A bolt of integrity in a big African election

In a surprise, the African Union intervenes in Congo to ensure a transparent vote count. The bloc could not ignore a rigged election – or the demand of young Africans for accountable governance.

Supporters of Martin Fayulu, a leading presidential candidate in Democratic Republic of Congo' election, protest in front of the constitutional court Jan. 12.

How do you unrig a rigged election?

The question is now playing out in the heart of Africa after a disputed election in Congo last month. The simple answer, of course, is to insist on integrity in the vote count. To many people’s surprise, the continent’s 55-nation bloc, the African Union, did just that on Thursday.

The AU expressed “serious doubts” about the provisional results of the Dec. 30 presidential election and asked Congolese officials not to declare an official winner until it can help find a solution.

In an Africa known more for fantasy democracies than real ones, the surprise intervention by the AU is a blow for transparency and accountability in governance. And it comes at a time when Africa is expected to hold more than 20 elections in 2019 and when its level of democracy has been in decline for more than a decade.

For Congo’s neighbors, the risks of postelection violence in a country the size of Western Europe may have been too high. The country saw widespread violence after disputed polls in 2006 and 2011 under outgoing President Joseph Kabila. The AU’s action also suggests even many authoritarian leaders in Africa have had enough of cross-border spillovers from political unrest.

The current pro-democracy protests in Sudan and Zimbabwe attest to the demand of young Africans for full democracy. Only about 40 percent of Africans believe their last elections were “free and fair,” according to a recent Afrobarometer survey. 

The AU’s hand may also have been forced by the fact that an accurate vote count was revealed by poll watchers of the Roman Catholic Church and by several European news organizations. The United Nations Security Council and several Western governments also expressed concerns after the electoral commission announced that a lesser-known candidate, Félix Tshisekedi, had won. That announcement was contested by Martin Fayulu, the opposition candidate widely perceived as the winner.

The integrity of the vote count is critical to ensure Congo can experience its first democratic transfer of power since independence in 1960. The country of some 85 million has suffered two major civil conflicts in the past quarter century and widespread corruption under Mr. Kabila. His reluctance to leave office without a successor in power whom he can control may be the cause of the rigged election. To Africa’s credit, the AU decided to try to unrig the results.

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