Democracy is Dead in the Congo

The Congo’s subversion of democracy must be condemned and rectified for the sake of its people.

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Congo’s general election last year marked a peaceful transition of power in a nation plagued by a history of violent coups and political upheaval. The historical significance of this event needs to be framed within the context of outgoing president Joseph Kabila. Following the assassination of his father, he served as president from 2001 to 2019. Kabila’s presidency offered promises of improvements to infrastructure and quality of life in the Congo. Despite this, many still criticized the president for silencing dissent and crushing widespread protests against his rule. His successful reelection campaign in 2011 was also widely disputed and raised many questions about the electoral process. Throughout the rest of his presidency, he would continue to experience substantial unpopularity, as he cemented his position and warded off acts of civil protest with violence.

By​ the end of Kabila’s second term in 2016, many were weary of his despotic rule and looked forward to a change in administration in order to resolve the country’s ongoing crises. However, the Congolese people saw their worst fears come to pass when an electoral commission announced that there would be a two-year delay in the presidential elections. Kabila’s refusal to give up his position resulted in widespread protests throughout the Congo, criticizing Kabila’s lack of adherence to constitutional limitations on his presidency. However, general elections were finally held to determine the country’s next president on December 30, 2018. This marked a peaceful transition of power in this country—one that had not been seen in a long time. There were three main candidates. Former Interior Minister Emmanuel Ramanazi Shadary was Kabila’s chosen successor. The two main opposing candidates were Martin Fayulu and Felix Tshisekedi. Prior to the general elections, a comprehensive report released by the Congo Research Group showed poll numbers that favored Fayulu by a margin of more than 20 points over both of the other candidates. Fayulu was widely predicted to be the winner of the election, but in an upsetting twist, Tshisekedi won the majority vote with 38.6 percent. He narrowly beat Fayulu’s 34.8 percent. Fayulu immediately called the electoral results into question, and he appealed to the courts in order to challenge the results. He was denied, and Tshisekedi has assumed the presidency since then.

While many have touted this as a monumental step toward democracy in the Congo and a break from its troubling history of totalitarian oppressive rule, several sources of suspicion have cast doubt on the reliability of the election results. First, it is important to examine the aforementioned polling results that indicated Fayulu’s significant edge over Tshisekedi and Shadary. A margin of over 20 points should be significant enough to establish a sizable lead even when taking into account potential variability and room for error. Secondly, the Congolese branch of the Roman Catholic Church had sent out over 40,000 observers to numerous polling stations across the country to help preside and spectate the electoral process. The interesting part is that the observers’ reports did not match with the announced results, indicating a discrepancy. While both of these things cast some doubt, they are still relatively subjective criticisms of the results. Furthermore, Kabila’s chosen successor, Shadary, was dead last, securing only 23.8 percent of the votes. However, the Congo’s primary legislature, the National Assembly, saw that a majority of the seats were taken by those in support of Kabila. This noticeably indicates a stark contrast with Shadary’s performance in the general election.

This brings us to the first indication of collusion between Joseph Kabila, the former incumbent president, and Felix Tshisekedi, the current president. Shadary’s subpar performance in the general election does not correlate whatsoever with the results of the legislative election. Why the populace supported Kabila’s people in the legislature and not in the general election remains unclear. The theory currently floating around is that Tshisekedi likely made some sort of deal with Kabila in order to secure the former’s victory in the election. The basis behind this is that Shadary’s victory over Fayulu would be too easily seen as an action taken by Kabila to secure his party’s control in the government. Utilizing Tshisekedi would mitigate the backlash and possible suspicion. This was also compounded by the fact that there were multiple releases of leaked data that indicated Fayulu’s victory in the election.

What we now see is an overarching pattern that has been observed since the removal of Mobutu’s region and the subsequent implantation of the Kabila dynasty. Election after election, fraud and cries of foul have been heard across the country. The Kabilas have firmly cemented their presence in the government, and they have ingrained a culture of electoral deception and faux democratic processes. The U.S. and much of the international community remained complicit in the repetition and perpetuation of these perversions of democracy. U.S. Ambassador Michael Hammer announced the recognition of Tshisekedi’s legitimacy by the U.S. He also praised the Congo for this peaceful transition of power. This is an example of the complicit acknowledgments of injustices throughout the world made by the U.S. Democracy in the Congo had died long ago with the violent removal of the country’s first democratically elected leaders, which was ironically backed by the interests of the U.S.

The democratic ideals that the Congolese people fought for have fallen into shambles, and if something doesn’t change, the only thing that the world can expect is further corruption and repetition of history down the line. Kabila even stated himself that running for president again in 2023 is not something that he had ruled out. Massive reform is needed in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and these electoral results should not be so easily accepted. The complacency of world powers only lends further legitimacy to the Congo’s morally bankrupt regime. The international community needs to come together to put the Congolese electoral process on trial. It also needs to encourage the necessary changes to dismantle the underlying structures that prevent the Congo from achieving this democratic ideal. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, as ironic as its name sounds, has set a dangerous precedent for the coming years, and time will tell how long its hollow democracy will hold up.