US must stand with Congo’s voters and its civil society

US must stand with Congo’s voters and its civil society
© Getty Images

Last week, while cable news was calculating the hours and minutes of the U.S. government shutdown, some unexpected headlines from Africa and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) managed to creep into the international news roundup.

Congo opposition leader Felix Tshisekedi clinches surprise win in presidential election,” reported Reuters. The BBC announced “Felix Tshisekedi steps out of his father’s shadow to lead DR Congo,” and the United Nations extolled the country’s “first peaceful transfer of power.”

At first blush it appeared most welcome and historic news to distract from the blame game of U.S. governing failure. But like all things Congo, it’s complicated.

ADVERTISEMENT

The consensus on “historic” is indeed, a Yes. But on “welcome,” that depends on whether you believe that electoral justice is more important than short-term stability.

It depends on if you side with the pro-democracy activists that have been mobilizing in the Congo since 2012 cultivating a demanding citizenry, and with the Catholic Church who fielded 40,000 observers and disputes the closed-door tallying of the government-controlled national electoral commission CENI.

I know where I stand. But what matters is where the international stakeholders of the DRC end up — the governments of Belgium, United Kingdom, France, the United States, the European Union, the United Nations, the African Union and the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

Will they retreat to their default positions, as suggested by the AU representative last week, noting that there is no alternative but to rely on the word of legally-mandated bodies in DRC?

Or will they recognize this as an inflection point for a country held back by unbearable man-made misfortune, and associate with a coordinated civil society that appears to have forced reform on a perpetual one-party state.

On Sunday 30 December 2018, millions of Congolese went to the polls to elect a new president and national lawmakers. Despite a two-year delay, a chaotic process, and the exclusion of four percent of the electorate because of the on-going Ebola health emergency, the vote came off with relative calm.

The presidential contest was fought between Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, the choice of the country’s president Joseph Kabila (who is under EU sanctions for human rights crimes), Felix Tshiekedi, the son of the country’s veteran opposition leader who founded the Union for Democracy and Social Progress in 1982 and died in 2017, and Martin Fayulu, a former executive of Mobil Oil who was backed two political leaders the government barred from standing.

Just getting to this point of electoral uncertainty was a struggle of epic proportion for Congo’s 85 million people — and why the final certified result must be just, and evidence-based.

The DRC is the second largest country in Africa. Its expansive, mysterious character, and rich natural resources, have drawn adventurers and plunderers throughout its history, and  it became a battleground for one of the world’s deadliest recent conflicts, where an estimated 6 million people died.

Today the country retains the largest peacekeeping mission on the continent, the United Nations Stabilization Mission in the DR Congo (MONUSCO).

Upon the assassination of his father in 2001, at just 29 years old, Joseph Kabila took over the reins of power. He was elected president of the republic in 2006, and then re-elected in 2011 in a disputed election which was marred by wide-spread violence.

As president, Kabila restored relative peace to the country, ending the regional war that involved nine nations, negotiating truce with 25 rebel groups, reviving the war-torn economy, and initiating a highly regarded fight against sexual violence.  But he long overstayed his welcome.

ADVERTISEMENT

In 2016, in a deal with part of the opposition, Kabila’s term was extended to permit the organization of nation-wide elections. It was widely speculated that he would use this window to change the constitution and run for a third term, but in August of last year, after 18 years in office, the DRC president announced that he would not run again for president.

In the lead up to the 30 December elections, CENI, by design or incompetence, seemed to do all in its power to undermine itself and the integrity of the process, including the refusal to certify independent observers, the disruption of voting in opposition strongholds, and an unexplained fire that destroyed new voting machines.

But none of that stopped the Congolese. “Voters showed they were determined to participate in the democratic process in the face of rampant election-day obstacles,” said Ida Sawyer of Human Rights Watch.

As the results started coming in exposing an apparent defeat for the ruling party’s candidate, the government shut-down the internet and all text messaging.

The DRC’s civil society and religious organizations understood that it was up to them to defend their democracy. 21 civil society organizations, who were part of the nation-wide monitoring, demanded a transparent vote count.

The National Episcopal Conference of the Congo (CENCO) which conducted its own Parallel Vote Tabulation (PVT), announced that they knew who the winner was, sharing the data with diplomats and other key stakeholders, though not announcing publicly. That person, it was reported, was Martin Fayulu.

For ten days the country sat in media blackout as rumors swirled suggesting that with Mr. Shadary performing so abysmally, the government realized that naming him a victor would not fly, so they cut a deal with Felix Tshisekedi.

And then on Thursday of last week, CENI announced its provisional results naming Tshisekedi the winner with 38.57 percent of the vote, just ahead of Fayulu with 34.8 percent. Shadary, the candidate backed by Kabila, came a distant third with 23.8 percent.  The voter participation was just under 50 percent.

The results were immediately questioned by CENCO, and other credible stakeholders who released data showing the implausibility of the CENI count. On Saturday 12 January, Fayulu appealed to the Constitutional Court for a recount claiming that a back-door deal was cut.

Congo’s constitutional court has seven days, until 19 January to consider the case, and there are three options: annul the vote, recount the vote, or confirm Tshisekedi’s victory.

Congo’s international stakeholders have issued statements expressing concern about discrepancies in provisional election results, suggesting that  data and methodology must be examined. This includes the U.S. State Department. But so far, they are impotent words, without consequences, and the Congolese people face a deadline.

Late breaking on Sunday, SADC issued a statement offering support for a recount of the vote, a welcome point of departure from its past position, but then in the same breath, called for a government of national unity, which is a lethal blow to democratic intent.

The stakes are global. According to Bloomberg, Congo could be one of Africa’s richest countries. It holds an estimated $25 trillion in mineral reserves including most of the cobalt on which a clean energy revolution depends, enough hydropower for much of Africa, and rich agricultural land that has barely been cultivated.

If you believe, like I do, in the appeal of democracy on the African continent, that the future is in the hands of the continent’s political outsiders, that accountability to the governed can change the trajectory of a nation, then there is no other option but to stand with the people of Congo, and demand that CENI show the votes.  

Until such time that there is a credible and transparent vote count, foreign missions should refrain from recognizing Mr. Tshisekedi’s victory. Only at this point the news will undeniably be both historic and welcome.

NOTE: This post has been updated from the original to add the late-breaking statement from the SADC.

K. Riva Levinson is president and CEO of KRL International LLC, a D.C.-based consultancy that works in the world’s emerging markets, award-winning author of "Choosing the Hero: My Improbable Journey and the Rise of Africa's First Woman President" (Kiwai Media, June 2016). Follow her on Twitter @rivalevinson