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Congo: Half a Loaf

‘Half a loaf is better than no bread’ is what you tell yourself to justify giving in to a rotten deal, and there’s a choir of African leaders singing that chorus now. They pretend to be celebrating the elevation of Felix Tshitsekedi to the presidency in the Democratic Republic of Congo (the big Congo), but they are privately lamenting it while accepting that it is probably the least bad option now.

Felix Tshisekedi is the 55-year-old son of Etienne Tshisekedi, the founder of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress, the DRC’s main opposition party. For 25 years he defied the dictators who have robbed and ruined the country, spent much of his life in exile, and became a national hero. He died last year.

Etienne Tshisekedi was never keen to see his son succeed him, fearing that Felix lacked the ability and commitment to lead the party, but in March he was chosen as Etienne’s successor by the party’s leading members. And last November, he showed his true colours.
The current dictator, Joseph Kabila, had to leave power at least for a while, since the constitution allows presidents only two consecutive five-year terms. He could legally come back after another five years, but in the meantime he had to find a presidential candidate who would do his bidding and keep his seat warm.

The official candidate was duly named – an associate of Kabila’s called Emmanuel Shadary – but it was clear that a single opposition candidate might win the presidency if the vote was fair. The DRC’s 84 million people are sick of living in a potentially rich country where most people are desperately poor even by central African standards.

So all the opposition parties got together in November to pick a single presidential candidate. Felix Tshisekedi was there and went along with it when they chose that candidate, Martin Fayulu. But the following day he broke with the other opposition parties and declared his own candidacy.

Was it just pique, or did he get a better offer? In retrospect, it was probably the latter.

The presidential elections were duly held at the end of December, and to everybody’s astonishment Tshisekedi won. The official candidate, Shadary. came last. So why isn’t everybody celebrating the triumphant return of democracy to the Democratic Republic of Congo?

Because nobody believes the numbers. Opinion polls before the vote had Fayulu winning with between 39% and 43% of the vote, Tshisekedi coming a distant second with between 21% and 25% and official regime candidate Shadary straggling in with only 14%-17 So the united opposition should have won – but it didn’t.

Fayulu was leading Tshisekedi by almost two-to-one in the opinion polls. How and why did it come to pass that the official results gave Tshisekedi 38% of the vote and Fayulu only 34%?

Fayulu cried foul. The African Union said it had “serious doubts” about the result and announced that it was sending a delegation to the DRC. And the influential Catholic Church of the DRC, which deployed 40,000 election observers, reported that the official results did not match its findings.

What probably happened is as follows. The outgoing president, Joseph Kabila, inherited his power from his father, a warlord called Laurent Kabila, when the latter was assassinated by his bodyguard in 2000. He also inherited the military commanders who brought his father to power, and held the real power in the regime. They, or their successors, still do.

There was never agreement among these commanders about whether Joseph Kabila was the right front-man for the regime. Those who wanted a change may well have chosen Shadary as the regime’s new official candidate against Kabila’s wishes. Or maybe Kabila simply realised that Shadary wasn’t going to win even with a lot of help from the people counting the ballots.

It appears that Kabila seduced Felix Tshisekedi with the promise of the presidency, and made sure the voting results came out in his favour. It was a stroke of political genius, because it actually looks like the opposition won. It didn’t.

As soon as Tshisekedi’s victory was ‘confirmed’, he declared that “I pay tribute to President Joseph Kabila. Today we should no longer see him as an adversary, but rather, a partner in democratic change in our country.” And almost everybody outside the DRC is sorrowfully going along with the deceit.

The African Union has ‘postponed’ its mission to the DRC indefinitely, and two respected African leaders, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta and South Africa President Cyril Ramaphosa, have sent Tshisekedi their congratulations. The southern African regional group SADC has also welcomed Tshisekedi’s ‘victory’, and urged all Congolese to support the president-elect in his bid to maintain “unity, peace and stability”.

That’s the heart of the matter. Public protests over the rigged election will be met with massive violence, and risk tumbling the DRC into another catastrophic civil war. At least this will be the country’s first non-violent transfer of power, so the rest of Africa is telling the Congolese to swallow their pride and bide their time. Half a loaf is better than none.
To shorten to 750 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“What…ballots”)

Congo Election

Maybe the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is a bit more democratic than the mere Republic of Congo, but it’s a matter of (fairly small) degrees. President Denis Sassou has ruled the Republic of Congo for 33 of the past 38 years, winning a couple of civil wars in the process and changing the constitution when term limits got in the way of his staying in power. He’s still there.

President Joseph Kabila of the DRC, on the other hand, is actually leaving the presidency after a mere 17 years in power. He hung on for two years past the scheduled election in 2016, offering a series of increasingly absurd reasons for the delay, but the election will actually be held on 23 December – and Kabila will not be a candidate. So two cheers for democracy in the DRC.

The Republic of Congo is the little Congo (population 5 million), with nothing much to offer the world except oil. That gives it a certain fragile prosperity, although much of the oil money is stolen by Sassou and his associates.

The DRC is the big Congo, with 85 million people scattered across a largely roadless country the size of Western Europe. It should be rich: it has oil, cobalt, gold, diamonds and coltan (used in electronics). But the money is almost all stolen, and it is just about the poorest country in Africa (no. 51 out of 52).

When it got its independence from Belgium in 1960, the DRC was no poorer than other countries in the region (although the Belgians had completely neglected education, and only 17 Congolese had university degrees). What has condemned it to seemingly perpetual tyranny, violence and poverty is its uniquely awful style of politics.

The first post-colonial leader, Patrice Lumumba, was overthrown within months of taking office, and murdered shortly afterwards. His successor, Mobutu Sese Seko, a former private soldier in the Belgian colonial army, then ruled the country (and looted it) for 32 years. He was finally driven from power in 1997 by a combination of rebellions at home and invasions by African armies that came “to help”.

The invaders helped themselves to a lot of the country’s mineral wealth, and put into power Laurent Kabila, a former Marxist revolutionary and guerilla leader who had served as a Congolese front-man for the invasion. He was assassinated by his bodyguard in 2001 and his cronies and allies chose his son Joseph Kabila, then only 30 years old, to replace him.

Kabila Jr., having initially been very reluctant to take the job (presumably because of the high fatality rate), eventually got into the spirit of the thing. He proceeded to loot the DRC for a further 17 years – Bloomberg reports that his wife, children and close relatives hold 120 mining permits, the main source of money from bribes – and was naturally most reluctant to leave office when constitutional term limits obliged him to step down.

But the pressure mounted inexorably on him, both from better-run African countries and from Western countries, including even Donald Trump’s former UN ambassador, Nikki Haley. After two years of stalling, during which sanctions were imposed on a number of the regime’s senior members, Joseph Kabila agreed to hold elections this month.

So is democracy coming to the Congo at last? Don’t count on it. The regime’s choice for a successor, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, is a close colleague of Kabila’s with no independent support base of his own, so if elected he would faithfully serve Kabila’s interests.

Indeed, Shadary could even serve as place-holder until the following election, when it would be constitutionally permissible for Kabila to run for the presidency again (rather as Vladimir Putin put Dmitry Medvedev in the Russian presidency for four years before taking it back himself). Of course, Shadary has to win the election first, but that may not be hard.

Apart from having all the resources of the state at his disposal, Shadary faces a disunited opposition. The seven leading opposition parties, some of them simply the personal political vehicles for one man, tried to agree on a united front last month, but the agreement broke down within a day and there are two competing coalitions of parties running against Kabila’s nominee.

One is led by Felix Tsishekedi, a long-standing opposition figure, the other by Martin Fayulu, a prominent member of parliament. There’s not really much difference between them, and the split is mostly due to the fact that too big a coalition means that if you win, there are too many people seeking a share of the spoils of victory. Nobody imagines that corruption will end if Shadary is defeated.

Since the opposition vote is being split in this way, Shadary will probably win – and Kabila could be back four years later. Or he could end up dead. Any of them could. The political game in the DRC is played for high stakes, but it rarely if ever focuses on the welfare of the citizens.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 11. (“The Republic…associates”; and “Indeed…hard”)

Congo: Drifting into Dangerous Waters

You have to admire Joseph Kabila’s cheek, if nothing else. On Saturday, at his first press conference in seven years, the long-serving president of the Democratic Republic of Congo said: “We have to have elections as scheduled.” But they were scheduled for December of 2016.

Kabila had been in office for fourteen years by then, but somehow he had forgotten that you need an up-to-date voters’ list before you can hold an election. So he generously offered to stay in office as president for another year while this was done, even though he was not allowed to run for a third term as president.

The various opposition parties and the Catholic Church, which has immense influence in the DRC, were not greatly pleased by that. However, they reluctantly agreed to go along with it and the election was rescheduled for December 2017 – last month.

As it became clear that the deadline would not be met the demonstrations and protests multiplied, and the ‘security forces’ grew more repressive: a recent UN report found that state agents had carried out 1,176 killings in 2017. And late last year Kabila declared that the elections would have to be postponed again, to December 2018.

“Kabila does not have any intention to leave power,” said Felix Tshisekedi, a prominent opposition leader, after the latest postponement. “His strategy is to spread chaos across the country and then delay elections because he’ll claim there is too much violence.” The violence is certainly increasing, and there is a serious risk that Congo is sliding back towards civil war, but it’s too simple to blame it all on Kabila.

Joseph Kabila came to power when his father Laurent-Desire Kabila, a warlord who had emerged victorious in the first civil war in 1997, was assassinated in 2001. He was only 29 at the time (although his father had already made him army chief of staff), and he had no political following of his own.

He has subsequently become very rich, but he is still not a powerful figure in his own right. He was put in office by the security forces, now dominated by the men who led his father’s rebel army, and he remains largely a figurehead while they make the real decisions. The problem is that they can’t decide who should replace him.

Kabila didn’t actually forget to change the law that restricted him to two terms of office. Doing that would have been simple enough if the men who really run things had all wanted him to stay in office. (Three other African leaders have changed the rules on term limits so they could stay in office in just the past year.)

Nor is there much doubt that Kabila would have won if there had been an election last year or the year before. It’s the regime’s own people who are slowly compiling the voters’ lists, and the choices they make will doubtless guarantee a victory for the regime. The situation is drifting towards chaos because the various factions within the security forces cannot agree whether to keep Kabila in power or switch to another figurehead.

It’s all about who has access to resources (for which read money) within the regime, but meanwhile 81 million Congolese are being dragged towards another civil war. The last one, in 1998-2003, killed at least 5 million Congolese, mostly from hunger and disease. They do not need another.

There is already heavy fighting between militia groups and the army in the east and south-east, with the majority of the casualties, as usual, being civilians. It would be comforting to believe that an election could stop all this, but it can’t. What is required is a strong and reasonably honest government that can reassert control over this huge country, the poorest in the world.

It is sheer fantasy to imagine that a country bigger than all of western Europe, but with less in the way of all-weather roads than tiny Luxembourg and a per capita income of about a dollar a day, can be saved by a free election. Communications are so poor that there is no genuine ‘public opinion’, and beyond Kinshasa, the capital, almost all political loyalties are tribal.

Democracy is important, and for most African countries – for most countries anywhere – it is the best solution. But the Congo is too big, too poor and too ethnically fragmented for that to work yet. Elections are symbolically important because they embody the principles of popular sovereignty and the rule of law, but everybody who might actually get elected belongs to a small privileged elite.

A relatively small part of that group, the ‘security elite’, have actually been running everything since the turn of the century, and the first order of business must be for them to make a deal on who their candidate will be at the next election. Whoever that is will certainly win, and it hardly matters whether it is Kabila or somebody else. Those behind the scenes will still pull the strings.

But until they reach an agreement about the regime’s candidate, the country will continue to drift, and it is drifting into dangerous waters.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“Kabila…figurehead”)

The Gambia: A Short Billion Years

“We will win the biggest landslide this country has ever seen,” said The Gambia’s President Yahya Jammeh before the small West African country’s recent election, and he had every reason to be confident. Jammeh had been in power for 22 years, and he knew how to run an election.

Jammeh, who was an 29-year-old army lieutenant when he seized power, has been in the habit of detaining, torturing and killing dissident journalists and political opponents, and this election was no exception. Two leading opposition politicians were beaten to death in prison and 15 others jailed for three years last April, international election observers were banned, and on voting day last Thursday the internet was shut down.

There was not the slightest indication that Jammeh was ready to surrender power. He said he was “proud to be a dictator,” promised to bury the “evil vermin called opposition nine feet deep”, and once declared that he would rule “for one billion years if Allah wills it.” But when the marbles spoke last Friday morning, he had lost the election.

In the Gambia, they vote by dropping marbles into different-coloured drums, and when they were all counted an obscure property developer named Adama Barrow had 45 percent of the marbles. Yahya Jammeh had only 36 percent.

So he was guilty of over-confidence and poor election management, but nobody imagined that he would actually go quietly. Yet he did.

On Friday, Yahya Jammeh went on television and conceded defeat, saying “I want to make it very clear that I will never rule this country without your mandate and I will never cheat.” The astonished head of the electoral commission, Alieu Momar Njie, said: “It’s really unique that someone who has been ruling this country for so long has accepted defeat” – and The Gambia exploded with joy.

Jammeh was always erratic, but nobody saw this coming. Africans elsewhere who also have a problem with rulers who overstay their welcome were delighted. “Yahya Jammeh has recognised his defeat! Who would have thought it? There is hope!” said Fred Bauma, the youthful leader of a non-violent pro-democracy movement in the Democratic Republic of Congo. (He has been in detention for the past year.)

Hope soared even higher when Angola’s president, Eduardo dos Santos, declared hours after Jammeh conceded defeat that after 38 years in power he will step down next year. Even 92-year-old Robert Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe since 1980, was heard to speak last week about retiring “properly” (although with no date mentioned).

Now for the (rather discouraging) small print. Adama Barrow has good intentions, but many of the ambitious people in the coalition of small opposition parties that Barrow put together may approach their time in power in the spirit of that famous Kenyan phrase “It’s our turn to eat now.” As Lord Acton famously remarked, “Power tends to corrupt.”

Eduardo Dos Santos first said he was going to leave the presidency in Angola in 2001, but then it slipped his mind. He seems more genuinely committed to quitting this time, but Angola is a one-party state and he has already announced his successor, defence minister Joao Lourenco. “Absolute power corrupts absolutely,” as Lord Acton added.

And Robert Mugabe, who spent a decade in jail while leading the independence struggle and has run Zimbabwe ever since, resorts to violence when challenged politically and has completely destroyed his country’s once promising economy. He may occasionally talk about retiring, but he will hold onto power until he dies. “Great men are almost always bad men,” as Acton concluded.

As for the Democratic Republic of Congo, where a presidential election was due this month, President Joseph Kabila has now postponed it until 2018. He has been in power, and his father before him, since 1997, and he has no intention of leaving it now. He just needs more time to rig the next election.

Even when elections are not rigged, it is sheer fantasy to believe that the outcomes are determined by voters who carefully considered all the options and chose the one that was best for the community.

Most people are far too busy with their own personal lives to give political matters much thought. When they do vote, they tend to be guided by their emotions or by their class, ethic or religious identity. As Beppe Grillo, leader of Italy’s populist Five State Movement, cynically urged Italian voters in the recent referendum: “Vote with your gut” (and not with your brains).

Africa is not alone with this problem. Even in older and richer democracies, democratic decision-making is often irrational and sometimes self-destructive. So why bother?

Because governments must be changed from time to time if they are not to become completely self-serving, and elections are a better way to change them than military coups or violent revolts. Because democracy requires and strengthens the rule of law. And because of the “wisdom of crowds”: the voters get it right, or at least partly right, more often than any narrower decision-making group.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 12. (“Jammeh…down”; and “As…election”)