On 30 December 2018, voters in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) went to the polls to choose a successor to President Joseph Kabila who had been in power since 2001. The election featured 21 presidential candidates, though only three were frontrunners. These included Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary of the ruling People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy, Felix Tshisekedi of the main opposition Union for Democracy and Social Progress, and Martin Fayulu from the Dynamic of Congolese Political Opposition. It was not initially clear who had emerged as a victor. A week before the country’s electoral commission announced the results, the Roman Catholic Church, a powerful body in Congolese society, heavily hinted that Fayulu had won the poll. The organisation cited evidence collected from its parallel vote tabulation, having deployed thousands of election observers throughout the country, as the basis for its conclusion. Heightened tension followed, worsened by the United States’ suspicious decision to deploy troops to neighbouring Gabon to quell any possible violence arising from the declaration of the official results.

On 10 January 2019, the electoral commission announced that Tshisekedi, son of the recently deceased veteran politician Etienne Tshisekedi, had won the election, after he polled 38 percent of the total vote, four points ahead of Fayulu. Shadary finished a distant third at 23 percent. Fayulu immediately rejected the results as fraudulent and accused Kabila of having struck a favourable deal with Tshisekedi in order to deny him the presidency. The Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the African Union (AU) both backed Fayulu’s claims and either called for the formation of Government of National Unity or a recount of the results. Amidst mounting fears of electoral violence, Fayulu filed a petition against Tshisekedi’s election, one that was eventually dismissed by Congo’s Constitutional Court a few days before Tshisekedi was sworn in on 24 January 2019.

Now that the dust has settled on Congo’s chaotic election, this is an opportune moment to reflect on and interrogate the enthusiasm that greeted the outcome from some quarters. Why did SADC demand the creation of a government of national unity even before the legal avenues for resolving disputed elections exhausted? What explains the AU’s reluctance to endorse Tshisekedi’s election? Are we seeing a welcome change of attitude towards the quality of democratic elections from SADC and the African Union? It is my contention that SADC and the AU’s interest in Congo had little to do with the undemocratic conduct of the elections; narrow and partisan interests drove the response of the two organisations to Congo’s chaotic election. To better understand this point, it is important to identify the relevant personalities in charge of the two institutions at the time and to examine the motivations for their involvement in Congo. What is important to note from the onset, though, is that two things remain unchanged: the dismal role of regional bodies in endorsing democratic standards; and that Congo will continue to be treated as a free for all pillage by regional and world powers.

Soon after the official results were declared, SADC released a statement on the disputed elections, calling for a negotiated settlement, which would culminate in the formation of a unity government. To avoid misinterpreting what SADC said, it is worth quoting the organisation’s statement at length:

“Given the strong objections to the provisional results of the presidential elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the Southern African Development Community (SADC) has called on all political leaders to consider a negotiated political settlement for a Government of National Unity. SADC draws the attention of the Congolese politicians to similar arrangements that were very successful in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Kenya where governments of national unity created the necessary stability for durable peace. SADC, therefore, encourages all parties to enter into an apolitical process towards a government of national unity in order to enhance public confidence, build bridges and reinforce democratic institutions of government and electoral process for a better Congo. SADC has taken note of the strong doubts cast on the poll outcomes by the Roman Catholic Church in the DRC, which deployed 40,000 monitors, the opposition Lamuka coalition, and the observers and, therefore, feels a recount would provide the necessary re-assurance to both winners and losers.”

The Western media immediately latched onto the statement, presenting it as the position of the regional body and paying little attention to its source. Although the statement was issued in the name of SADC, it in fact came from Zambia’s President Edgar Lungu, who chairs the regional body’s politics, defence and security division. Until recently, I believed, like many people, that the statement was a product of regional consensus reached after intense deliberations. However, two well-placed SADC senior leaders familiar with the development told me in separate meetings recently that other regional leaders did not share Lungu’s position. As one of them put it, ‘We do not know where that statement came from because there was no discussion among regional leaders and what was communicated was not the position of SADC. It was President Lungu’s view and he used his position as Chairperson of the SADC Organ on Politics, Defence and Security to commit the whole bloc to what was, at best, Zambia’s position.’ All things considered, it is even likely that the supposed author of the statement, Lungu, knew little of the statement. First, at the time of its release, he was undergoing a reportedly prolonged medical review at a hospital in South Africa, rendering his participation in intense meetings doubtful. Second, Lungu has been a fierce opponent of unity governments and it is implausible that he would advocate a form of political settlement that he has previously done so much to oppose, including at home.

Who then was the actual author of the supposed SADC statement on Congo’s election? We may never know for certain the answer to this question. What is conceivable is that the SADC statement calling for a unity government in Congo was the work of a faction in Lungu’s administration that supported Fayulu’s candidature. It is worth noting that Lungu’s administration maintains a close relationship with Moïse Katumbi, the Western-backed, exiled ex-governor of the mineral-rich Katanga region who was prevented from standing in the elections and consequently threw his support behind Fayulu. In moving quickly to call for the creation of a unity government, Lungu, or those who acted in his name, may have sought to promote the interests of the Katumbi faction: get Fayulu in a powersharing deal that would have sought the incorporation of Katumbi and his allies into government. In so, doing they spoke in the name of SADC and consequently used the infrastructure of the regional body to serve sectional, partisan interests.

Similarly, partisan and sectional considerations appear to have been at the heart of the AU’s response to Congo’s election. This prospect assumes importance when one considers the fact that Paul Kagame, whose government has had a longstanding interest in who leads Congo, currently leads the continental body. After the publication of the election results, Kagame, using his position as AU chairperson, very rapidly called for a meeting that raised grave doubts about the poll outcome, demanded for a recount of the vote tally, and pledged to dispatch a delegation to Congo to resolve the post-election deadlock. Like Lungu tried to do with SADC, Kagame masked his interest using his AU position. The Rwandan leader has a notorious history of intervention in Congo. It was his forces that brought Laurent Kabila, Joseph’s father, to power. Since falling out with the younger Kabila, Rwandese backed forces have caused chaos in the eastern part of the country. It is therefore pertinent to note how Kagame covertly came out in support of the opposition candidate Fayulu.

What clearly emerges from this foregoing discussion is a worrying development where interested parties deploy the structures of regional and continental bodies to serve sectional interests. How far this development goes remains to be seen. What is certain is that Congolese elections or for that matter disputed elections in general have never greatly exercised the conscience of SADC leaders or the AU. One might for example search in vain for any official statement on Zambia’s 2016 polls or suggestions that a unity government be formed. It is also worth noting that various SADC members have longstanding economic interests in Congo. Angola and Zimbabwe, for instance, have both intervened militarily in Congo. In Zimbabwe’s case, its army, now effectively in charge in Harare, has had extensive business interests in Congo. It is even likely that the Zimbabwean army’s vicious rejection of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change’s victory in the 2008 election was motivated by the desire to secure the business interests of top military officials in the Congo. The sudden and close interests in the outcome of Congo’s election point to the possible acute concerns by those involved that the opportunity for looting would be reduced under a Tshisekedi presidency or the spoils would be redistributed in a way that does not sufficiently benefit the current recipients.

Kagame and his ilk are of course only junior partners in the looting of Congo. They may have the boots on the ground and be more ready to intervene militarily but they certainly do not receive the largest share of the spoils. It is the same motivation to return a moderately stable Congo, stable enough that is, to facilitate continued plunder, that motivates the concerns of Western nations and multinationals. Congo from inception has been run by outside powers. Mobutu Sese Seko, the military dictator who ruled Congo from 1965 to 1997, was in power for such a long time only because he received the backing of Western governments. As long as Mobutu allowed Western firms to loot the riches of Congo, Western governments never took issue with his dictatorship and lack of commitment to genuine democracy. Similarly, Laurent Kabila, who overthrew Mobutu in May 1997, was never committed to any democratic standards but he received the backing of Western countries for as long as he remained faithful to Western exploitation of Congo’s wealth. The point is that Western countries, like SADC ones, have had no problems in recognising fraudulent elections anywhere on the continent as long as the new leader is one they see as better placed to serve their interests. The response of Western governments to the outcome of Congo’s recent election should be understood in this context: the search for a pliant leader who would remain faithful to facilitating Western interests in the Congo.
The clearest loser in all this the Congolese people who have once again been denied the opportunity to elect a leader of their own choosing and one free from the influences of regional powers, Western countries and multinational corporations. Only one such leader has emerged in Congo’s unhappy history. And the fate of Patrice Lumumba is well known. His death still haunts Congo, the epicenter of poverty, inequality and unbridled capitalism’s destruction of the planet. Any political figure who considers straying from the path of ruling Congo in the interests of the plunderers fears the same fate could befall them. Whose President will Tshisekedi be?

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