The DRC’s long-delayed elections unseated the ruling candidate but fell short of a wholesale democratic transition. Analysis by Tom Collins.
The world awoke on 10 January to discover that President Joseph Kabila and his eighteen-year iron-grip on the Congo had finally come to an end, as his ruling party was ousted by an opposition candidate during an election. As the news sank in, it finally became clear that there was only one problem: it had been lost to the wrong candidate. In the early hours of that morning, Félix Tshisekedi, son of the late opposition leader Étienne Tshisekedi, was announced by the National Independent Electoral Commission (CENI) as the winner of the poll.
Martin Fayulu, the former Exxon Mobil executive turned opposition leader, quickly contested the results – calling it an “electoral coup.” He claimed that Tshisekedi had brokered a backdoor deal with Kabila, and the outgoing president used his influence within CENI to pinch victory from Fayulu and hand it to his new partner. As more details emerged, many domestic and international partners threw their weight behind Fayulu’s claim and it was carried to the Constitutional Court. After even the African Union recommended the Court should delay announcing its results – ostensibly backing Fayulu – the Court rubbished the concerns and upheld Tshisekedi’s win. While the wrong candidate now heads the DRC, Kabila’s power has been tested, and although democracy eventually fell short, it resoundingly defeated the ruling candidate.
The king is dead
Kabila’s loss came as a surprise to many, with many commentators – the author included – predicting he would orchestrate a win for his stooge Emmanuel Shadary. In the run up to election the authorities made it all too clear this was no free and fair contest. Two heavyweight contenders – Jean Pierre Bemba and Moïse Katumbi – were barred from registering their candidacy. While Bemba’s exclusion was more palatable; on the grounds of an International Criminal Court (ICC) corruption charge, Katumbi’s was harder to swallow; on the basis he held dual Italian citizenship which contravenes the requirements to run for office. Katumbi was twice barred from entering the country.
Closer to the December 30th vote – delayed from the 23rd – three opposition strongholds were barred from voting. Beni and Butembo, in the country’s eastern North Kivu province, were excluded from the democratic process with the government citing Ebola concerns. This left more than 1m voters disenfranchised, many refusing to buy the official line. In the western city of Yumbi too the right to vote was rescinded, this time with the government citing ethnic violence. While the security concerns are no doubt true, the political motive behind the decision cannot be ignored.
For these reasons, Kabila’s loss was all the more shocking. Shadary, officially scoring 23.8%, must have lost by such a margin that even ballot-stuffing seemed a stretch too far. According to leaked data from CENI and the country’s powerful Catholic Church, Shadary failed to pass even the 20% mark. In fact, the democratic defeat of the ruling candidate has largely been accredited to the enormous effort of the Congolese people who turned out in huge numbers and relative peace and calm to have their say. With ballot boxes stuffed full with anti-Kabila sentiment, the call for change was too much to ignore.
Hold the champagne
Yet the celebrations were cut short following the suspicion that Tshisekedi had secured a backdoor deal and therefore fraudulently won the election. As Shadary was quite clearly out for the count, Kabila allegedly sought to retain influence by handing the victory to the runner-up Tshisekedi.
A number of things suggest as much. Immediately after Tshisekedi was announced victorious, he addressed a crowd of supporters at his opposition base in Kinshasa, saying: “I pay tribute to President Joseph Kabila and today we should no longer see him as an adversary, but rather, a partner in democratic change in our country.” Strange words for a party and a family which have been frustrated by Kabila’s undemocratic means at almost every turn.
The unexpected conciliatory approach sits well with analysts who posit that Tshisekedi offered Kabila post-office immunity and protection from asset seizure, in exchange for his support. Just how long this Kabila-Tshisekedi friendship will last is yet to be seen, but the two have much to gain at the outset. If Kabila has been able to secure his safety in the Congo – even within a potentially hostile administration – then he may well resurface in 2023 elections as many believe was his original plan. A clean Fayulu win will have carried with it undesirable consequences for the heavy-handed former president, and frustrated his ambitions to maintain influence and protect his interests.
A greater concern than the alleged pact, is the fact that Kabila’s election party – the Common Front for Congo (FCC) – emerge from the election with an absolute majority in the National Assembly. Kabila lost the presidency but won the legislative elections – taking place on the same day – by a landslide. His party reportedly won 300 out of 500 seats. This stands no matter who is calling the shots. It also means his party will maintain control over key organs of the state such as the military, the budget and the mining sector. Even if Tshisekedi wants to turn on his former adversary – in the same manner as Angolan President João Lourenço turned on his former boss – getting anything through parliament without Kabila’s approval looks difficult at best.
An almost comic reminder, it has been reported that Kabila will likely remain in the presidential palace, while Tshisekedi will be bumped into the residence reserved for the prime minister. Regardless of who’s in charge, therefore, the nuts and bolts of the DRC are still firmly in Kabila’s grasp.
Tshisekedi faces a mammoth crisis of legitimacy as an extraordinary number of actors have come together to dispute the results. If, as is the case, Fayulu continues to maintain his victory, then the chance of conflict looks increasingly probable. Taking to twitter after the Constitutional Court rebuked his claim, Fayulu wrote: “I now consider myself as the sole legitimate President-elect of the #DRC. Therefore, I ask the Congolese people not to recognize any individual who would claim this authority illegally nor to obey orders that would emanate from such a person.”
The first blow to Tshisekedi’s victory came from the country’s influential Catholic Church who led the largest election observation mission, fielding around 40,000 observers. Hours after provisional results were made public, the Church said the official tally did not match their own. “We see that the result of the presidential election as published by CENI (the electoral commission) does not correspond with the data collected by our observer mission from polling stations and counting centres,” said Father Donatien Nshole, spokesman for CENCO, which represents the country’s Catholic bishops.
According to their figures – based on 43% of the voter turnout- Fayulu secured 62.8% of the votes against Tshisekedi’s 15%, while Shadary polled 17.99%. France and Belgium quickly backed the Church’s findings, pouring more cold water on the president-elect’s win.
The final and most convincing blow came from a whistle-blower within CENI, who leaked data to publications such as the Financial Times and Radio France International, among others. The data – which corresponds to more than 49,000 records, or 86% of the total votes – shows that Fayulu secured a convincing 59.4% against Tshisekedi’s 19%, with Shadary on 18.54%. Broadly echoing the Church’s findings, the near matching tallies two by independent sources casts serious doubt on Tshisekedi’s win.
Finally the African Union waded into the debate, saying it had “serious doubts” about a Tshisekedi win. It urged the Constitutional Court to delay the proclamation of the final results, but to little effect. This came as some surprise for the normally cautious pan-African body, who have turned a blind eye to many power grabs in the past. It also contravenes its regional partner, the Southern African Development Community’s position, who after initially calling for a recount, issued a much blander statement urging for “respect of the electoral process.”
While it’s unclear what motivated the African Union’s unusual foray into a member state’s domestic politics, the ball now rests in their court after concerns were brushed aside by the DRC’s constitutional body.
With an election result heralded by many as fraudulent, the DRC looks set for a period of instability as the disenfranchised Fayulu – with around 60% of public support – urges civil disobedience along the path to justice. While the story is anything but over, as it stands Joseph Kabila looks to have engineered an electoral coup like no other.