The mineral-rich, strife-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, the largest country in sub-Saharan Africa, is about to stage arguably its most significant election since gaining independence from Belgium some 60 years ago.
Under regional and international pressure, President Joseph Kabila has grudgingly agreed to step down after two consecutive terms in office – the constitutional limit – paving the way for what many had hope will be the country’s first democratic transfer of power. Yet there are growing signs that the transition may be flawed.
Having begun his tenure promisingly by helping to end a bitter civil war and opening up the country to international investment, President Kabila’s rule has latterly been marred by economic mismanagement and bouts of repression.
With just a few days before the long-delayed December 23 poll, serious concerns have been raised about its credibility and the possibility of widespread violence should the outcome be contested by the opposition, which seems likely if significant fraud is suspected.
Foreign investors will be watching events closely, hoping for minimal disruption at a time when the country can ill-afford a downturn in investment confidence. After a substantial expansion in the first 15 years of Kabila’s tenure, economic growth has slowed, leaving the country more reliant than ever on FDI.
Much of the foreign investment has flowed into mineral extraction projects, DRC being the world’s largest source of cobalt and the leading copper producer in Africa. Much of the country’s mining activity – its main source of export income – is in the southern province of Katanga, with its capital Lubumbashi recently the scene of pre-election violence. The former provincial governor, Moise Katumbi, has been banned from participating in the ballot.
Mr Kabila, who came to power in 2001 after the assassination of his father, appears intent on continuing to run the country behind-the-scenes by engineering the election of a little-known loyalist. Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, the theory goes, would serve as a placeman until 2023 when Kabila would be free to run for office again.
Mr Kabila’s refusal to stage elections when his second presidential term limit ended in late 2016 sparked widespread political unrest which was put down by security forces leaving scores dead. The crackdown prompted the European Union to impose sanctions on Mr Shadary, the then-interior minister.
The government has done little to instil confidence over the conduct of the upcoming poll which constitutes a considerable logistical and transparency challenge for a country two-thirds the size of Western Europe with 46 million registered voters.
A decision to abandon paper ballots in favour of electronic voting machines has proved hugely controversial, with critics pointing to both their questionable reliability, given the DRC’s chronic electricity shortages, and vulnerability to fraud.
Mr Shadary’s candidacy is supported by the full weight of the government’s considerable resources, and his prospects have been further bolstered by a neutered and divided opposition.
The electoral commission banned two of the most popular opposition politicians, Mr Katumbi and the former warlord Jean-Pierre Bemba. Plans by the opposition to unite behind one candidate, Martin Fayulu, who is backed by Mr Katumbi and Mr Bemba, lasted just 24 hours with Felix Tshisekedi, the son of a legendary opposition leader, and Vital Kamerhe jumping ship to mount a separate challenge.
Were there a level playing field, an opposition candidate might stand a good chance of defeating Mr Kabila’s anonymous, hand-picked successor, but the omens are not good. The government was accused by the opposition of rigging the 2011 presidential elections and has delayed the subsequent poll through a combination of strong-arming and administrative obstructions.
In advance of the upcoming election, the UN has said it is deeply worried about reports of “excessive use of force, including live ammunition, by security forces against opposition rallies”. At the same time, an upsurge in fighting combined with a devastating Ebola outbreak in the east may militate against the staging of a ballot in the region and possibly create opportunities for electoral fraud.
Some observers are pessimistic about the outcome. Congolese Nobel Peace Prize winner Denis Mukwege, a renowned doctor who treated rape victims in the eastern town of Bukavu, told Reuters that he feared the elections “will not be free, fair, credible and peaceful” and warned that if there were massive fraud supporters of the losing candidates will contest the outcome of the poll.
Mr Kabila, meanwhile, has been reinforcing his own position to ensure that he will be able to continue to exert influence when he steps down, whoever wins the election.
He has appointed loyalists to both the constitutional court and leading positions in the army, police and intelligence service; and he is expected to take up a newly created position of president of his ruling People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy when he leaves office. At the same time, the PPRD-dominated parliament has passed legislation granting former presidents a number of security and financial privileges. There is of course only one possible beneficiary of the new law.
In the unlikely event of an opposition victory the moves, in Mr Kabila’s eyes, are sensible precautions. And he might regard them to be just as advisable should Mr Shadary triumph, given the fate of other southern African leaders of late. Angola’s Jose Eduardo dos Santos and Botswana’s Ian Khama put their faith in hand-picked successors, who subsequently turned the table on them. As Mr Kabila prepares for uncertain times ahead, it seems he is not leaving very much to chance.
Yigal Chazan is the head of content at Alaco, a London-based business intelligence consultancy
[A few hours after this analysis was published, and just days before the long-delayed December 23 poll, the electoral authorities announced a one-week postponement because, they claimed, preparations were not yet in place. The move has added to already serious concerns about the ballot’s credibility and the possibility of widespread violence should the outcome be contested by the opposition, which seems likely if significant fraud is suspected.]