Why Joseph Kabila Lost the Election

The late Gabonese president Omar Bongo Ondimba reportedly said that in Africa one does not hold elections to lose them. That certainly has been a common characteristic of elections across the continent. But on January 10, 2019, after a contentious election in the Democratic Republic of Congo—marred in irregularities and violent repression—the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) declared Félix Tshisekedi, an opposition candidate, the winner, with 38 percent. Martin Fayulu, another opposition candidate, came in second place with 34 percent, ahead of President Joseph Kabila’s chosen successor Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, who registered 23 percent. In effect, President Joseph Kabila had lost the election.

A Backdoor Deal and Election Fraud

Following the vote on December 30, 2018, it quickly became obvious that Kabila’s candidate had lost.  More astounding, it appeared that Fayulu, a former oil executive and one of Kabila’s most consistent critics, may have won. The CENI delayed the release of provisional results, setting the rumor mill agog that a fix was in. The National Conference of Catholic Bishops (CENCO), which deployed 40,000 election observers called on the CENI to publish the results that reflected the will of the people, saying that they knew the real winner. The position of the Catholic Church raised the people’s expectation and drew greater attention of the foreign press and donor countries to the CENI.

In the interim, while the Congolese awaited the election results, reports of secret talks between Tshisekedi and the Kabila camp had emerged and were confirmed at a press conference by Jean-Marc Kabund, the secretary-general of the Union pour la Démocratie et le Progrès Social (UDPS), Tshisekedi’s party. Kabund claimed that the two parties had been talking in the interest of national reconciliation as they felt they would win. His words raised suspicions of a deal with the Front Commun pour le Congo (FCC), Kabila’s coalition.

When the CENI proclaimed Tshisekedi as the winner, Fayulu challenged and rejected the provisional results. It did not comport with independent polls that showed Fayulu as the favorite to win 47 percent, over Tshisekedi and Shadary who had 24 percent and 19 percent favorability rates, respectively. Even more damning, data from the Catholic Church and files from the CENI leaked to the foreign press further pointed to massive fraud and showed that Fayulu had won the election with 62 and 59 percent, respectively. Tshisekedi had registered 15 and 18 percent. Shadary hovered around 17 and 18 percent. Based on an analysis of data files and poll surveys, Pierre Englebert, a noted scholar, concluded that the probability that Tshisekedi could have scored 38 percent in a free election was less than 0.0000.

The alleged fraud was so flagrant that the Southern African Development Community urged the CENI to recount the votes, and the African Union called a special session for heads of state to discuss developments in Congo and asked the constitutional court to suspend the final results until a high-level delegation of heads of state met with key stakeholders in Kinshasa.

Citing national sovereignty, the Kabila administration ignored the African Union’s request. The court dismissed Fayulu’s case as unfounded and without merit, and upheld Tshisekedi’s victory. Tshisekedi was sworn in as the fifth president of Congo in the first peaceful transfer of power in the country’s history on January 24.

A Congolese Conundrum

The Congolese public has reacted to Tshisekedi’s ascension with simultaneous cheer, despair, and apprehension.

On the one hand, the country’s civil society and opposition prevent Kabila, whose 18-year tenure has been defined by the looting of resources, violence, instability, and poverty, both from extending his term in office and installing his preferred successor. Popular protests, which security forces sought to bloodily repress, forestalled a constitutional amendment and defeated legislation tying the election to a national census.

Already dynamic under normal times, civil society organizations, such as the Catholic Church, increased their engagement and commitment to change. CENCO, which has been typically divided between western dioceses and eastern dioceses, many of which have been pro-Kabila in the past, channeled the people’s grievances and spoke in one voice.

Technology and social media platforms amplified the opposition’s mass mobilization through real-time videos and images in ways that made it impossible for the CENI to impose Shadary as the winner.

In a rare moment of alignment, the international community, including the foreign press, appropriated the concerns of the populations in the rejection of both Kabila and Shadary. Grants were made available to civil society organizations to enable them to carry out oversight of the electoral process.

On the other hand, Kabila may have connived with Tshisekedi to deny Fayulu his election win. Kabila is poised to remain influential in his post-presidency. His coalition has firm control of all legislative institutions; it won 350 out of 500 seats in the National Assembly and 70 percent of the seats at the provincial level, which means that Kabila’s coalition will control assemblies and governorships in all of Congo’s 26 provinces. The ramification is far-reaching, as these assemblies elect the senators who represent provinces at the upper chamber of the parliament in Kinshasa.

By law, as a former president, Kabila will be senator for life. As such, he can and may be elected president of the Senate by the FCC majority in the upper chamber, making him the second in line of succession. In case of the president’s incapacity or a similar contingency, Kabila would serve as the interim president and organize the election. He can run again.  

What’s Next?

President Tshisekedi assumes power without a legitimate mandate, under the thumb of Kabila, and saddled with a daunting to-do-list. He will preside over a country as large as Western Europe, plagued by corruption, insecurity, and an untamed Ebola outbreak in eastern Congo.  

In his inaugural speech, he pledged to build a “strong Congo, turned toward development in peace and security—a Congo for all, in which everyone has a place." But how should he do this?

First, Tshisekedi needs to acknowledge some of the problems with his election win. He should meet with CENCO and reconcile with Fayulu, who declared himself president-elect and called on the Congolese people to peacefully resist.

Second, he needs to show he is his own man and distance himself from Kabila. While he has no say over the FCC-controlled legislature, he could remove some of Kabila’s military and intelligence chiefs, some of whom are under EU, UN, or U.S. sanctions.

Third, Tshisekedi has to move quickly and chart an economic course and public policy that will restore the rule of law, reassure investors, and dismantle the corrupt networks that plunder the country’s financial and natural resources. Despite remarkable GDP growth rates over the years and copper and cobalt price boom, the national economy has not generated employment and mining royalties have continued to disappear into overseas private accounts.

With a contested and clouded legitimacy, Tshisekedi may initially be at the mercy of Kabila and the FCC. It will require skills and political acumen to navigate the bumpy road ahead. But if he prioritizes the welfare of the populations and delivers employment and stability, the Congolese nation would rally behind him. Now is the time to live by the motto of his late father, Etienne Tshisekedi, Le Peuple d’Abord. The people first.

Mvemba Phezo Dizolele is a non-resident senior associate with the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He is a writer, foreign policy analyst, and independent journalist with extensive experience covering the DRC. Mvemba was a grantee of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and covered the 2006 elections in the DRC. He also served as an election monitor with the Carter Center in Congo in 2006 and 2011.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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