Congo: Not as Democratic as it Seems

The Recent Elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo
Analysis16.01.2019Jules Maaten, FNF Africa Regional Director
DRC elections

The elections in Congo go in a similar direction of what we have seen recently in countries such as Kenia and Zimbabwe. The old governing elites rigged the results, using the excuse of "keeping calm and stability in the country", with tacit support from the world community because "at least the situation is better than before". This is a grave danger to the future of liberal democracy in Africa.

December 30th Congo finally had its elections, two years too late after the autocratic president Joseph Kabila finally understood that he could no longer set the Constitution aside in order to protect the wealth that he and his family had accumulated since he got to power in 2001, his riches being proportional to his unpopularity. Would the opposition manage to wrestle power away from Kabila and his Front Commun pour le Congo (FCC) party? They did, but not quite in the way that the voters intended. It appears that when Kabila found that his own hand-picked FCC candidate did not stand a chance against the opposition candidates, he struck a deal with one of them, Felix Tshisekedi, son of the respected long-time opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi who died two years ago. The deal reportedly would relinquish the title of president to Tshisekedi but little else. Kabila would even continue to live in the Presidential palace, and Tshisekedi would move into the prime minister’s mansion. The Electoral Commission, dominated by Kabila appointees, duly announced Tshisekedi as victor.

Just one problem here: Tshisekedi had not actually won the election. The well-respected Bishop’s Conference of the Catholic Church and its 40,000 observers had found that another candidate, the former Exxon Mobile executive Martin Fayulu had garnered most votes, in fact had won with a landslide of 61%. Fayulu, leading a broad coalition of civil society organisations and personalities, was much less likely to leave Kabila’s network quietly in place to enjoy their amassed wealth. Fayulu and his coalition have not accepted the results, and appealed to the Constitutional Court. Chances there are slim, since the Court is stuffed with Kabila-men, but stranger things have happened. In Kenia, some months ago in a similar situation, the Court annulled the election results – leaving the international election observers - who had just validated those results for the sake of peace and stability - with egg on their face.

The recent record of the international community hasn’t been too good. In Kenia they took a wrong turning, and equally some months later in Zimbabwe they appear to have tacitly accepted Emmerson Mnangagwa’s unlikely 50.8% election victory as a thank you for having removed dictator Robert Mugabe. All of this is a slap in the face of the millions of Africans who went out to vote because they take democracy seriously. That risk is there in Congo too. This is serious for Congo itself, a country the size of Europe with 80 million inhabitants, 75% of whom survive on two dollars a day. But it is serious for the rest of Africa too, and for liberal democracy worldwide.

Russia, China and South Africa (the ANC having had longstanding friendly relations with Kabila) have already backed the announcement of the Electoral Commission. Only France has questioned the results, but together with the United States, former colonial power Belgium, Germany and the United Kingdom in the UN Security Council requested to see the results – a request that has been rejected by the Election Commission. Now the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), which consists of countries bordering on Congo, have asked for a recount of the vote and for the establishment of a government of national unity. Olivier Kamitatu, a liberal politician from the DRC and former President of the long-term partner of the Foundation Africa Liberal Network (ALN), supports the SADC’s demands: “The SADC demands a recount of the ballots. They unanimously agree that this game of hide-and-seek has to come to an end by respecting the true outcome of the election. The Congolese people deserve it.”

As expected, the strongest reaction in Europe came from the former colonial power Belgium that had released the country into independence in 1960. Merely three days before the presidential elections, on 31 December 2018, the Congolese government had expelled the EU Ambassador in the DRC, the Belgian Bart Ouvry, from the country, under the pretence that the EU had extended sanctions against 14 high-ranking Congolese politicians associated with Kabila. The EU described this measure as “counterproductive”.  
Immediately after the election results had been announced, the traditionally well informed Belgian Foreign Ministry advised all Belgian citizens living in the DRC to leave the country at once. However, the liberal Foreign Minister Didier Reynders, was reserved in his response: “The credibility of the elections depends primarily on the reaction of the Congolese people. We should not interfere prematurely with internal processes, nor judge these.” The European Commission reacted in a similar way: The provisional results have been “noted” as well as the rejection of these results by the opposition. “The final result must reflect the vote of the Congolese people.”  

Much is at stake for the international community, foremost its reputation, but also the future of the democracy-agenda. As the Belgian liberal politician Johan van Hecke, an Africa expert and former member of the European Parliament put it: “This is a very dangerous precedent for the upcoming elections in several other African countries.”