Since I was here in the Congo during the election, I thought I’d go ahead and put together a roundup of sorts for those following.
Here’s some context. Joseph Kabila’s second term as president was supposed to end in December of 2016. If elections had been held and a new president taken power, it would have been the first relatively peaceful transition of power in the country’s history. Instead, though, and following a trend of “constitutional coups” across Africa, Kabila tried to pull a Museveni-Kagame-Nguesso and change the law in order to run again. He faced widespread protests and ultimately failed to do this, so instead he simply delayed the elections, securing the ability to stay in power until a successor was chosen despite the end of his mandate. Every delay is another act of glissement, or slippage, in Congolese parlance.
Alongside the delays, several leading opposition figures were also deemed ineligible to run. After attempts by the opposition to consolidate behind one candidate (an effort which succeeded for 24 hours), there emerged two: Martin Fayulu and Felix Tshisekedi were the major opponents to the regime’s chosen successor, Emmanuel Shadary. In the final month leading up to the elections, the state violently suppressed the opposition at every turn, with reports of the recruiting youth to instigate violence at opposition rallies, the use of live bullets and tear gas to disperse rallies, the refusal by government officials to allow rallies to occur.
My first night in Congo, I watched TV while having dinner in an Aru hotel room. The leading story was that a large fire had damaged a majority of the voting machines in Kinshasa, the country’s capital. The voting machines were already a source of suspicion for many, but the burning of them was also suspicious, as many believed it was an attempt by the state to justify yet another delay. This only made matters worse for elections that have faced logistical problems, partially because CENI, the electoral commission, rejected any foreign assitance (see Laura Seay’s twitter thread about the difficulties of Congolese elections, with or without MONUC/MONUSCO assistance). In the end, CENI announced a one-week delay of the elections.
And then, in the intervening week, CENI announced that the vote would be further delayed until March in three locations—Beni and Butembo in North Kivu and Yumbi in Mai Ndombe—due to concerns around the ongoing Ebola outbreak in the former and insecurity in the latter. This decision effectively disenfranchised over a million people, all in opposition strongholds, and for reasons that didn’t pan out. As many pointed out, Ebola has been a persistent problem in North Kivu for months, but people continue to go to school, church, and markets, they could surely vote. In the following days, protests in North Kivu resulted in several deaths. As one friend here said, “C’est un provocation.”
Heading into the election, the Congo Research Group and BERCI released a major opinion poll about the vote. You can access the full report here [pdf], but the key takeaway is this:
If elections are free and fair, an opposition candidate would be almost certain to win the presidency. According to our survey, Martin Fayulu is clearly the favorite, with 47% (BERCI: 45%, Ipsos/GeoPoll: 49%) of the intended vote, ahead of 24% for Felix Tshisekedi (BERCI: 28%, Ipsos/GeoPoll: 20% ); and 19% (BERCI: 20%, Ipsos/GeoPoll: 18%) for Emmanuel Shadary.
With two years of delays, denying several opposition candidates the chance to run, cracking down on popular mobilizations, and disenfranchising several opposition towns, the regime still faced massive rejections by the populace. It was obvious to both observers and Congolese that a free and fair vote would go to the opposition—the question was whether or not the elections would be rigged.
During election day, it quickly became apparent that the elections did indeed turn out to be a logistical nightmare—marred by technical failures with machines, people not showing up on voters rolls, and polling stations opening many hours late—as well as problem of the polls’ security—with reports of armed groups intimidating voters at multiple stations. In Beni, activists held a mock vote in an act of resistance to their disenfranchisement, demonstrating that a vote could be held without incident. When I took a tour around Dungu late that morning, I passed by three voting stations where people were queued and the situation was calm (I didn’t talk to anyone), though I did later hear of potential issues elsewhere in the province. In the days after the election, though, reports about election day began to get more complicated.
There were reports of “systemic irregularities, particularly missing or broken machines, missing or incomplete voter lists, late openings, long waits, restricted access for independent observers, interference by armed actors, and fraud.” The day after the election, the government shut down internet in most of the country, as well as SMS, to prevent “chaos.” On January 4, the Catholic Church, which had 40,000 observers at polling places across the country, issued a statement that, according to their observations, one candidate clearly won the election, and they called on the government to publish accurate results. The next day, Human Rights Watch published a report outlining instances of both voter intimidation by armed groups and spontaneous violence in confrontations between voters and police or CENI staff. Christoph Vogel wrote a useful update focused on the Kivus – of note is that armed group intimidation was diverse, with different groups rigging the vote for the ruling party and opposition.
Jason Stearns tweeted an important note as everyone awaited the vote tally. “What happens in the next 1-2 weeks will have a huge impact on developments over the coming decade,” he wrote. “This could unfold in many ways. I find it v hard to believe that Kabila/Shadary will accept defeat and step down. I also don’t think they will be able to rig elections and move on, as we now know that the Catholic Church, opposition and civil society, will put up a fight.” Stearns noted that, in the event of a return to mass violence, especially in major cities and in the East, these weeks were a key moment on which things would pivot (see Laura Seay’s thoughts on what could be done). We are still within a critical juncture as this continues to play out).
Everybody said that they had won. Especially concerning was when someone from Shadary’s campaign said “For us, victory is certain.” A few days later pictures circulated of Shadary’s campaign preparing for a victory celebration. Many were concerned about a rigged win for the regime. But soon these worries were replaced by rumors that a deal had been made. Tshisekedi’s camp had met with ruling party officials to ensure a peaceful transition. People began speculating that he had negotiated some sort of power-sharing transition deal in exchange for beating out Fayulu. Many suspected that whatever the election “results” would be, they would be negotiated by elites rather than represent the actual will of the people.
And so the provisional results were set to be presented on January 9th at 11:00pm in Kinshasa (midnight here), and state television began broadcasting shortly before. As we “slipped” from the 9th and into the 10th, people on Twitter joked about yet another instance of glissement. After a long pre-game show of watching people file in and out of the room, CENI finally began around 2:00am my time. CENI officials then proceeded to name each of the more than 700 provincial deputies elected in the country, an announcement that wasn’t supposed to happen for weeks, pushing the presidential results until 4:00am here in Dungu, where myself and three others sat watching TV in the paillote in the compound.
Finally, in the early hours of the 10th, the results were announced.
Tshisekedi had won with 38% (7.05 million votes), followed closely by Fayulu’s 34% (6.36 million), and with Shadary’s 23% (4.36 million) a distant third. Many were releieved that the election hadn’t been rigged for Shadary, but for most it seemed an even stranger outcome: that the government had rigged the election for the opposition in an effort to deny a different opposition candidate the presidency. Reuters later confirmed that the Catholic Church had privately briefed some diplomats that Fayulu had won handily.
In the days since, there were instances of violence in a number of cities on the 10th and 11th. While over a dozen have been killed since the proclamation, and several died on election day, in the face of the potential of riots or a return to civil war, it feels like an instance of declaring it “all quiet on the front” here despite the violence. Fayulu has explicitly called the results fradulent, and may be moving forwards with a formal complaint. Meanwhile, Tshisekedi leaned into his victory, lauding Kabila as partner of democracy in Congo (really).
Some have speculated that Tshisekedi’s deal may have been arranged as far back as when he initialy bailed on the opposition coalition. Pierre Englebert reevaluated the CRG/BERCI opinion poll to show that the results were implausible, stating that “data suggests that the probability Tshisekedi could have scored 38% in a free election is less than 0.0000. There is a 95% chance his real numbers would be somewhere between 21.3% and 25%.” He ends his analysis with some good hypotheses as to when, why, and how Tshisekedi’s bid may have played out.
Regardless, the situation—expertly played by Kabila—hands power over to a constrained opposition candidate (especially with the legislative elections apparently going to the ruling party) while also pitting the opposition against itself as Fayulu tries to organize supporters against Tshisekedi’s ascendance to the presidency. As Stearns put it in a recent op-ed for the New York Times: “If Mr. Tshisekedi is reduced to a figurehead president, the current system of governance will most likely continue. Millions will be displaced, thousands will be killed, and the international community will be left to deal with the wreckage.”
Many have taken this moment, rightly, to call attention to how contingent political processes, and the control that ruling leaders have, can be in the face of popular resistance. Two and a half years ago, Kabila was plotting how to stay in power for a third term. Instead, he not only didn’t run, but his hand-picked candidate lost, even in elections marred by irregularities and implausible results. While this cannot and should not be called democracy, this outcome a symbol of Kabila’s frustrated attempts to remain president, and that was achieved on the backs of (and with many sacrifices among) youth, civil society, the Catholic Church, human rights activists, and civil rights groups.
What comes next, however, is yet to be determined. Fayulu may try to contest the results, but it’s not clear if he has any leverage. The Church has decried the results as rigged, but won’t commit to releasing its numbers. Tshisekedi may become president in a relatively peaceful transition, but it is an open question if he will be able to do anything or if Kabila and his elite circle will be able to continue to run the country from behind closed doors. The official results are due in coming days, and the new president is supposed to take power by the end of the week. What this mean for Congo is unclear – we’re still in the midst of a critical juncture for the future of the country.