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HomeBreaking NewsUNDEMOCRATIC DRC: The Birth Of Another Mobutu Sese Seko In Fèlix Tshisekedi

UNDEMOCRATIC DRC: The Birth Of Another Mobutu Sese Seko In Fèlix Tshisekedi

By Nicolas Niarchos Nicola
Journalist/Author

On December 23, three days after the presidential election in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), I received a call from Moïse Katumbi Chapwe, the highest-polling opposition candidate. “There has been massive fraud,” he told me.

“They stole the vote.”

It was hard to disagree. The results were not out yet, but observers from across the country reported that voters were intimidated, polling stations attacked, and, perhaps most tellingly, voting machines installed in private houses and fed ballots marked with the name of the incumbent president, Félix-Antoine Tshisekedi Tshilombo. Videos circulated online showing soldiers firing at voters, polling stations ransacked, and a woman stripped of her clothes and beaten because she voted for Katumbi.

On December 31 the DRC’s elections bureau, the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI), declared Tshisekedi the winner. He was said to have secured 73 percent of the vote, with Katumbi the runner-up at 18 percent— numbers that the opposition argues cannot possibly accord with reality.

Indeed, Tshisekedi’s government is not exactly popular. During his five-year tenure, he presided over multiple corruption scandals, a Rwanda-backed insurgency called the M23 gained territory in the east, and the Congolese franc plummeted in value. In 2019, when Tshisekedi was inaugurated, a dollar was around 1,600 Congolese francs; now it stands at almost 2,700—a 41 percent decrease. The number of Congolese facing high crisis and emergency levels of food insecurity, as per the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, almost doubled in this period, reaching nearly 26 million. Over 60 percent of Congo’s population now survive on less than $2.15 a day. Some seven million people are internally displaced, more than ever before, largely as a result of the violence in the east, according to the International Organization for Migration.

It’s also true that the opposition was split, and Tshisekedi may well have legitimately been able to gather the votes required to win the presidency: in pre-election polling, he had a comfortable twenty-point lead over Katumbi, although not as commanding a lead as in the results announced by the CENI. All the same, it’s hard to conclude from the evidence that the election was free and fair.

As leaders of African nations lined up to congratulate Tshisekedi, Katumbi released a speech online. “Partner friends, African brothers,” he said, “don’t the Congolese have the right to real elections?” People outside of Africa were also watching anxiously: the DRC, after all, is rich with natural resources—specifically minerals like gold, copper, and cobalt, a crucial component of lithium batteries—that are necessary for the green transition. The United States, China, and Europe are all seeking to win contracts that involve rights granted by the Congolese government for mining and the transport of minerals. The election results might trouble those who want a stable country to do business in. “The cities of Congo, notably Kinshasa, will become like Haiti,” the other main opposition candidate, Martin Fayulu Madidi, who is reported to have received some 5 percent of the vote, told me. He noted that violent groups—both political rebels and street gangs—had grown stronger under the current president. “The opportunity cost [of Tshisekedi staying in power] is extremely high.”

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is one of the world’s poorest, most corrupt countries: it ranks 179 out of 191 in the United Nation’s Human Development Index. The roots of this immiseration are deep. In the 1880s the Congo was seized by Belgian King Leopold II, who declared its territory his private property. Under his reign, workers were forced to harvest ivory and rubber in horrendous conditions. Some ten million people were killed. After an international outcry—sparked, in part, by reporting by the Irish writer Roger Casement and the British journalist E. D. Morel—the Belgian government took control in 1908.

Over the next five decades the colonists made huge profits mining abundant reserves of copper, prices of which boomed due to increased demand for wiring as the world electrified, and armaments, as the world went to war. They laid out cities and a network of roads, apparently planning to stay for good. But the state was essentially administered on the principles of racial apartheid: Africans were forced to live in squalid neighborhoods cordoned off from European areas.

Congo gained its independence in 1960. Soon after, a CIA-backed lieutenant-colonel, Mobutu Sese Seko, ousted the democratically elected prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, and a few months later arranged for his death at the hands of southern separatists. After the 1965 elections, Mobutu banned all opposition parties.

There were no multiparty elections for the next forty-one years. Mobutu appropriated money from the mines to build jungle palaces and European villas, while his inner circle, known as the gros légumes, or “big vegetables,” stole whatever else they could. In 1996 rebels backed by the Rwandan and Ugandan governments invaded the country to unseat Mobutu. A series of civil wars ensued, over the course of which more people were killed than in any conflict since World War II.

Many parts of Congo have yet to recover from this cycle of disasters. Today about 2 percent of the country’s roads are paved; many are basically dirt tracks, and some provincial capitals are only reliably accessible by air. Services such as electricity and drinking water are chronically underfunded, where they exist at all. Outside of major cities, health care is sporadic at best. In urban areas, few but the wealthy can afford more than basic forms of medical treatment. Hospitals have been known to kidnap patients until their families cough up a ransom. Government salaries go unpaid for years, even as the public purse is liberally abused: last year, state auditors revealed that almost a quarter of a million civil servants were receiving fraudulent salaries. Tshisekedi introduced a free preschool education program during his tenure, which might seem encouraging. But various Congolese governments have promised—and not delivered—the same thing since 2005. According to UNICEF, the rate of preschool attendance stands at around 5 percent.

More than 7.5 million children do not go to school.
Nor did violence stop with the official end of the civil war in 2003, when the conflicting parties pledged to end hostilities and a transitional government was formed. On the contrary, it has deepened in certain areas, especially in the east. M23 is just one of many armed groups. Over 120 militias operate across the country, aligned with various domestic political forces, the army, and foreign governments. All this chaos, violence, and mendacity has led large parts of the population to lose faith in government institutions. For many Congolese people, ethnic, linguistic, religious, and geographical ties are stronger than loyalty to the state. “The problem of Congo is the lack of its institutions’ legitimacy,” Fayulu told me. “The solution—the only solution today—is to have transparent elections, impartial elections, peaceful elections, so that the leaders who are chosen will report to the people.”

Joseph Kabila Kabange—the son of the rebel leader who unseated Mobutu—negotiated peace agreements with armed groups and tried to rebuild the country during the 2000s and 2010s, notably through resource-for-infrastructure deals with the Chinese government. In 2006 he held and won multiparty elections that were generally thought to be representative, though not without discrepancies.

The opposition party with the longest pedigree, the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS), boycotted the vote, convinced it would be rigged. The party’s leader was Étienne Tshisekedi wa Mulumba, the current president’s father.
Étienne belonged to a long-suffering ethnic group called the Luba-Kasaï.2 During the colonial period, the Belgians favored the Luba-Kasaï, giving them good jobs running mines in the south and west. After independence, in 1960, a group of Luba-Kasaï in the western Kasaï province tried to secede from the newly created Congolese state. Prime Minister Lumumba sent in the army, which slaughtered civilians—the first ethnic massacre in the country’s postcolonial history. It was followed in 1961 by an ethnic cleansing campaign against the Luba-Kasaï by a breakaway Katangese regime in the south. An estimated 70,000 people were forced out of their homes and onto squalid trains bound for a province with which they only had ancestral ties.

Étienne was closely involved in the project of Kasaïan secession—in fact he was a minister
in the secessionist government. Later, he joined the national government in Kinshasa
and supported Mobutu as the dictator consolidated power and executed rivals.

Opinion is now divided as to how much of this was opportunism and how much a desperate attempt to make postcolonial Congo work. In any case, by the early 1980s,
Étienne broke with Mobutu, who imprisoned him and forced his family into exile, first in
Kasaï and then in Belgium. When Étienne tried to push for democracy, briefly becoming
prime minister three times in 1991 and 1992, Mobutu orchestrated another campaign of
ethnic cleansing against the Luba-Kasaï.

Some 400,000 of them fled their homes in the south; around 6,000 were killed, though some estimates run much higher.3
Étienne’s son Félix was born in 1963. He never graduated college—his twenties and thirties were spent working odd jobs and brawling with Mobutists in the bars of Matonge, Brussels’s Congolese quarter. (Tshisekedi’s lack of education and professional credentials is something often belittled by his opponents and their supporters: Fayulu holds three university degrees, and Katumbi ran successful trucking and import businesses, becoming one of the country’s wealthiest men.) Félix returned to Congo just after the civil war ended. In the 2011 elections he won a parliamentary seat for the town of Mbuji-Mayi in Kasaï but turned it down when his father challenged the vote, which was more dubious than in 2006. After Étienne’s death, in 2017, Félix took over as party leader.

Kabila’s second term lasted seven years. His family and inner circle used their leverage over state institutions to steal some $4 billion annually, according to the anticorruption nonprofit The Enough Project. In 2018 he finally let go of the reins, and elections were held—the country’s first peaceful transition of power. (Kabila claims to have begun a new life as a gentleman farmer.) The outcome of those elections is crucial to understanding the events of last month.

The race came down to two candidates from outside Kabila’s party: Tshisekedi and Fayulu, a longtime opposition leader who cut his teeth as director general for ExxonMobil in Ethiopia. (Kabila’s handpicked candidate was wildly unpopular.) As the votes were counted, Fayulu was reportedly in the lead. But then the government cut off the Internet, making it impossible for his party to coordinate. (A few weeks later, the Financial Times obtained leaked data that showed he had in fact won some 60 percent of the vote.) In the meantime, Tshisekedi was declared the victor, having made a power-sharing agreement with an electoral bloc loyal to Kabila: Tshisekedi would control the presidency and a coalition of pro-Kabila politicians would dominate governorships and the national assembly. It was “an uneasy and profoundly unproductive partnership,” Michelle Gavin, a former US ambassador to Botswana and a senior Africa policy fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote two years later.

Tshisekedi went into those elections as a relative ingenue and emerged as the leader of Africa’s second largest country. Once in office, he slowly edged Kabila’s faithful out of power, making enemies with powerful political constituencies. In particular, he alienated Congolese from the southern mining provinces to which Kabila traces his roots. In 2020 Tshisekedi created a broad parliamentary coalition called the Sacred Union of the Nation, which included defanged Kabilists and other opposition figures. He also moved to fill the judiciary with sympathetic judges. In June 2022, he named Dieudonné Kamuleta Badibanga, who is also Kasaïan, as head of the Constitutional Court, which, like the US Supreme Court, has ultimate authority over election challenges. “Tshisekedi has completely stacked the Constitutional Court with people from his tribe,” a member of Fayulu’s camp told me.

Corruption continued apace under Tshisekedi. In Kolwezi, the country’s cobalt mining capital, the governor, Richard Muyej Mangez Mans, was replaced by Fifi Masuka Saini,
who reportedly gave control of lucrative mines to members of the president’s family.

Journalists critical of Tshiskedi were arrested; the Jeune Afrique reporter Stanis Bujakera Tshiamala has been in prison since September 8 on charges related to an article that his publication said he did not write. Even when some of the president’s closest advisers were caught on tape boasting about corrupt deals, they were acquitted. One of them, Vidiye Tshimanga Tshipanda, ran for the national assembly in December, talking of his ambition to be governor of Kinshasa.

The Sacred Union at first included opposition figures like Katumbi, the owner of the football club Tout Puissant Mazembe and a popular former governor of the mineral-rich Katanga province. In 2016, he was hounded out of the country by Kabila after challenging him for the presidency; when I first met Katumbi in Zambia in May 2019, he was still in exile, preparing to return and offer a “constructive opposition” to Tshisekedi’s government. For his part, Fayulu never forgave Tshisekedi and stayed away from the Sacred Union. He maintains that he was the true victor of the 2018 election. When we first met, on a muggy Kinshasa morning in 2022, he gave me a business card that listed his title as Président Élu, or “president-elect.”

In the leadup to last month’s vote, Katumbi and Fayulu held joint meetings in South Africa but were unable to overcome personal animus and field a united front. “Everyone wanted to be a candidate,” Fayulu told me. “I won in 2018 and they refused me my victory: would it have been normal, would it have been logical, for me to leave it to someone else?” They ended up running against each other as well as more than two dozen other candidates, among them Denis Mukwege Mukengere, a Nobel Prize–winning gynecologist who founded a clinic to help rape victims in the east. Some in the opposition hoped Mukwege might be able to negotiate his position as a unity candidate. But that plan never got off the ground: having started his campaign late and without a strong party infrastructure, he received less than one percent of the vote.

Each candidate on the ballot claimed to stand for certain policies. Tshisekedi, whose nickname is “Beton,” or “Concrete,” ran on an infrastructure ticket—a campaign video boasted about roads that he’d had built. Katumbi said he would better represent the country abroad and improve the country’s “business and investment environments.” Fayulu promised greater transparency, to strengthen democratic institutions, and to increase state expenditures. Mukwege’s platform was centered on investigating mass killings and prosecuting those responsible for them—“there is no peace,” he told France’s TV5, “without justice.”

But the candidates’ political similarities are greater than their differences. Each in his
own way is essentially a nationalist who believes that free markets are the path to development, and they all promised to quell corruption, improve services, and defeat the Rwanda-backed militias.

Congolese voters, then, had to decide more based on personality, on allegiances to football clubs (especially in the case of Katumbi), and on who might be the least corrupt. There is also the matter of ethnic affiliation. Each candidate has a regional support base: Katumbi in Katanga, Tshisekedi in Kasai, and Fayulu in the area around Kinshasa.
For some time it was unclear whether the election would proceed at all. The troubles began back in 2021, when Tshisekedi’s government had a bruising fight with the country’s Catholic and Protestant churches, which monitor elections. (Widely considered to be nonpartisan, they have long been involved in the pro-democracy movement and have monitored elections since Kabila’s time.) Tshisekedi chose a monitoring expert named Denis Kadima Kazadi to run CENI; the churches argued that Kadima was close to the president and even accused him of corruption. In the end, however, the president prevailed and Kadima was sworn in.

Even this edge does not seem to have warmed Tshisekedi to the prospects of a vote. One concern, voiced by figures in the ruling apparatus in 2021 and 2022, was that an election would destabilize the country at a time when the conflict in the east had intensified. Another was that elections would be too costly, though this did not stop Congolese parliamentarians from drawing astronomical salaries, reportedly up to $21,000 a month. (Kabila had used similar arguments as he clung to power for two years after his term ended in 2016.)4 In August 2022 the press noted that the United Nations was “gloomy” about the prospects of an election taking place the next year. But that summer, US secretary of state Antony Blinken paid Tshisekedi a visit and insisted that the elections must proceed. It would have been difficult for the president to refuse. In 2023 alone, the US gave the DRC more than $1 billion.

Violent attacks on the opposition soon escalated. In July 2023 Chérubin Okende Senga, a close associate of Katumbi’s and a former transport minister, was shot dead. Katumbi called the murder a “political assassination,” and Okende’s relatives filed suit in Brussels against the head of the DRC’s military intelligence. The government said it was “shocked” by the killing and ordered a probe into it. Just a week before the election, a rally of Katumbi’s in the western town of Moanda was broken up after live rounds were fired. He said the police were responsible; the police blamed his guards.
Efforts were also made to block election monitoring. In November the European Union mission was canceled when Congo’s secret police refused them permits to use satellite equipment, needed to relay data and findings from the interior. (In the end, eight EU observers were sent to Kinshasa.) On December 23 Laurent Delvaux, a Belgian computer expert who had helped monitor elections in several African countries, plunged to his death from the twelfth floor of the Kinshasa Hilton Hotel. He was reported to have committed suicide, but an investigation is still pending.

As December 20, election day, drew close, there were signs that the CENI was woefully underprepared. Tshisekedi’s government was said to be slow at releasing funds to transport equipment and organize logistics. Egypt scrambled to send two C-130 Hercules planes to help deliver ballot papers at the last moment. Even so, the Congolese government had to resort to begging the UN—whose unpopular peacekeeping mission it has vehemently criticized for not putting an end to violence—to use its aircraft.
On the day itself, voting offices were supposed to open at 6 AM. But across the country they opened late and extremely long lines formed. “The elections saw some logistical problems,” I was told by Schadrack Mukad Mway End Naw, an adjunct executive national secretary of the Civil Society Organization for Peace in Congo, which deployed 75,000 observers during the vote. “The late arrival of certain materials was communicated by the CENI… Some young people, sadly, perhaps badly informed and impatient with waiting outside the voting bureaus… started to attack poll workers and certain polling stations.” Eleven thousand polling stations did not open at all—or were not counted. At many of those that did, voting machines malfunctioned, the batteries that were meant to keep them functioning failed, and ballot papers were lost.
Then there were the purloined machines. “There were cases of machines that were seized by certain candidates and others by certain agents of the CENI outside voting places,” Mukad told me. He decried “the interference of certain politico-administrative authorities and electoral candidates” who took CENI agents away from the polling stations “for a considerable time,” adding that the violations had come from members of

Tshisekedi’s coalition. His observations were corroborated by Gaston Mushid Mutund, a member of the southern Lualaba province’s parliament who supports Katumbi. Mushid told me that four machines in his home city of Kolwezi were stolen by people friendly to Tshisekedi’s supporters. “We have twenty polling stations,” he said. “Of those twenty, we were told, four don’t function… But the four that were said not to be functioning were found at people’s houses. And they would vote for the president.”

The election was supposed to be completed in one day, but polling stations were kept open longer, in some cases a whole week— which is illegal. Kamuleta, the Tshisekedi- appointed head of the Constitutional Court, seemed to approve: he gave a radio interview after casting his own vote on December 21.
Perhaps in the end the numbers speak for themselves. Forty-four million people—just under half the country’s population—had registered as voters. Yet only around eighteen million Congolese turned out to vote (as well as a further roughly three million “futurs majeurs”—youth who did not turn eighteen until after December 20). The CENI has not explained the disparity.

The opposition come together after the election to denounce what Fayulu calls a “simulacrum of elections.” Fayulu, Katumbi, and others did not go to the courts, which they insist are controlled by Tshisekedi, but instead organized protests. These have met with a harsh response. On December 27 marchers at Fayulu’s headquarters in Kinshasha were attacked both by police, who fired tear gas into the crowd, and by a machete-wielding militia called the Forces of Progress. (The group claims close ties to Tshisekedi’s party, which has denied any such connection.) “They come with machetes hidden under their shirts, and they accompany the police to put down our protests,” Fayulu told me. In the past, fingers have been sliced, and at least one spine crushed. “We have hundreds of people in our party who have been made handicapped. We have had deaths.”

The Katumbi camp has also been violently intimidated: On January 9 Moïse Katumbi’s home in the southern town of Kashobwe was surrounded for a few hours by army troops, who prevented him from leaving. Kabila’s Common Front coalition has likewise ordered its cadres to “mobilize,” although what that means is not yet clear. On New Year’s Eve, Corneille Nangaa Yobeluo—ironically, the head of Congo’s electoral commission during the 2018 elections— arrived in M23 rebel-held territory, vowing to overthrow Tshisekedi through military force.

Thus far there have been few pockets of civilian resistance. But Fayulu and Katumbi believe that mass protests are the only way they can get the world to pay attention. The member of Fayulu’s camp told me that a senior US foreign policy official in Washington D.C. had explained as much to him. “It’s amazing that the international community has closed its eyes so far, saying protests are necessary,” Fayulu told me. He proposes an independent “roundtable” that will scrutinize election results—an echo of the “roundtable conference” at which the Congolese and Belgians negotiated decolonization. Yet it is unlikely Tshisekedi would accede to such scrutiny.
Everyone is awaiting the churches’ election report. On January 4 their representatives urged the CENI to release results “bureau by bureau.” The next day, the CENI invalidated, for reasons of fraud, the results of eighty-two candidates who ran for legislative seats. (Some 101,000 people ran for these seats in all.) Three of Tshisekedi’s government ministers and twelve members of his party in total are among those accused. A few candidates are now challenging the invalidation.

On January 8 the CENI released a map of polling station data. Although impressive in detail, it showed strange results. Some districts only voted for Tshisekedi. In Kinshasa, a Fayulu stronghold, 1,756,303 votes were counted–just ten percent of the capital’s population. The CENI, however, has stopped short of saying that the presidential results were
compromised. Meanwhile the CENI itself has come under criticism. On Monday, an EU-funded civil society organization accused the commission of failing to account for $400 million of funds it had received from the state.

The US State Department applauded Tshisekedi’s reelection last week, but did not give the voting process a clean bill of health, noting “incidents of fraud and corruption.” Sources in the State Department and in the House have told me that Tshisekedi has aggravated US officials by kowtowing to Chinese companies and praising Beijing as Kinshasa’s most important commercial partner. All the same, the US is likely to go along with him in the absence of a major social upheaval. “The opposition has to have some kind of strategy,” Joseph Mulala Nguromo, a nonresident fellow at the Washington think tank the Atlantic Council, told me. “If they coordinate protests in their home areas—Martin in Kinshasa, Katumbi in Lubumbashi, Mukwege in Bukavu—Félix won’t be able to handle it. Nothing like that has been seen in the history of the DRC.”

It is difficult, however, to feel optimistic. Once again the Congolese people find themselves caught between clashing elites, and once again their institutions have failed them. The more cynicism they have to deal with from their politicians, the more cynical they are likely to become. Corruption and violence will continue to be taken for granted across the country, and impunity will reign. If Tshisekedi did indeed win, the CENI needs to show the world how he won fairly. But if kleptocrats are allowed to monopolize power illegally and in the shadows, the wounds that Congo has suffered during decades of colonization and war are unlikely to close.

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