With little over a month to go, the Congolese opposition is in disarray
For a brief moment this week, it looked like the fractured and chaotic Congolese opposition movement had got its act together; that, somehow, the various pretenders to the throne had put aside their personal ambitions and united behind a single candidate who could pose a real threat to the ruling party.
That moment lasted little more than a day. “The accord has already fallen apart. I can’t say it’s a huge surprise,” said Stephanie Wolters from the Institute for Security Studies.
The proxy war
The Democratic Republic of Congo is scheduled to go to the polls on December 23, after more than two years of delays. President Joseph Kabila, who has shown little willingness to relinquish power, has thrown his weight behind the little-known figure of Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, the secretary of the interior.
Shadary is known as the “dauphin”, which literally means dolphin and was the title of the direct heir to the French throne, but in this context signifies that he is perceived to be a proxy for the president. This perception is encouraged by some election posters in the capital Kinshasa, in which Kabila is pictured looking over Shadary’s shoulder.
Although Shadary’s profile is low, he enters the race with the full weight of the state behind him, and Kabila will do his best to pass on all the benefits of incumbency to his chosen surrogate. Despite this, opposition leaders sense weakness, and think this may be their best chance to remove Kabila from power. A few major hurdles stand in their way, however.
The first is the integrity of the election itself, which is already compromised. The electoral commission has admitted that “millions” of duplicate names made it on to the roll and opposition parties have raised major questions about new electronic voting machines they claim could be used for rigging.
Some parts of the country will struggle to vote at all given the presence of conflict or disease.
The second is the fragmented nature of opposition politics in the country. Shadary may be beatable in a credible election, but only if the opposition presents a united front.
In Geneva, on Sunday, they attempted to do exactly that.
A series of delicate negotiations between opposition parties culminated in the announcement of Martin Fayulu — another relatively low-profile figure — as the opposition’s consensus candidate. Present at the meeting were all the heavyweights: Moïse Katumbi, the wealthy businessman and former Katanga governor forced into exile; Jean-Pierre Bemba, the one-time warlord who was recently acquitted by the International Criminal Court; and Felix Tshisekedi, son of the late opposition icon Étienne Tshisekedi, whose Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UPDS) is the largest and best-organised opposition party.
Fayulu’s candidacy was pushed hardest by Katumbi and Bemba, who have both been barred from running in this election. Like Kabila, they also need a proxy, and Fayulu fits the bill.
“I’m sure we will succeed in making our country democratic, free and independent,” Fayulu said to journalists after his nomination.
But back home, the announcement was met with dismay by some elements of the opposition, especially Tshisekedi’s UPDS. A recent poll found that the UPDS was by far the most popular opposition party, and could expect to receive 26% of the vote. Its supporters protested at the party headquarters in Kinshasa, forcing Tshisekedi to withdraw from the unity agreement. “I have realised that the action we took in Geneva was not understood by the party base,” said Tshisekedi.
By late Monday, Tshisekedi and Vital Kamerhe’s Union for the Congolese Nation had withdrawn from the agreement. Just a day after it had been announced, the opposition’s united front was in tatters.
“It definitely tarnishes the opposition, makes them seem like a group of people who are unwilling to put their own personal ambitions behind those of the country. We all know how important a unity candidate is,” said Wolters.
As election day draws near, the disarray within the ranks of the opposition tilts the scales towards Kabila and his dauphin. After years of pressuring Kabila to hold a vote, opposition leaders now find themselves in the uncomfortable position of needing further delays if they are to have any chance of unseating the ruling party.