Two years, and counting: Why Congo’s long wait for elections matters

Why We Wrote This

Words like “historic” and “pivotal” get thrown around a lot at election time. But for Congo – which is almost the size of Western Europe, has never had a peaceful or democratic transfer of power, and was scheduled to vote Dec. 23 – that’s not hyperbole.

Samuel Mambo/Reuters
Supporters of Congolese opposition presidential candidate Martin Fayulu reacted as he campaigned in Goma, Congo, Dec. 6. Elections scheduled for Dec. 23 have again been delayed.

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Imagine having your country’s presidential election delayed, repeatedly, for two years – and then hearing you have to wait at least another week. That’s what Congolese voters heard today, three days before scheduled elections to replace President Joseph Kabila, who has been in office for 18 years. Modern Congo has never had a peaceful transition of power, let alone a democratic one, and this vote stood poised to make history – with consequences that go beyond Congo. A low-level civil war grinds on in the east, and repeated waves of violence have created one of the world’s largest displacement crises, spilling over the massive country’s borders. This week’s delay, which officials blamed on logistical difficulties after a mysterious fire destroyed voting machines in the capital, will likely prompt further doubts about the election's integrity. Mr. Kabila was originally due to step down in 2016, and many Congolese believe the election delays are simply ploys for him to stay in power. The voter roll is contested, and the government has resisted allowing in outside election observers. “No one knows exactly what will happen” after the vote, says Claude Kabemba, an expert on Congolese politics. “Except maybe Joseph Kabila himself.”

For two years, voters in the Democratic Republic of Congo have been waiting to go to the polls to choose a new president, after 18 years under Joseph Kabila. The country has never had a peaceful transfer of power – let alone a democratic one. But on Thursday, three days before the long-awaited election was scheduled to be held, Congo’s voters learned the wait isn’t over. Officials have suspended the Dec. 23 election for a week, blaming logistical difficulties.

A low-grade civil war grinds on in the country’s east, and Congo is battling the worst Ebola outbreak in its history. Last week, a mysterious fire destroyed most of the new electronic voting machines for the capital, Kinshasa. Police force against protestors, and clashes between supporters of different candidates, have also escalated in recent weeks.

But the delay will likely prompt further doubts about the integrity of Congo’s potentially historic poll – when, or if, it happens. Here’s what you need to know.

First of all, why should I care what happens in a Congolese presidential election?

Congo is big, it’s central, and it’s a mess. Dozens of armed groups are still active in the east and along the country’s border. Repeated wars and waves of violence – some of them triggered by transitions of power – have displaced about 4.5 million people within the country of 81 million, and made nearly 1 million more into refugees. That puts it among the world’s largest displacement crises.

On a more personal level, chances are you have a piece of the Congo within your reach right now. Congolese cobalt – a crucial component in smartphone and computer batteries – accounts for two-thirds of the world’s supply. Most of it is mined under backbreaking conditions, by people who have historically had little power to decide how their country is ruled, or by whom. A free and fair election could help change that.

So, what are the chances it will be free and fair?

Unfortunately, not good. Before Thursday’s delay, Mr. Kabila had repeatedly pushed back the vote, which was actually supposed to happen in 2016. The government said those delays were necessary for logistical reasons, but the opposition and many ordinary Congolese say it was simply a ploy for him to stay in power.

Recent elections have been marred by accusations of widespread vote tampering, and members of the opposition argue the new electronic vote machines brought in from South Korea will make that kind of rigging even easier. On Wednesday, the governor of Kinshasa suspended campaigning in the city for security reasons, hours before a scheduled opposition rally, and police dispersed protestors with tear gas.

The voter roll is also contested, with electoral officials admitting earlier this year that it contained 6 million duplicates or names of children. Meanwhile, Kabila has resisted outside assistance in preparing for the elections and outside observers to monitor it.

OK. Who’s actually running for president?

Twenty-one candidates are vying to replace Kabila, who is stepping down due to term limits. But only a handful have a fighting chance. As in many countries, presidential politics here have long been a family affair. Kabila succeeded his father, Laurent-Désiré Kabila, after he was assassinated in 2001. And his main challenger throughout his presidency was Étienne Tshisekedi, an opposition politician and thorn in the side of every Congolese administration since the 1980s (well, all three of them). Mr. Tshisekedi died last year, but his son Félix Tshisekedi is running for president in his stead.

But to make things more complicated, much of Congo’s opposition has thrown its weight behind a different candidate, a former Exxon Mobil executive and relative political novice named Martin Fayulu. Kabila’s party, meanwhile, is fielding an obscure figure, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, a former secretary of the interior, who is under European Union sanctions for helping to delay elections and crack down on protesters. 

Goran Tomasevic/Reuters
Solders in the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo rest next to a road after an Islamist rebel group called the Allied Democratic Forces attacked the area around Mukoko village, North Kivu province, Democratic Republic of Congo, Dec. 11, 2018.

Is there likely to be violence?

There’s been a lot already. Several waves of anti-government protests – many led by the country’s Catholic Church – have been violently put down over the last year, resulting in dozens of deaths. Several people at rallies have been killed by security forces, and there have also been reports of violent clashes between supporters of different candidates.

Early in the morning of Dec. 13 a blaze in a warehouse in the capital, Kinshasa, destroyed 70 percent of the 10,000 voting machines meant to be used in the city on voting day. Both sides blame the other for the fire, which is under investigation.

Meanwhile, if a vote does go forward and Mr. Shadary wins – legitimately or otherwise – the opposition will almost certainly contest the vote, and mass demonstrations are likely. In the past, police and security forces have dealt with protesters with a heavy hand, and observers fear that post-election violence could spiral into wider conflict.

The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Fatou Bensouda, warned Thursday that growing tensions “could lead to the commission of grave crimes,” and that the ICC would “not hesitate to take action.”

Is there anything to be hopeful about?

“I think the emergence of three major political coalitions is a hopeful sign,” says Claude Kabemba, the director of the Southern Africa Resource Watch and an expert on Congolese politics. Whatever happens in this election, he says, those groups – each of which is intra-ethnic and cross-regional – could be the backbone of a more vibrant Congolese political scene going forward.

But the future of Congolese politics, he warns, is still a ways off.

“No one knows exactly what will happen” after the vote, he says. “Except maybe Joseph Kabila himself.”

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