The presidential and parliamentary elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo have put hopes for real change on hold, but a weekend court challenge by the opposition instead of calls for street protests has dampened immediate fears of widespread political violence.
Whether or not the first democratic transfer of power to an opposition candidate in six decades will represent real change from ineffective, corrupt government, the vote on 30 December signals the end – at least nominally - of the Kabila family's 21-year rule. Meanwhile, anxious voters wait to see whether the provisional results of the presidential polls are confirmed, successfully challenged in court, or overturned in some kind of brokered settlement.
The election commission says the presidency was won by Félix Tshisekedi, a long-time opponent of the government of Joseph Kabila.
Official Results Disputed and Some Areas Left Out
But the influential Catholic Church, which fielded tens of thousands of observers, has cast doubt on those results. Church leaders have reportedly told diplomats that Martin Fayulu, who led an opposition coalition, won more votes than Tshisekedi – a conclusion endorsed by one of the most comprehensive statistical analyses of results.
The 16-nation Southern African Development Community (SADCC) has called for a re-count and urged negotiations for a government of national unity, which South Africa's international affairs minister backed in a Sunday evening press conference.
As a further complication, ballots are yet to be cast in two opposition strongholds. Fayulu held a strong lead in conflict-wracked North Kivu, but voting was postponed in parts of the province where Ebola is spreading, as well as in Yumbi territory, formerly Bandundu, which is Fayulu's home area.
Praying for Peace in a Troubled Country
With the question of who will succeed President Joseph Kabila not finally determined, Congolese across the country attended Sunday church and prayed that the transition will be peaceful and will represent popular will. The largest country in sub-Saharan Africa has been plagued by bloody violence since it was seized and run as the personal fiefdom of King Leopold II of Belgium in the 19th century, and it has repeatedly suffered unrest in post-independence transfers of power.
President Kabila's father, Laurent-Désiré Kabila, grabbed power in 1997 after leading a rebellion against Mobutu Sese Seko, the dictator who had himself seized power in 1965, in the midst of the strife which followed the assassination of the Congo's first post-independence Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, backed by the U.S.'s CIA.
Joseph Kabila took office after his father was assassinated in 2001, and then won election twice, in 2006 and 2011, after the introduction of a new constitution allowing for a multi-party democracy. However, he alarmed Congolese by delaying the 2016 elections on various pretexts, agreeing finally to polls in December, and putting forward a party loyalist, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, to succeed him.
However, Shadary's candidacy failed hopelessly, drawing only a reported 23.8 percent of the vote, behind declared front-runners Tshisekedi, leader of the Union pour la Démocratie et le Progrès Social (UDPS) and Fayulu, a former oil company executive and the candidate of the Lamuka ("Arise") coalition of opposition parties.
On paper, if the electoral commission's results are confirmed, Tshisekedi will take power, having won 38.5 percent of the vote. (The Democratic Republic of Congo constitution does not provide for a run-off if a candidate fails to secure 50 percent plus one of the vote.)
But challenges to those results have mounted, with: SADC calling for a re-count and negotiations; the detailed analysis of available statistics published in African Arguments finding the commission's results "highly implausible" and pointing to "a solid and statistically robust victory by Fayulu"; the Catholic Church Conference of Bishops, with 39,082 observers in polling stations, disputing government figures; and the civil society coalition Symocel's observers alleging numerous instances of fraud and irregularities.
Declared winner Tshisekedi comes from a family as deeply-rooted in the Democratic Republic of Congo's political struggles as the Kabilas – his father, Étienne Tshisekedi, was pre-eminent opposition leader of the late 20th and early 21st century, who at different times both served and opposed Mobutu, who established the UDPS in 1982, and who ran unsuccessfully against Joseph Kabila in 2011 in what observers described as a compromised election.
Coalition Candidate Appeals Results
The electoral commission reported that Martin Fayulu, chosen as a unity candidate by a range of opposition politicians – including two high-profile leaders barred from standing by Kabila's government – 2006 presidential candidate Jean-Pierre Bemba and successful regional governor Moïse Katumbi – won 34.7 percent of the vote.
In an interview with Radio France Internationale (RFI), Fayulu accused Tshisekedi of doing a backroom deal with Kabila to share power.
"It's Kabila who'll manage things, these people have no power," he told RFI. "In 2006, they stole Jean-Pierre Bemba's victory, in 2011, they stole Etienne Tshisekedi's victory and now they can't steal the victory of the people. The people made a choice and they must respect that choice."
Speaking to the BBC, Fayulu said he would challenge the results in the country's constitutional court. He said he might not succeed, because the court is "composed of Kabila's people", but he did not want his opponents to say he had not followed the law.
If a court challenge fails, and the election results are confirmed, eyes will turn to regional government leaders and the African Union, which are pledged to enforce standards of good governance.
Both SADC and the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) have intervened in the past to defuse conflict and encourage political settlements in countries such as Lesotho, Madagascar, Cote d'Ivoire and Liberia.
As the weekend progressed, with Fayulu on Saturday filing an appeal against the results with the Constitutional Court, asking for a manual recount, Africa's responses became more pointed.
African Leaders Are Watching
President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa, which maintains peacekeeping troops as part of the United Nations mission in the eastern Congo, last week called on the electoral commission "to finalise the process with speed to ensure the credibility of the election and also maintain peace and stability." At a press briefing Sunday, the country's international relations minister Lindiwe Sisulu welcomed Fayulu's appeal to the justice system to address opposition complaints, as provided in the DRC constitution.
The chair of the SADC arm which deals with "politics, defence and security", President Edgar Lungu of Zambia, last week urged Congolese parties, candidates and their supporters to refrain from violence. On Sunday, on behalf of SADC, he appealed to political leaders to "consider a negotiated political settlement" and called for a re-count.
Jason Stearns, director of the New York University-based Congo Research Group, paid tribute in a New York Times column, to Congolese youth groups, many "facing arrest, torture and worse, who had protested election postponement, and to Catholics who demonstrated by the thousands. "It was these patient, courageous actions that hemmed in Mr. Kabila at every turn," Sterns said, forcing him to allow an opposition candidate to be declared winner.
Africans and friends of Africa may now have some reason to hope that the electorate's wishes will at least be represented in the next DRC government. If so, a long-suffering country – one of the world's richest in natural resources but whose people are among the poorest – will have a chance at a better future.
Whatever happens next week, politicians, civil society and scholars will be watching and looking for lessons Africa can learn.
AllAfrica's reporting on peace issues is supported by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.