The long-awaited results of the Democratic Republic of the Congo's presidential election, announced by the state electoral commission early on January 10, will no doubt be challenged. While opposition leader Felix Tshisekedi was declared the victor, another opposition figure, Martin Fayulu, had been consistently polling as the favourite in the DRC.
The main observer missions, CENCO, led by the Catholic Church, and SYMOCEL, a domestic mission, reported widespread irregularities, including missing materials, unsealed ballot boxes, and outright vote tampering. And some diplomats have reported that CENCO's vote tallies indicate that Fayulu won the election, raising the possibility of a standoff.
While the future trajectory is unclear, one thing is certain: Congolese citizens have voted overwhelmingly for change. It is notable that the expected standoff does not include the ruling party's candidate, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, who was handpicked by the outgoing Joseph Kabila to be his successor.
Instead, the controversy is between two opposition candidates, guaranteeing that the DRC will see the first (democratic) transfer of power in the country's history. Even if it turns out that the vote was rigged to support a Shadary-Tshisekedi power-sharing deal, as some have suggested, the polls indicate that the Congolese people voted for a change from the status quo, even in the face of voter suppression.
Desire for a different future
The public will for democracy is evident not only in the polls, but in the sustained efforts of civil society groups over the past six years to ensure the election took place, despite repeated delays. In 2012, for example, students in Goma, capital of North Kivu province in the eastern DRC, founded La LUCHA, a non-partisan youth movement that organises campaigns around human rights and civic engagement, earning Amnesty International's Ambassadors of Conscience Award in 2016.
Just recently, 21 civic organisations vowed to use non-violent protest to defend the rightful outcome of the presidential election.
These actions reflect the democratic, participatory ideals that I observed at the local level in my recent work in the DRC. Based mostly in South Kivu, I spoke with village members in remote locations who had committees to help their communities address issues such as food insecurity, domestic violence, and lack of access to healthcare.
I met a group of youths, some former child soldiers, who, lacking livelihood opportunities, started their own motorcycle taxi co-op. In cities like Bukavu, I observed numerous local NGOs working to address issues like militia violence, corruption, gender-based violence, and child soldier reintegration.
These types of efforts that have reinforced the democratic process to date should make us cautious about accepting speculation that the DRC could descend into violence in the aftermath of the election. While the risk of conflict is real, especially given the contested nature of the announced results, most Congolese seek stability, not upheaval. With everyday challenges including the Ebola outbreak, and lack of healthcare, livelihood, and security, Congolese citizens are not looking for political violence.
A positive result?
Violence is not inevitable. At the same time, those who have struggled this long for democracy will not quietly accept state rigging of election results, if that happens to be the case. Further, state measures such as shutting down the internet in the name of preventive security will only further stoke tensions.
The DRC faces a crucial moment to embrace a public mandate for democracy. From long-game civil society efforts to the overwhelming support for opposition candidates in the voting booths, Congolese citizens have shown they are eager for change and stability. If the violence feared in the aftermath of the election does manifest, it will be because of Congolese society's commitment to and defence of democracy, not in spite of it.