The announced results of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Dec. 30 presidential elections have thrown the country into confusion. Precedents elsewhere on the continent show that a solution proposed by the Southern African Development Community (SADC), a government of national unity, would make the situation even worse.
The election results announced Jan. 9 by the Congolese National Independent Electoral Commission (CENI) listed an opposition leader who was favored strongly in polls to win, Martin Fayulu, coming in second, with 34.8 percent of the vote, to another opposition candidate, Felix Tshisekedi, who received 38.6 percent. The contender from longtime current President Joseph Kabila’s ruling Common Front for Congo (FCC) coalition, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, came in third at 23.8 percent, though Tshisekedi nevertheless is seen as more favorable to Kabila than Fayulu would have been. The FCC was announced to have prevailed in legislative and provincial elections.
Supporters of Fayulu and some election observers have called for a recount, and Fayulu has filed a complaint with the country’s highest court, which is due to rule by Jan. 19. The electoral commission has proposed only two options: annulling the elections or accepting the disputed outcome. The SADC, a grouping of 15 nations including the DRC, has called for a recount, but is also calling for a government of national unity (GNU). But as twice demonstrated within the SADC in the past 11 years, in Zimbabwe and in Zanzibar, a GNU undermines democratic aims and will elevate the previously dominant party.
Fraud and violence ravaged Zimbabwe’s 2008 presidential election. Then-President Robert Mugabe underestimated challenger Morgan Tsvangarai, leading to a vote described by most observers as fair, and leaving Mugabe in second place. The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission delayed announcement of the results, before reporting Tsvangarai at 47.9 percent and Mugabe at 43.2 percent. Zimbabwe requires a majority to be elected president, forcing a runoff.
I was working in South Africa during the runoff, which Tsvangarai and his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) boycotted, not only because they knew they exceeded the 50 percent requirement in the first election, but also because Mugabe had carried out a campaign of terror against the opposition, likely killing hundreds. Furthermore, Tsvangarai’s wife died under suspicious circumstances in a car accident involving another vehicle that ran their vehicle off the road.
Mugabe ostensibly won the second round of the election with 85.5 percent of the vote to Tsvangarai’s 9.3 percent, with Mugabe nearly doubling his reported initial vote tally from 1.08 million to 2.15 million votes.
International Pressure on Zimbabwe
Under pressure from the SADC and the international community, Mugabe’s ZANU-PF entered into a government of national unity with the MDC. Tsvangarai became the Prime Minister, and the MDC received select cabinet positions. Rather than a democratically elected outcome, the international community settled for the cessation of violence in the name of regional stability.
But at the next election, Mugabe did not repeat his mistake: In the 2013 election, he was declared the winner with 61.09 percent of the vote, the GNU ended, and all pretense of democracy evaporated. The country returned to the status quo of “Uncle Bob.” The 2018 election was similarly disputed, as Mugabe’s former vice president, Emerson Mnangagwa, maintained ZANU-PF’s grip on power.
Meanwhile, in Zanzibar, the semi-autonomous archipelago that is part of Tanzania, elections have been disputed since the first multiparty balloting in 1995. By 2010, with the potential for post-election violence and Kenya’s disastrous 2007-2008 electoral violence a recent memory, Zanzibaris voted for a government of national unity by a 2-1 margin. The opposition Civic United Front (CUF) — which had disputed the elections in 1995, 2000, and 2005 — accepted the vice presidency and select cabinet positions, while the Cha Chama Mapinduzi (CCM), the party in power since its origins under a previous name in 1964, took the presidency and key cabinet positions.
Then came Zanzibar’s 2015 election, where the CUF again claimed victory, an outcome personally confirmed to me by an election observer, only for the Zanzibar Electoral Commissioner to unilaterally discard the ballots, citing irregularities without providing evidence. A new election was ordered.
Due to escalating violence in the runup to the new election, Western embassies asked the CUF to boycott the second vote. The CUF did so, believing the Western embassies would support a free and fair, democratic outcome. The CCM won the uncontested election and currently governs Zanzibar; they abandoned the concept of a GNU, which voters had approved in a separate referendum that year, on the grounds that it was never enshrined in the constitution.
Compromising on Democracy
If a GNU is forged now in the DRC, expect Kabila’s party to maintain power over the security forces — both police and military. In spite of winning less than a quarter of the announced – and apparently corrupted — results, Kabila’s party would use the GNU to maintain power in the DRC. A GNU will work against democracy.
Laurie Nathan, the Mediation Program Director at Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, has argued that African mediators compromise democracy through GNUs and other power-sharing agreements to prioritize regional peace and stability over democracy. Nathan also argues this is a false choice: Undermining democracy today does not preserve democracy for tomorrow. Instead, it weakens democratic institutions and has descended Zanzibar and Zimbabwe into deeper autocracy.
I, too, value peace and stability in the DRC and the region, but the risk of violence deferred to a later election is not violence prevented. Electoral outcomes must be respected and upheld. As the United Nations Security Council and the African Union deliberate a response in light of the SADC’s decision, they must uphold the will of voters. Democracy must be defended.