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President Joseph Kabila

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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”)