DRC: What Kabila’s deal with Tshisekedi means for Africa and beyond
The African Union is the latest body to row back on DRC election objections
It was the latest plaudit granted to Félix Tshisekedi after the Constitutional Council in Kinshasa announced him the winner of a bitterly disputed presidential election. Attending the African Union summit in Addis Ababa on 10 February, President Tshisekedi was chosen by his peers as second vice-president of the AU.
This follows a closed door meeting between advisers to DRC’s outgoing President Joseph Kabila and the new Chairman of the AU, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa is the first vice-president and will take over as AU chairman from Sisi next year. Accordingly, Tshisekedi’s allies expect him to be AU chairman in 2021.
What’s the surprise?
It was the AU, then chaired by Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, that questioned the outcome of the elections in the DRC and provisional results proclaiming Tshisekedi to be winner. The AU had called on the DRC government to delay the announcement of final results of the election until its high-level delegation arrived in Kinshasa to discuss the conduct of the elections with the authorities there. Kinshasa ignored that request and announced Tshisekedi the winner. The AU then dropped its objections.
Before that, the Southern African Development Community, of which the DRC is a member, had raised doubts about the validity of the vote count in the election after leaked results from the state’s electoral commission suggested that Martin Fayulu, another opposition candidate, was the real winner of the election. Exiled Congolese opposition politician Moïse Katumbi, a strong supporter of Fayulu, had exerted his influence with South Africa’s Ramaphosa and Zambia’s Edgar Lungu to question the official results in DRC. But again, SADC rowed back from its position and has recognized Tshisekedi as President.
What about the Europeans?
Belgium, France, and the European Union (whose ambassador was expelled from the DRC) also criticised the election and called for the release of the detailed results, constituency by constituency, to prove the validity of Tshisekedi’s election. But European diplomats have also changed their minds, attending Tshisekedi’s presidential inauguration on 24 January. For that he offered a concession, promising to review the expulsion of the EU subject to diplomatic protocol.
DRC is a test for Donald Trump’s Africa interests:
In January, John Bolton, the US’s national security adviser, set out a new strategy in which Washington’s interests in Africa would be pursued as part of a strategic competition with its great power rivals China and Russia. Both Beijing and Moscow rushed to endorse Tshisekedi’s election. Through its China Moly mining company, China has a substantial stake in DRC’s cobalt mines. The country’s reserves of cobalt, a main component in batteries for electric cars, make up about half the world’s total.
Initially, Peter Pham, President Trump’s special envoy to the Great Lakes, had been a strong support of Fayulu, a former executive with the US’s ExxonMobil. Pham had also had several meetings with Katumbi who had hired US lobbyists to campaign against Kabila and his allies.
Initially, US officials had raised grave concerns about the credibility of the DRC results and warned that it would impose sanctions against anyone who obstructed free and fair elections. Then they revolved 180 degrees.
The US administration talks pragmatism:
The US ambassador to Kinshasa, Michael Hammer, lauded Tshisekedi’s inauguration as the “first-ever peaceful, democratic transfer of power in the country”.
Hammer’s position was backed by veteran US-Africa diplomat Herman Cohen, who argued: “If Washington had denounced the election and declared that Tshisekedi’s victory was fraudulent, US-DRC relations would have arrived at a dead end. What is really important is that Kabila is no longer in power and his corrupt, predatory system is on the way out.”
What US policy says about its commitment to free and fair elections:
Michelle Gavin, another former US diplomat, rejects such arguments as a betrayal of the Congolese voters. “All available evidence indicated that Tshisekedi did not win the election. Nor were there rules and laws in Congo that could somehow explain the backroom deal that determined the announced electoral outcome. The election was stolen pure and simple. The Congolese people who came out bravely to vote were treated like unwitting extras in a drama staged by elites”.
Gavin concludes with a more general warning about the implications of US policy for Africa and beyond: “The United States’ interest in democratic legitimacy may be highly selective right now, as it clearly matters a great deal more to this administration in Venezuela than in the DRC. But outright misrepresentations do us no favours. There are plenty of forces around the world working to devalue the meaning of ideas like democracy, or even truth. The United States ought not to join them”.