was thrust in the limelight after his father died and still has much to do to win over the party’s traditional support base. But with the absence of Bemba and Katumbi, Tshisekedi is the country’s best bet. The question most parties now face is whether to rally round a single opposition candidate like Tshisekedi, in order to create an unignorable voice. If the already divided opposition fail to organise, then Emmanuel Shadary’s party, with the backing of Kabila, will likely mobilise its resources and power to secure the election by any means. Even if the opposition do mobilise, the task they face is daunting. It’s worth remembering that Kabila never followed through with a law to protect Presidents from post-office prosecution. He is also eligible to run again in 2023. Kabila’s hold on the Congo may not yet be coming to an end.