To those paying attention, the elections held in late 2018 and early 2019 in Congo played out like a full season of Game of Thrones, complete with violent subplots, betrayals, high court drama, last-minute twists and turns, and outcomes having nothing to do with the will of the people or the good of the country.
Joseph Kabila had been President since his father Laurent was assassinated in 2001, and after a fair electoral victory in 2006 approved by international observers and a highly disputed 2011 victory full of irregularities, he was constitutionally prevented from running again in 2016. Instead, he repeatedly delayed the vote over two years in an effort to change the constitution and stay in power. When that effort failed, he tried to pull “a Putin” circa 2008 by propping up a puppet candidate, Emmanual Shadary, to nominally take his place. But that failed too; according to an assessment of leaked data from CENI (the electoral commission in Congo) obtained by the Congo Research Group and independent corroborating evidence from 40,000 Catholic Church observers throughout the country, Shadary only received 19 percent of the vote. The two main opposition candidates, Felix Tshisekedi and Martin Faluyu, received 19 percent and 60 percent, respectively.
The official electoral results, however, told a much different story. Released after a 10-day delay during which the internet was shut down across the country, CENI announced that Tshisekedi received 38 percent of the vote, Faluyu 34 percent, and Shadary 25 percent, with Tshisekedi winning outright in the first-past-the-post system. Faluyu unsuccessfully challenged the results in the constitutional court (which is populated with Kabila loyalists), where they ironically ruled Faluyu’s claims of electoral fraud to be “absurd.” The political scientist Pierre Englebert calculates that the likelihood Tshisekedi won 38 percent of the vote is basically zero, and most assume that Tshisekedi made a backroom deal with Kabila for the presidency. As one prominent Congolese civil society leader told me, “in Congo there is no justice.”
Clearly, Kabila has not relinquished control, but many questions remain: Can Tshisekedi deftly wrestle power away from Kabila and create the change the Congolese have clearly demanded? What is the nature of the deal they made? Is it simply to provide amnesty to Kabila from his multitude of crimes? Many in Congo and around the world are optimistically taking a “wait-and-see” approach.
Others are not willing to be so patient. Some are saying both privately and publicly that political violence looms in the east, with recent shootings in Goma while Faluyu traveled nearby an early sign of things to come. One of the multitudes of armed groups could capitalize on the political discontent and further destabilize the country, perhaps repeating the history of the late 1990s and unseating the regime in Kinshasa itself. But a closer look—at the overlooked parliamentary results, historical precedent, and the state of play regionally and internationally—indicates that the most likely scenario is Tshisekedi and Kabila maintaining some kind of power sharing arrangement until 2023, when Kabila may very well run again.
The Legislative Elections as a Tell
While most observers have focused on the controversial presidential elections, the largely overlooked National Assembly results are more telling of Kabila’s designs for the future. The Congolese system was designed in the early 2000s to prevent politicians from replicating the demi-god status of Mobutu, Congo’s former military dictator; this is one reason Kabila has ruled through fragmentation and weakness. In principle, the Congolese system is “semi-presidential” with the National Assembly electing the cabinet and Prime Minister, who runs the government on a day-to-day basis.
Despite all evidence suggesting that the elections were a referendum on Kabila, which he lost in overwhelming fashion, his Front Commun pour le Congo (FCC) coalition somehow won 337 of the 500 seats in the National assembly and 70 percent of the seats at the provincial level. These results, though surely just as fraudulent as the presidential election, have gone unchallenged. Kabila and the FCC now control not only the assemblies and governorships in all 26 provinces but also the upper house of parliament in Kinshasa. By contrast, Tshisekedi’s party won a mere 32 seats in the National Assembly: a result that either reflects his true support, compared to the inflated presidential numbers, or one that was rigged to deny him the ability to control the levers of government.
Furthermore, events in recent weeks shed more light on the importance of the legislative elections and Kabila’s likely strategy. As Tshisekedi and Kabila met in mid-February to “strike a deal,” reports leaked that Kabila would be guaranteed immunity from prosecution from any alleged crimes occurring over the past 18 years, which has long been expected. What wasn’t expected was that they reportedly also agreed to a constitutional amendment that would result in future presidents being elected through parliament. If confirmed, this would pave an easy path for Kabila to regain the presidency in 2023.
History as a Guide
If political change is unlikely after this election, what can history tell us about alternative paths? After the brutal sufferings of the colonial period, Congo has experienced only two notable periods of political change. The first came during the 1960s, and the second during the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Unfortunately, independence from Belgium in 1960 did not improve conditions for much of the population. After Congo’s first Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, was assassinated with the help, or at least consent, of the Belgians and Americans, Mobutu Sese Seko, the former head of the army, took control. Mobutu managed to stay in power for more than 30 years—partially due to his tactics of patronage and brutal repression at home, and partially thanks to his reputation in the West as a cold warrior. During his rule, the country experienced a slow but catastrophic economic decline.
Mobutu was overthrown in 1996 by Laurent Kabila, a rebel leader with a checkered past who had been based in eastern Congo for decades. Laurent Kabila’s rise to power was supported and directed by Rwanda (and Uganda), who felt threatened by the multitude of armed groups that had fled into eastern Congo in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide. After two years, in the eyes of the Rwandans, Laurent Kabila had done no better in quelling the problem, and another war erupted in 1998. This second war became the deadliest conflict in the world since World War II and involved at least eight African nations (DR Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Chad, and Burundi). Although the war officially ended through a power-sharing agreement reached in 2002 between the top rebel groups and Laurent’s son Joseph Kabila, conflict has remained throughout the east of the country.
Although initially popular for his role in ending “Africa’s World War,” Joseph Kabila has spent the last 15 years enriching himself and his family in alleged illicit activities, much of it in the mining sector. For example, the family owns at least 80 companies and 450 miles of diamond concessions along the Angolan border—this while GDP per capita hovers at $800, 85 percent of the population lives on less than $1.50 per day, and the economy endures slowed growth rates and high inflation. It is no wonder the population has routinely expressed an overwhelming desire for political change to solve these problems; many Congo watchers undervalue the sophistication of the Congolese electorate, particularly in rural areas.
In sum, political transitions in Congo have historically happened under three conditions. First, there was a significant collapse in the economic, political, and security factors that loosely stitch the country together. Second, as Samuel Huntington asserted was critical in other historical cases, there was a schism among political elites in the capital and with the military. And third and most importantly, massive external expertise, military backing, and financial support were needed from outside Congo to force political change.
In current-day Congo, the ravages of an Ebola outbreak and economic and political crises suggest the first condition. Evidence of the second condition is mixed: although powerful opposition leaders Jean-Pierre Bemba and Moise Katumbi have railed against Kabila, both have been kept out of Kinshasa for some time; there is still enough coalescing among the political and military elite to create and manage political outcomes. And finally, the critical third factor—so far, there is no sign of a major international or regional push for change.
International Apathy, Regional Caution
After spending billions of dollars to create and support a democracy in Congo in the early 2000s, donor fatigue has set in and international interest has waned significantly. The U.S. government’s sometimes schizophrenic engagement in Congo over the last several years has reflected this sentiment. After suffering through a slow start, Africa policy is picking up steam within the Trump Administration as critical positions are filled in Washington and Kinshasa. The U.S. government had been active in Congo in the run-up to the election, offering to help fund CENI to do its work. But after initially disapproving of the results, the State Department eventually recognized Tshisekedi and controversially congratulated Congo on the “peaceful and democratic transfer of power.” As one senior U.S. government official told me a few years ago, the United States is “more likely to do something positive on the moon than we are in Congo.”
Regionally, Angola and Rwanda remain the most important players with the capacity to decide Congo’s political fate, and both have had their frustrations with Kabila. But there is too much risk in either playing an active role in the full ouster of a regime next door, and they both suffer and benefit from a weak Congo state. For Angola, the crisis in Kasai and refugees flowing over the border has been a significant cause for concern and President Joao Lourneco likely played a role in convincing Kabila to step down in 2018. In Rwanda, international pressure has pushed Paul Kagame to retreat from his support of various rebel leaders in eastern Congo. Also, few leaders in Africa care to enforce free and fair elections in other countries when so many have rigged their own. In fact, urged by Kabila’s advisors, the African Union (AU) recently named Tshisekedi its new 2nd Vice President, meaning his term to become the rotational President would be in 2021. Conditions would have to get much worse for any regional player to enter the fray with significant military action or support.
Kabila Holds the Cards
Despite his weakness relative to other leaders in the region, Kabila’s mastery of manipulation is hard to deny. After a 2011 re-election that lacked credibility, Kabila was undeterred and continued to amass wealth and political capital. Since 2015, despite calls for him to step down and sanctions by the United States and the European Union against his innermost circle, he skillfully manipulated events to find a resolution that best benefited him and his cronies and minimized backlash domestically and abroad. The regime and its enablers intimidated, detained, and killed protestors, burned down opposition headquarters, broke into Catholic churches, and shut down the internet for three weeks after the election—all without fundamentally upsetting the scales of power inside of Congo or provoking outside intervention. Kabila has also retained hard power: In addition to the parliament, he still controls the military and the presidential guard.
Meanwhile, Kabila continues to reside in the presidential palace while Tshisekedi has moved into a modest complex used for ministers’ meetings: a clear sign of who is really in charge. We still do not know the full extent of what the two men agreed to in their “peaceful transfer of power,” but there is no doubt who is holding the cards.