After two years of delays and contested excuses, on December 23rd citizens of the Democratic Republic of Congo will finally vote for their first new leader since 2001 in a general election.
The country has experienced a tumultuous political landscape since gaining independence from Belgium in 1960. Following a series of military rebellions and attempts at succession by Katanga and South Kasai in the early 60s, Army Chief of Staff Joseph-Désiré Mobutu (who renamed himself Mobutu Sese Seko) swept into power through a coup d’état in 1965. During his military dictatorship, which lasted until 1997, Mobutu Sese Seko renamed the country Zaire – part of his anti-western ‘Authenticité’ programme designed to create a stronger national identity – and oversaw economic disaster, accumulating vast sums of personal wealth while the country’s economy suffered from spiralling inflation and currency devaluation.
In 1997, rebel forces headed by Laurent-Désiré Kabila removed Mobutu Sese Seko and installed Kabila as leader. He ruled until 2001 when was shot by his own bodyguard and succeeded by his son Joseph Kabila. Kabila Jr. has led the country since then, and this will be the first time he won’t stand for re-election as he is barred from a third term by the country’s constitution. Tellingly, his second term was due to conclude in December 2016, with an election scheduled for November of that year. However, the country’s electoral commission claimed it wasn’t ready for an election, citing a required population census and lack of funding as reasons to delay it. Joseph Kabila, therefore, has already overstretched his legal stay as President by a remarkable two years. His decision not to push this further has galvanised opposition parties, and ensured this will be an election watched closely by the international community.
The legitimacy of the election is already being criticised by opposition groups, with suspicion hanging over the rollout of new electronic voting machines – as opposed to the traditional pen and paper voting system – which are allegedly easier to rig. Meanwhile, Kabila’s ‘continuity candidate’ is the obscure former interior minister Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, who is currently under EU sanctions for his involvement in alleged human rights abuses. His main rival is Felix Tshisekedi, whose father Étienne Tshisekedi founded the Union for Democracy and Social Progress, the country’s oldest and biggest opposition party – another indication of the DRC’s struggle to escape hereditary power structures. Martin Fayulu – who saw his bid to be the sole opposition candidate collapse within 24 hours in November – is currently polling in a tight third place and has the support of Vice-President Jean-Pierre Bemba and Moise Katumbi, the former Governor of Katanga. However, this poll also shows Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary commanding a massive 49.8% of the vote.
If Shandary is to win, his fierce loyalty to Kabila will most likely fortify the country’s status-quo, which is increasingly defined by its violent crackdown on dissidents and civil unrest. Indeed, this election has been marred by violence, including the death of seven UN peacekeepers and 12 Congolese soldiers in November after clashes with militias. Furthermore, the fighting is making it harder for medics to tackle Ebola breakouts, the most recent of which has already killed over 200 people.
It appears the victor will have much work to do if they are to truly tackle the country’s fundamental issues, as Michael Khorommbi asserts: “Whoever wins the election will inherit a troubled nation and cannot establish institutions and mechanisms for peace-building if there are forces internally, regionally and internationally trying to undermine the country’s territorial integrity.” It is these forces – corruption, fraud and systematic violence – which threaten to restrict any meaningful progress. Whether a change of leader will be enough to start a brighter era for the DRC remains to be seen, but a free and fair election is a vital first step in the right direction.
Glenn Houlihan is an American Studies and Film Studies undergraduate and Deputy Editor of The Badger at the University of Sussex. Over the last year he has worked closely with Journeys by Design, helping bring its conservation ethos to the fore on digital marketing platforms. To get in touch, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.