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Business as Usual in the Congo

By Tiago Faia Created: October 13, 2012 Last Updated: October 15, 2012
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Officials from the National Independent Electoral Comission prepare results sheets from each voting office to send to the Supreme Court in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, on Dec. 8, 2011. In its preliminary report on the DRC presidential election, the Carter Center concluded that the election results lacked credibility. (Phil Moore/AFP/Getty Images)

Officials from the National Independent Electoral Comission prepare results sheets from each voting office to send to the Supreme Court in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, on Dec. 8, 2011. In its preliminary report on the DRC presidential election, the Carter Center concluded that the election results lacked credibility. (Phil Moore/AFP/Getty Images)

When the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) confirmed Joseph Kabila as winner of the presidential election of Nov. 28, 2011, the West proved reluctant to accept the election results. But scarcely a year later, the West is intent to turn the page on the matter and return to business as usual with Kabila’s reformed government—but at what cost?

Controversial Results

Following protocol as an old friend of the Kabila family, Robert Mugabe was the only head of state to attend Joseph Kabila’s inauguration in December 2011. Western states sent low-profile envoys to the ceremony in a sign of contention over the DRC presidential election results, which were fiercely contested by Kabila’s main opponent, Étienne Tshisekedi.

In the run-up to the presidential election, Tshisekedi emerged as the central opposition figure in the DRC. Drawing strong support from a large popular base, Tshisekedi was critical of CENI’s work throughout the presidential election process. Following CENI’s confirmation of Kabila as the election winner, Tshisekedi vociferously rejected the results. He cited deliberate fraud perpetrated by CENI, state forces, and Kabila supporter groups at all stages of the presidential election process. 

Tshisekedi’s claims resonated with the Carter Center’s findings on the election process. Founded by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, the U.S.-based Carter Center is an internationally trusted nongovernmental organization specializing in observing elections. In its preliminary report on the DRC presidential election, the Carter Center concluded that the results lacked credibility. 

Similarly, the EU and the U.S. Embassy identified considerable irregularities in the DRC presidential election process. They sent observation teams to follow the electoral process in the country, and in their first respective official evaluation reports, the two institutions flagged serious flaws in the management and technical execution of the election.

Enter the Supreme Court 

Despite the reports of irregularities, the DRC Supreme Court ruled the electoral process fair and democratic and declared Kabila the new president on Dec. 17 of last year. It corroborated the results produced by CENI and confirmed Kabila the presidential election winner with a simple plurality of 48.9 percent of the vote. Tshisekedi placed second with 32.33 percent.

The ruling generated an immediate, if muted, international reaction. Former colonial powers Belgium and France each expressed concern and pointed to irregularities in the process, albeit without rejecting the results outright. The United States expressed similar apprehension, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reproached the DRC Supreme Court for disregarding such serious election irregularities. Clinton called upon Kabila and his government to launch a thorough and public election results revision. Similarly, the EU pledged to Kabila and his government to conduct an independent review. It invited Kabila to consider the findings of the international election observation missions and work jointly with the opposition to find a sustainable solution for the resulting outcomes.

Unmasking the West

Matters were complicated when, in the wake of mounting international criticism, opposition leader Tshisekedi declared himself president just days after Kabila’s inauguration. Tshisekedi’s boldness was met with a heavy response from state forces. They forced him to remain in his residence to prevent him from gathering popular support and instigating an uprising.

Tshisekedi’s response was reminiscent of Alassane Ouattara’s in the 2010 Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) presidential election, which saw French forces intervene to topple Outtara’s recalcitrant predecessor. However, the West was not inclined to support Tshisekedi’s march to the DRC presidency. Instead, it called upon Tshisekedi and the DRC opposition to refrain from violent protest and to use legal channels to challenge the election results. By doing so, the West distanced itself from the growing tension in the country. 

Unlike Ouattara, Tshisekedi never fell into the good graces of the West. The West considered Tshisekedi a populist political survivor, capable of inflammatory statements that could incite violence. In turn, the West always regarded Kabila as the best option to guarantee peace and stability in the DRC. In his first presidential term, Kabila largely lived up to the West’s expectations. He managed to control the bloody war in the east of the country, temper the country’s volatile relations with Rwanda and Uganda, foster new mineral and commercial deals with the West, and make many Congolese believe in his plans for development. 

Contrary to its initial reaction, the West eventually embraced Kabila as the country’s duly elected president. As early as February 2012, James Entwistle, the U.S. ambassador to the DRC, publicly stated that the United States “recognizes Joseph Kabila as president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo for the next five years.” In the weeks that followed, Belgium and France emerged as Kabila’s strongest advocates, playing a key role in the West’s endorsement of Kabila as the DRC’s re-elected president.

Subsequently, in June 2012, the EU produced the most recent public statement from the West on the DRC presidential election. Through EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton, it endorsed Kabila as president of the DRC and vowed to continue to support him to improve the democratic process and governance in the country.

The Pillars of Support

Is Kabila in a suitable position to guarantee peace and stability in the DRC for another five years, as the West seems to believe? The West’s apparent intent to return to business as usual with Kabila appears to be not only an improvident decision, but also a clear expression of its double standards.

The DRC remains a fragile post-conflict society divided along intricate ethnic, social, political, economic, and military lines. Kabila’s first presidential mandate rested upon a mostly democratic electoral process that guaranteed him an absolute majority in 2006. From that platform, Kabila astutely balanced the divisive lines that characterize the country’s society. Yet that balance has been destabilized by the very 2011 electoral process that Kabila and his backers abused.

In contrast with his first tenure as president, Kabila will face bigger challenges to control DRC internal political dynamics in the next five years. When his party failed to win the majority of seats in the National Assembly, Kabila’s response was to create a complex coalition with a variety of parties to maintain political control. Such a solution remains untested in a fragile democracy like the DRC, and it can considerably hamper the efficiency and range of the workings of the National Assembly and the executive. 

Additionally, Kabila has had to reshuffle his government. Katumba Mwanke, Kabila’s master strategist in the previous five years and the de facto No. 2 political figure in the DRC, unexpectedly died in a plane crash in February. The event compelled Kabila to swiftly correct the balance of power of those closest to him. He appointed a largely technocratic group of ministers under the leadership of Augustin Matata Ponyo as prime minister. As a result, Kabila’s grip on his government remains uncertain, which portends an uncertain future for the country’s political stability.

Kabila has emerged evidently weakened by the loss of political legitimacy, inspiring his rivals to take action to progressively discredit his authority. The first signs materialized in the North Kivu Province following the desertion of Jean Bosco Ntaganda. Ntaganda, a former Rwandan rebel indicted by the International Criminal Court, joined the DRC army in 2009 as part of a peace deal with rebel groups active in the east of the country. In April 2012, he deserted from the army and dispatched his loyal troops to take control of large areas across North Kivu Province. His actions caused massive population displacement and threaten to instigate one of the worst political, military, and social crises in the region in recent memory.

Kabila is attempting to advance an effective response to Bosco Ntaganda’s exploits, but he has considerable limitations. The DRC army remains largely untrained and lacks unity. Furthermore, Bosco Ntaganda enjoys the full support of the Rwandan government and a superior army, as confirmed by a recent United Nations (U.N.) report on the North Kivu crisis.

The U.N. report also exposes the West’s double standards regarding Kabila’s presidential re-election process. The United States and the West endorsed Kabila as the best option to maintain peace and stability in the DRC. Yet the United States also continues to arm and train the Rwandan army as a close military ally in the region, and the U.K. and the United States remain Rwanda’s largest international aid donors.

The Cost of Support

If the West does not review its decision on the DRC presidential election, it risks crippling the democratic process and governance in the country. A new spiral of instability could undo the remarkable democratic progress following the 2006 presidential elections; disenfranchise further the citizens from the construction of a solid state structure; weaken institutions at the local, provincial, and state levels; and transform the electoral process into a simple political tool in the hands of Kabila. 

The West should strive for coherence in its relations with Kabila and the DRC, and address the country’s presidential election in accordance with the principles that it claims to advocate—democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. The strategy to endorse Kabila and return to business as usual with him and his government seems improvident. The West should promote the re-examination and recounting of the election results, offer its support to the democratic winner of the presidential election, and devise a consistent foreign policy toward the DRC and the Great Lakes region that prevents conflict and fosters sustainable peace. 



Tiago Faia is an independent academic and consultant in international development cooperation. He served as an election observer with the Carter Center in the DRC. Courtesy of Foreign Policy in Focus (fpif.org).

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