Written by: Jasmine Owens
On December 30, 2018, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) held what could be their first truly democratic presidential elections. The election, which was originally supposed to be held in 2016 but was delayed two years, came a week late from the originally scheduled date of December 23.
Felix Tshisekedi, the opposition leader to President Kabila’s political party, was sworn into office on January 24, 2019. This marks the first peaceful transition of political power the DRC has experienced since gaining independence from Belgium in 1960. Patrice Lumumba became the first prime minister, sharing power with President Joseph Kasa-Vabu. After Lumumba allied himself with the Soviet side of the Cold War, he was assassinated in an attack supported by the U.S. and Belgium. Chaos ensued, and it was not until 1965 that a new leader came to power. Mobutu Sese Seko became president, backed by the U.S., and presided as dictator over the country until 1997 when Laurent Kabila toppled Mobutu at the tail-end of the First Congo War. Kabila was then assassinated in 2001 and replaced by his son, Joseph Kabila, who remained president until this most recent election. The two elections held in 2006 and 2011 were rigged, awarding Kabila the presidency both times.
Since independence, every presidential succession in the DRC has come to pass by either coup or assassination. Consequently, this past election was very monumental. It was the first time in Congolese history in which leadership was transferred without any means of force or violence. Still, there are rumors that the election was actually rigged by former president Kabila to prevent another candidate, Martin Fayulu, from gaining power. His campaign gained popularity through its fundamental opposition to Kabila, and he promised to investigate the corrupt President and his cabinet for alleged crimes committed while in power.
Independent monitors, including 40,000 observers sent by the National Episcopal Conference of Congo, a highly regarded institution in the country, presided over and investigated the election. Both reports found that Martin Fayulu actually won the election by a margin of 60 percent. Once initial election results showed that Fayulu had won, however, the government took the country off the grid. They shut down the internet and turned off the broadcasting signal for both a popular radio station and cell phone service across the country so as not to allow “fictitious results” to spread across the country. Eventually, Tshisekedi was declared the winner. Fayulu brought the case to the highest court in the DRC but the court rejected the case, further cementing Tshisekedi’s victory.
Tshisekedi was not an ideal partner for Kabila. His father, Etienne Tshisekedi, is perhaps one of the DRC’s most well-known oppositionists to Kabila and his late father. Unfortunately for Kabila, his chosen successor, Emmanuel Shadary, was not popular among the public. This may have forced him to abandon Shadary and strike a deal with Tshisekedi, who also seemed much more amiable than his father towards a relationship with Kabila. During the election, Kabila’s party won a majority of legislative seats in Parliament, giving his party the power to elect the next prime minister. Kabila is also now a senator for life, giving him legal immunity that could prevent him from going to jail for the crimes Fayulu vowed to bring to justice.
What does this mean for democracy in the DRC? It is unsure at the moment. A country plagued by corruption, conflict, disease, and interference from foreign actors, the DRC has faced many obstacles to fully democratic elections. It seems that it has not quite reached the end.
Despite frustrations about a rigged election, several entities, including the United States, have declared their support for Tshisekedi. The United States has even gone as far as to say it was “committed to working with the new government.” Whatever the outcome, it seems as if the Congolese are just happy that a peaceful transition has occurred and that they no longer have to worry over the violence that historically accompanies the lead up to presidential elections. For those that support Tshisekedi, this event has marked a momentous occasion, perhaps one signifying a hopeful future for democracy in the DRC.
But for Fayulu and those that deem this a rigged election, not much has changed. As Jason Stearns, an expert at the Center of International Cooperation, put it, “This isn’t the worst that could have happened, but it’s a big blow to the idea of democracy in the Congo.” The only thing to do now is to wait until the next election to see if democracy truly has flourished in the country or if Tshisekedi will follow his predecessors and thwart the democratic election process to become the next forever president of the DRC.