World looks away as DRC celebrates dubious democratic transition

Kabila out of office after election defeat but suspicions linger of backroom deal to keep him in power

For the first time in more than two decades, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the largest country by landmass in sub-Saharan Africa and a repository of some of the world's richest mineral reserves, is no longer run by a member of the Kabila family.

At a grand inauguration ceremony in Kinshasa last Thursday before a huge crowd of supporters, many of them dressed in white to denote change, Joseph Kabila stepped down as president – as he was constitutionally obliged to do more than two years ago.

That brought to an end, at least theoretically, the Kabila dynasty, which began when his father, Laurent-Désiré, seized power in 1997 from longtime dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. Since the assassination of his father in 2001, Joseph, still only 47, has run the country.

During that time, he has clawed Congo back from outright civil war and attracted billions of dollars in mining investment from western and Chinese companies. But he has failed to bring about genuine stability or to convert income from cobalt, copper, diamonds and other minerals into higher living standards for Congo’s 80 million people. Corruption is rife. Annual income per capita, at $785 (€687) in purchasing power parity terms, is among the lowest in Africa.


The man replacing Kabila is Felix Tshisekedi, the son of an opposition veteran and the supposed winner of highly contested December elections. Though huge doubts linger over the legitimacy of his victory, many of his supporters – and even some of those who did not vote for him – welcome the fact that an opposition leader has finally broken Kabila's stranglehold on power.

“We are just happy to see change and peace,” says Jose Mokemba, a trumpeter at the inauguration, where a military band, dressed in eye-catching red and gold jackets, beat out martial music.

Change of leader

Thousands of Tshisekedi’s supporters, together with Congolese officials and a smattering of foreign dignitaries – only one foreign president, Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta, attended – squeezed into the presidential palace to watch the historic transfer of power. So symbolic was the moment in a country that has not seen a change of leader through the ballot box since independence in 1960 that Kabila shaved off his beard to mark the occasion.

"One of the critical things that's happened over the past few months is that Kabila has lost," says Anneke Van Woudenberg, executive director of Rights and Accountability in Development. "He tried by hook or by crook to cling on to power, but it didn't work because of the opposition of civil society, the Catholic Church and popular mobilisation. It is a significant moment and we mustn't underestimate that."

But has anything really changed? Behind the scenes, there appears to have been what amounts to a backroom deal that will preserve Kabila’s grip on some of the levers of power. More significantly, the election outcome gives little ground for hope that Congo can escape the failures of its previous government – and the risk of it sliding backwards remains strong.

"Kabila will no longer be visible as head of state, but he and his party will still be in power," says Samy Badibanga, prime minister from 2016 to 2017.

The transfer of authority from one president to another is tainted by one glaring problem. The results of the election were almost certainly rigged. Tshisekedi did not win at all, according to most impartial analysis. Instead, he came a distant second.

The real winner, according to data analysed by the Financial Times, was Martin Fayulu, an unassuming, Paris-educated former ExxonMobil executive, whose campaign captured the country's anti-Kabila mood. Fayulu was backed by two powerful opposition figures, Jean-Pierre Bemba and Moïse Katumbi, both potential challengers to Kabila who had been excluded from running by legal manoeuvres.

According to the FT’s analysis of data leaked from the electoral commission’s servers, which received results transmitted from tens of thousands voting machines around the country, Fayulu won the contest easily with 59 per cent of the vote. The FT cross-checked the data against another set of results collected by hand by 40,000 election-day observers employed by the Catholic Church. The set of near-complete results obtained from the electoral commission, as well as being internally consistent, correlated with the church’s data almost perfectly.

“The message this sends is that elections don’t count for anything ... There is no evidence that the electoral commission has even counted the votes,” Fayulu said, referring to the fact that it provided no breakdown of the supposed result on election night – or since.

State largesse

Fayulu challenged the outcome in the constitutional court, but to no avail. The judges, many of them handpicked by Kabila, confirmed Tshisekedi’s victory.

Kabila had not intended Tshisekedi to win. Instead, he had picked Emmanuel Shadary, a former interior minister, to succeed him. That plan went awry when it became clear that Shadary's campaign – notwithstanding state largesse ranging from planes to bussed-in crowds – was falling flat. The danger for Kabila was that, if the electoral commission declared Shadary the winner, no one would have believed it. That could have sparked huge street protests of the sort that had forced Kabila to hold elections in the first place.

Kabila switched to plan B: divide and rule. Victory was bestowed instead on Tshisekedi, whose party, already in opposition for more than 30 years, was hungry for power and ready to compromise. In the days that followed, Tshisekedi proved far more amenable to a power-sharing deal with Kabila than Fayulu, who had, perhaps recklessly, promised to root out corruption and deal with past offenders.

Still, few are under any illusion about the process that has just unfolded. One former minister, familiar with the backroom machinations, says it was logical for Kabila to switch to Tshisekedi. “There is nothing magical,” he adds. “It was the obvious calculation.”

Fayulu's fate was sealed when foreign governments, originally supportive of his cause, deserted him in favour of what they portrayed as Congo's stability. After initially expressing doubts over the validity of the outcome and calling for a recount, almost every government backed down. Cyril Ramaphosa, South Africa's president, called on "all stakeholders" to accept the constitutional court's verdict. The US went from threatening to sanction Congolese officials to welcoming Tshisekedi's election as "democratic".

Diplomats in Kinshasa say there was little that could be done after the constitutional court ratified the results. A recount or a rerun could have plunged the country into violence. Unlike in Venezuela, where the international community has largely backed a self-proclaimed president, in Congo they have quietly ditched Fayulu, leaving his supporters wondering whether change can ever be delivered through the ballot box.

Carine Tshibuabua, a mother of five in Delvaux, a buzzing commercial district in the capital, says she voted for Bemba in2006 and for Fayulu this time round. On both occasions, she says, the vote was stolen. “I will not vote any more, never again,” she adds. “I will not vote a third time.”

Strongmen and kleptocrats

The country that Tshisekedi will now nominally lead has been horribly exploited ever since, in 1885, it became the personal possession of King Leopold II of Belgium, who treated the territory as a prison camp.

The post-independence period has not been much happier. After the 1961 assassination, with the help of the US CIA, of the country's first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, the country has been ruled by strongmen and kleptocrats. Mobutu, propped up by the west during the cold war, lasted 32 years, only to be ousted by Kabila's father in a 1997 coup. An ensuing war sucked in several of Congo's neighbours and led to the death of millions of people, mostly through starvation.

For many, rescuing Congo from its past is key to the prosperity of the continent. Together with Nigeria, South Africa and Ethiopia – other influential countries because of the size of their populations and economic muscle – the effects of a stable and dynamic Congo could ripple throughout Africa.

Congo borders nine African states. When the country is in political turmoil, it is a destabilising force, especially on its lawless eastern borders with Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi.

If it has an effective government, however, Congo could become an important motor for much of the continent. The long stalled Inga Dam project, which would tap energy from the Congo River, could generate an estimated 42,000MW of power, more than twice China’s Three Gorges Dam and enough to power several African countries. If Congo were able to turn its vast mineral wealth into sustainable development, it would send a message that even the most troubled African country could be turned around.

“Was this the democratic will of the people?” asks Van Woudenberg of r Tshisekedi’s supposed victory. “I highly doubt that. But it is the opposition that is in power now and that provides a possibility for change.”

Colette Braeckman, a longtime analyst of the country, says: "I think the result was negotiated like everything else in Congo." But she too sees hope in the new arrangement. "I wouldn't call it the status quo," she says. "Tshisekedi is not experienced at all, but his party is strong and he has strong followers."

Some observers, however, believe that the change in leadership will do little to unleash Congo’s potential. Far from a break with the past, they see more of the same, with Kabila continuing his rule in all but name.

Tatiana Carayannis, a Congo expert writing in Foreign Affairs, says of the election: "By demonstrating to Congolese that true reform is unlikely to happen through the ballot box, it has sown the seeds for deepening disorder and instability down the line."

Nod and a wink

The process, say critics, has not only been a setback for democracy in Congo, but also for the continent as a whole, where other leaders may now conclude they can steal a vote with a nod and a wink from foreign leaders. Nor is it clear that Tshisekedi’s control of the presidency will give him as much power as meets the eye, even if he really intends to challenge a status quo that has served the majority of Congo’s people so poorly.

Kabila's coalition, the Common Front for Congo, ended up with an estimated – and improbable – 350 out of 500 parliamentary seats. His allies also won a majority of seats in provincial assemblies that elect governors and senators and will probably give them control over who becomes Senate president. One rumour is that Kabila himself could conceivably take up that role.

The dominance of Kabila’s group in the national assembly gives it the power to name the prime minister, who will select crucial cabinet positions overseeing areas such as internal security and mining.

At his inauguration, Tshisekedi tried to act like any victorious candidate. During a 30-minute speech, he called for unity. “We are not celebrating the victory of one camp against the other,” he said. “We are honouring a reconciled Congo.”

Reading a litany of outcomes that few believe can be easily accomplished, he promised to release political prisoners, end discrimination, clamp down on predatory state officials and boost revenues from natural resources.

The task he faces is formidable. Even if he had a free hand, he would have to rebuild a collapsed health and education system and rejuvenate a political class that has proved more interested in enriching itself than in delivering public services.

In the east of the country, barely accessible from the capital Kinshasa, he has to contend with an outbreak of Ebola, the second worst in history, which has already claimed more than 700 lives. Not only that, the heavily populated provinces of North Kivu and South Kivu, neither of which are loyal to Tshisekedi, are home to more than 100 armed militias.

The manner in which he “won” the election could actually make the political and security dynamics there worse, say analysts. Far from reconciling the country, the rumoured backroom deal has split Congolese society down the middle between those that choose to believe Tshisekedi’s victory and those that do not.

The omens are not good. There was a moment during Tshisekedi’s inauguration ceremony when he momentarily appeared to collapse. The crowd held its breath. A spokesman for the new president later said his bulletproof vest – an-as-yet unfamiliar presidential accoutrement – had been too tight.

Lacking legitimacy and a parliamentary majority, Tshisekedi does indeed have an uncomfortable burden to bear. His near-collapse on stage was not, perhaps, the most auspicious of starts. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019