Editorial: Big-man politics again blots out the Congolese

'The very idea of the December election was contentious. But it happened — mostly trouble-free, except for some unexpected delays in releasing the results.'

'The very idea of the December election was contentious. But it happened — mostly trouble-free, except for some unexpected delays in releasing the results.'

According to the United Nations, more than 800 000 people have fled the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for safety elsewhere in Africa. A further 4.5-million people are displaced within the country and another 500 000 people have sought refuge in the DRC, fleeing from armed conflict in the likes of South Sudan and the Central African Republic.

The DRC is a complex, challenging political quagmire. It is also, as the UN characterises it, one of the most complex and challenging humanitarian situations worldwide.

Many conflicts steer both life and death in several parts of the country, forcing people to seek refuge far from home, in places like townships in South Africa, where they are often in the crosshairs of other prejudices.

But most DRC refugees are hosted by their immediate neighbours.
At least 50% are in the Great Lakes Region, about 39% are in East Africa and the Horn of Africa and 11% are in Southern Africa. In Burundi, itself mired in political turmoil, Congolese refugees constitute more than 99% of the total registered refugee population. In Tanzania and Uganda, Congolese refugees form about 65% of the total registered refugee population. South Africa is estimated to host about 30 000.

For the past two years, since President Joseph Kabila’s second term in office expired, he has been asked to step down. His refusal to do so has caused violent protests and increased militia violence.

The very idea of the December election was contentious. But it happened — mostly trouble-free, except for some unexpected delays in releasing the results.

Over the past 10 days, the results have been held hostage, only to be released on Thursday morning, without a ransom being delivered, but bearing a face that was certainly not the one expected when the Congolese went to the polls.

Felix Tshisekedi, the son of opposition leader Étienne, appears to have done what his father never could — he has won the presidency. Étienne died in a Belgian hospital in February 2017. He was an old man who had been frail for some time, worn out by the strain of fighting against three consecutive autocratic regimes: those of Mobutu Sese Seko, Laurent Kabila and now Joseph Kabila, the Mail & Guardian reported in December last year.

Felix Tshisekedi has been named by election officials as the provisional winner of what could be the first democratic transition in the country’s history.

But Tshisekedi was not expected to win and, according to the Catholic Church, which had the largest number of observers posted throughout the country, he did not. It says the announced result is inconsistent with its tallies.

A rare national opinion poll last October, quoted by Reuters, did predict Tshisekedi would win with 36% of the vote, with 16% for Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, Kabila’s great hope, and 8% percent for Martin Fayulu. But subsequent polling said otherwise.

When the opposition attempts to field a united front failed, speculation that Kabila would install Shadary as a placeholder president grew more intense. Kabila was expected to run the show from the shadows until 2023 when he can again run for the presidency.

But now all that appears uncertain.

There is some speculation about a possible pact between Kabila and Tshisekedi, which has assured the veneer of a democratic process, while Kabila’s hands remain firmly on the military and a few select state departments.

Crucially, the dynamics of vast swaths of rural DRC have not been mapped and the national legislative results are still to be released. It’s early days yet.

The truth, however, is that any result in the DRC was bound to be divisive. Already, odds-on favourite Fayulu has condemned the result as an “electoral coup” and the days to come will reveal exactly how the result might be challenged, if it is indeed confirmed by official processes. 

If Fayulu takes his challenge to the streets, there is likely to be a bloodbath — the security apparatus is primed to thwart any dissent that becomes too robust. The disputed results of the elections in 2006 and 2011 sparked violent protests.

But, even with all the hand-wringing now, the idea was that the election would be cooked long before the Congolese went to the polls.

For those of us on the outside, it’s important to understand what is at stake beyond the big-man politics in Kinshasa.

Nearly 13-million Congolese don’t have enough to eat. A host of armed groups continue to run amok in the east, killing civilians in their way, and an Ebola outbreak, already the second-deadliest in history, isn’t expected to be brought under control until at least mid-2019.

Cable news networks in the United States have emphasised that the DRC produces about two-thirds of the world’s cobalt.

But the lives of millions of people hang in the balance, as they have for the past 50 years, while the rest of the world colludes to mine the wealth from beneath the feet of the people who are not even safe enough to live where they were born.

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