The Democratic Republic of Congo finally has a new leader after years of misrule by Joseph Kabila. On January 24, Félix Tshisekedi was sworn in as the country’s new leader, however, his legitimacy is a fiction from an election that was anything but democratic. It was the Congo’s first presidential transfer of power via an election from when it gained independence from Belgium 59 years ago. Holding the election was met by resistance from Joseph Kabila who delayed the constitutionally mandated elections for the past two years in a bid to cling to power.
Kabila had hand-picked the controversial Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary to be his successor in what many surmised as a way for Kabila to return to power much in the way like Putin used Dmitry Medvedev as a placeholder until he could constitutionally return to office. Shadary has been a deeply unpopular figure with the Congolese public—as unpopular as Kabila himself—and has remained under EU sanctions since 2016. The sanctions stem from his role in violent crackdowns on protesters and delaying the elections while his stint as Interior Minister and a senior party official in Kabila’s PPRD party (People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy).
Not only had the election been delayed for two years, they were met with other trying challenges in the days just before they were due to be held. Just a week before the election was due to be held, an extremely suspicious fire broke out at a warehouse in Kinshasa destroying 8,000 voting machines meant to be deployed in the capitol city. The fire further delayed the election by another week. Then, just days away from the election Kabila ignored the advice of his own medical officials and barred voters in regions affected by the recent and ongoing Ebola outbreak from voting until months after the election was held. His decision was met by protests, just the latest among many throughout the entire election process, by a population tired of delay after delay. The atmosphere all over the country was tense with the fear of violence breaking out.
Finally, on December 30, voters went to the polls to vote for a new Congolese president among three major candidates—Félix Tshisekedi, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, and Martin Fayulu who was the most favored in pre-election polling. On January 10, Congo’s election commission announced its preliminary results that Félix Tshisekedi had won the election. The announcement immediately became bitterly contested.
The Catholic Church, one of the few NGO’s allowed to monitor the elections and had fielded 40,000 observers, said its data clearly showed Martin Fayulu had won. Data from other sources also leave little doubt that the election results were fraudulent. Fayulu challenged the results saying, the results do “not reflect the truth of the ballots” and called the results an “electoral coup.” The United States, which had sent 80 troops to Gabon in case violence broke out that threatened American citizens, demanded “accurate” election results to be released and threatened sanctions against anyone trying to undermine Congo’s democracy. The African Union also immediately questioned the results, calling for a suspension of the results. It announced it was sending a high-level delegation to the Congo to find “a way out of the post-electoral crisis.” Nonetheless, Congo’s Kabila-controlled constitutional court upheld the election results on January 19.
Both Joseph Kabila and Félix Tshisekedi stand accused of making a backroom deal to secure the election in their favor. It is thought that once Kabila realized Shadary was so unpopular that his winning the election was inconceivable, he looked to find the next best choice. Given that Fayulu seemed likely to investigate the graft that occurred under Kabila, and Tshisekedi said he was willing to work with Kabila’s PPRD which will remain the dominant party, a picture emerges of why the corrupt Kabila would throw the election to Tshisekedi.
“I call… on all of the international community not to recognize a leader that has neither legitimacy nor the legal status to represent the Congolese people,” proclaimed Fayulu after the constitutional court released its finding making Félix Tshisekedi the election’s winner. Unfortunately, the international community is caught in a tough spot given the fear of extreme violence breaking out in a country that has seen the deadliest fighting since WWII. Many countries because of that fear have decided to recognize the constitutional court’s decision on the election results. The United States went back on its previous challenge and recognized the court’s decision making its democracy promotion selective at best. The U.S. is currently refusing to recognize Venezuela’s President after that country’s fraudulent elections. The AU also canceled sending it high-level delegation to the Congo to mediate the election results which is a blow to the organizations democracy promotion record that has been critical to the continent since the early 2000’s. Thus far, at the time of this writing, major violence appears to be avoided—at least for now. Fayulu is currently calling for “peaceful resistance.”
So who is Félix Tshisekedi? Félix Tshisekedi is the son of the late Étienne Tshisekedi who founded Congo’s largest opposition party, the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS), in 1982. Étienne Tshisekedi challenged Joseph Kabila in the 2011 presidential election but lost. He disputed the results and mounted a legal challenge to no avail. Much of Félix’s success is due to being the son of his father, but he rather not be thought of in that way. He told Al Jazeera, “I am my father’s son, but I am also my own man.”
As his father ran for the presidency against Kabila in 2011, Félix Tshisekedi ran for parliament as a representative of the country’s third-largest city, Mbuji-Mayi. He won that election, but in protest to what he felt was Kabila’s stolen election from his father, he refused to take the seat. From there Tshisekedi worked his way through the ranks to become head of UDPS which made him a defacto candidate for president for the election. Many have accused him of being inexperienced. “I have more political experience than some of my opponents. I joined politics 25 years ago and started from the bottom,” he said in the same Al Jazeera interview.
On the campaign trail Tshisekedi promised to make poverty a “great national cause” and wants to increase the average Congolese income from the $1.25 per day it is today to $11.75 per day. He says that goal can be accomplished over a ten-year period at a cost of $86 billion.
Given how illegitimate the election was carried out, it remains to be seen how Tshisekedi will rule. Kabila’s party still controls parliament, and it is being reported Kabila himself will still exercise control of key ministries and security forces. At his presidential swearing in ceremony, the 55-year old father of five, proclaimed in front of a crowd of thousands he wanted “to build a strong Congo, turned toward its development in peace and security.” At one point the ceremony was interrupted when Tshisekedi felt unwell and had to take to sitting down for a few moments. His spokesman later said that the incident was caused by his bulletproof vest being too tight. Violence is not far from anyone’s thoughts.