DRC’s Presidential Transition: `Peaceful’ Maybe, but Signs of Backsliding

Last week, the new president of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Felix Tshisekedi, entered into a coalition government with the party of his predecessor, Joseph Kabila. The hoped-for peaceful transfer of power – lauded by the international community even with dubious election results — continues to unravel.

Suspicions commenced even before the announcement that Tshisekedi had entered into a handshake agreement with Kabila, who had favored another candidate but still preferred Tshisekedi to the opposition leader who had been strongly favored to win in polls, Martin Fayulu. The U.S. appears to have been outmaneuvered, while the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the African Union (AU), and the Catholic Church in the DRC have each demonstrated their inability to compete with Kabila.

Under pressure last year from then-U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, Kabila announced in August that he would not run for a third term, instead nominating Emmanuel Shadary to represent his party. Citizens of the DRC went to the polls in December. Leaked data from the National Electoral Commission (CENI) show Fayulu with more than 60 percent of the vote, while the reported results gave him 34.8 percent to Tshisekedi’s 38.5 percent.

Fayulu immediately disputed the outcome, appealing to the DRC’s Constitutional Court. During this time, the SADC president urged both a recount and a government of national unity. The African Union called for delaying confirmation of the results. The Catholic Church rejected the outcome after cautioning the election commission against manipulating the results. And the U.S. emphasized the importance of a peaceful transition, calling for “calm as the process continues.”

The DRC rebuffed the SADC, the AU, and the Catholic Church: Tshisekedi was inaugurated as president. As of Jan. 18, the U.N. had reported 34 deaths, 59 wounded, and 241 arbitrary arrests, in the aftermath of the election, which counts as peaceful in a country with more than 81 million people and an unfortunate history of violent leadership transitions. In spite of the controversial results, many analysts in the U.S. lauded the relatively peaceful transition. Not surprisingly, a transition premised upon dubious foundations already is beginning to collapse.

The Catch: Kabila’s Parliamentary Majority

Though some may see foul play, the coalition government between Tshisekedi’s Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) party and Kabila’s Common Front for Congo (FCC) is not as nefarious as it seems on its face. According to the DRC’s Constitution, “The President of the [DRC] appoints the Prime Minister from the ranks of the parliamentary majority after consultation of the latter.” Like choosing a Supreme Court justice in the U.S., the appointment must meet the approval of a parliamentary majority. Kabila’s FCC controls 342 of the Parliament’s 485 seats.

So, Tshisekedi is bowing to the Constitution rather than to Kabila, and Kabila’s hold on Parliament forces Tshisekedi to negotiate executive power, because the prime minister position is not designed to be a mere figurehead, and Tshisekedi’s UDPS has less than 10 percent of parliamentary seats, rendering him a weak executive in need of coalition support to accomplish anything.

In the corollary, the prime minister will be a formidable executive for the first time in the DRC’s history. Kabila also is expected to use his party’s parliamentary advantage to retain control of the defense, foreign affairs, and finance ministries. Such control will undermine Tshisekedi’s goal of rooting out corruption and ending government persecution of political dissenters.

In other words, Kabila has been maneuvering behind the scenes all along. While international attention focused on the disputed presidential election, most observers overlooked the parliamentary majority purportedly won by Kabila’s party.

The peaceful transition of the presidency is a thin veil for continuity. Do not be surprised when a Kabila acolyte, or even Kabila himself, becomes prime minister; though Kabila is not presently a member of Parliament, he has shown himself to be adept at manipulating the system. One need only to look to Russia to see a president and prime minister switch places without changing the political trajectory of the country.

The SADC and AU have demonstrated their toothlessness, as the DRC forced them to fall into line and become complicit in the corrupt election. This is not new: only internal forces were able to force out Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe.

Moreover, with the U.N. having been unable to stop Russia’s annexation of Crimea, expectations for the effectiveness of transnational governing bodies should be moderated. Perhaps an even deeper wound is at the civil society level, where the influential Catholic Church came up against the limits of its power, first attempting to pressure CENI to publish accurate polls and later announcing its own tally, to no effect.

U.S. Sanctions Over Election Results and Violence

For its part, the U.S. is not idly sitting by. In late February, it sanctioned the president of the DRC’s National Independent Electoral Commission (CENI) and several others for corruption and human rights violations.

“These individuals enriched themselves through corruption, or directed or oversaw violence against people exercising their rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression,” the State Department said in announcing the sanctions. “They operated with impunity at the expense of the Congolese people and showed a blatant disregard for democratic principles and human rights.”

When Special Envoy to the Great Lakes Peter Pham visited the DRC last month, he announced these sanctions and met with Tshisekedi as well as with civil society leaders and Fayulu. The U.S. is trying to demonstrate support for Tshisekedi, Fayulu, and civil society, knowing fully the threat Kabila poses.

The African Union is likewise trying to support Tshisekedi, naming him the organization’s second vice president, now in line to become AU president in 2021. (Fayulu, for his part, has asked the AU to support a new election within the next six months; though never likely, Tshisekedi’s position in the AU now makes this unimaginable.)

Nearly two months after Tshisekedi’s inauguration, Kabila’s reassertion of power begs the question of whether U.S. support for a “peaceful transition” set the bar far too low.

Alternatives are difficult to envisage. If Fayulu, who was far more ardent in his opposition to Kabila, had been announced victor, a military coup may have followed, as Kabila continues to hold sway with the military commanders. If the U.S. had not acknowledged Tshisekedi, it is likely nothing else would be different — he still would be the inaugurated president of the DRC, the AU still would have named him second vice president, and the U.S. would have imposed similar sanctions on key figures.

Under the circumstances, incremental progress might be the best that could be hoped for from a range of unfortunate scenarios: For the moment, at least, Kabila is not fully in charge. 

About the Author(s)

Steven Leach

Steven Leach is a Security Fellow with the Truman National Security Project and has worked in sub-Saharan Africa for nearly a decade. Views expressed are his own.