DRC’s outgoing President Joseph Kabila, who was barred from standing for a third term, found an entirely novel way of hanging on to power. African presidents have previously achieved this by amending or interpreting their constitutions or by simply not organising presidential polls. Kabila did something rather different – he rigged the election on behalf of a malleable opposition party. In a new report, Kris Berwouts and Filip Reyntjens investigate how he did this, and why he was able to get away with it …
The context & campaign
Joseph Kabila’s second and constitutionally last term ended in December 2016. He was unable to create the legal conditions for an additional term but managed to remain in power for two more years through a strategy the Congolese nicknamed ‘le glissement’. Under pressure from internal public opinion and international players, he was forced to organise elections which eventually took place on 30 December 2018. But Kabila had no interest in losing power.
The electoral campaign was launched with three main candidates for the presidency: Shadary on behalf of outgoing president Kabila and his supporters; Fayulu for Lamuka with the support of opposition leaders Moïse Katumbi and Jean- Pierre Bemba, who were barred from participating, and Félix Tshisekedi, who could rely on his traditional UDPS constituency and the supporters of Vital Kamerhe. The expectation of many observers, both local and international, was that the Kabila camp was going to have Shadary elected independently of the vote of the people. The controversial ‘voting machines’ were feared to be the most important instruments for fabricating the required fake results.
Voting poses a problem
On Sunday 30 December 2018, two years after the constitutional end of Kabila’s term, the Congolese electorate went to vote amid irregularities, confusion and intimidation. That same evening – thanks to the voting machines – the authorities received the first results and realised that Shadary’s scores were too far behind the other two main candidates to proclaim him winner of the elections, and that Martin Fayulu would most probably obtain an absolute majority.
The regime approached the Tshisekedi camp and offered their candidate the presidency to avoid power falling into the hands of Fayulu, and more importantly, those of his powerful backers Bemba and Katumbi. This scenario allowed Kabila’s FCC to remain in control, in combination with its overwhelming victory in the parliamentary and provincial elections which were held under the same fraudulent conditions as the presidential poll. This also meant that Kabila would remain at the centre of the parallel networks which have governed the country since Mobutu’s days.
Thus, on 10 January 2019 Tshisekedi was declared winner with 38.6 % of the vote, fewer than 700,000 votes ahead of Martin Fayulu (34.8 %). FCC candidate Ramazani Shadary was third with 23.8 %. But leaked data from CENI’s voting computers and data collected by CENCO’s 40,000 observers gave an entirely different picture. According to these figures, Martin Fayulu secured a crushing victory with about 60 % of the votes, with Tshisekedi and Shadary lagging far behind with around 19 % each. Fayulu immediately challenged the results, but the constitutional court confirmed them.
How did they get away with it?
In the days and hours before Tshisekedi’s inauguration, intensive diplomatic activity took place within and between African multilateral institutions, with SADC and the AU as key arenas. After the announcement of the final results and Tshisekedi’s victory, an intensive intra-African diplomacy effort was deployed with sometimes contradictory signals, culminating in two statements with opposite messages, both launched from Addis Ababa on 17 January. First, SADC congratulated and encouraged the Congolese government and the CENI for holding ‘generally peaceful elections’ and called upon the international community to respect Congo’s sovereignty and support the government.
Only hours later, another meeting was held at the initiative of AU chair Paul Kagame with different African countries and institutions but without being an official AU meeting. The heads of state and government present agreed to dispatch urgently a high-level delegation to the DRC to interact with all Congolese stakeholders, with the view of reaching a consensus on a way out of the post-electoral crisis. They called upon the Congolese government to postpone the process to create the space for this interaction. But the Congolese authorities refused that scenario, the constitutional court endorsed the results of the electoral commission on 19 January, and the AU delegation’s visit, scheduled for 21 January, was cancelled. On 24 January, Félix Tshisekedi was inaugurated as the DRC president.
The neighbouring countries and the wider region faced a sharp dilemma. On the one hand, there was a new political construction coming from a grossly manipulated electoral process with no guarantees for sustainable stability in Congo in the medium- to long-run. On the other hand, this new construction was seen as the only way to avoid immediate chaos and violence. It was very clear that proclaiming Ramazani Shadary, Kabila’s anointed successor, as winner would have triggered violent popular protests. It was equally clear that the establishment would never quit and relinquish power to Martin Fayulu, who obtained three times as many votes as Tshisekedi. After a brief hesitation, the African multilateral institutions opted for short-term stability, and almost immediately after that, Western diplomacies did the same. They all endorsed Tshisekedi’s presidency.
Congolese public opinion likewise accepted the official results with a lot of pragmatism. That Kabila did not manage to secure a third term and was unable to crown Ramazani Shadary as his successor, and that he was succeeded by an opposition member without major violence and chaos, was already much more than many people had dared to hope for. But of course, most people were aware that this was not the outcome of a transparent democratic process.
This outcome raises crucial questions. What had been hailed as ‘the first peaceful transition since the DRC’s independence’ has become a denial of democracy. On 13 March, Presidents Uhuru Kenyatta and Emmanuel Macron asked Tshisekedi to ‘emancipate himself from Kabila,’ while also stating that the electoral outcome was ‘contested and contestable,’ thus confirming the suspicion of fraud. But how can Tshisekedi ‘emancipate’ himself, knowing he is at the mercy of his predecessor through the majority Kabila commands in both houses of parliament and at the provincial level? By privileging what they saw as short-term stability, African and Western diplomacies have instead created the conditions for a potentially violent stalemate in the DRC.
Indeed, the activities of armed groups remain intense in North and South Kivu, Tanganyika and Ituri, with high potential for further escalation and cross-border extension. Beyond this concrete outcome, Africa and the West have sent out a signal that may be disastrous for Africa and the world. While claiming to support genuine democracy, they have accepted an outcome they knew was anything but democratic, and in so doing have betrayed the right of the Congolese people to elect their leaders. This signal strongly discredits their own alleged commitment to democracy and the exercise of political rights. This ambiguous policy is not just addressed to the Congolese, but to people elsewhere who struggle against fraudulent dictatorships that cling to power at any price.
Download the full paper here: The Great Electoral Robbery
Kris Berwouts has worked as an independent expert for several bilateral and multilateral partners of the DRC. In 2017, he published ‘Congo’s violent peace: Conflict and struggle since the Great African War’.
Filip Reyntjens is Emeritus Professor of Law and Politics at the Institute of Development Policy (IOB), University of Antwerp. He has published several books and numerous articles on the African Great Lakes region.
This piece is based on an article that originally appeared on the website of the Egmont Institute