Last month there was an election in the Congo, a country that goes by the rather lofty and presumptuous name of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Truth is, since the pioneering pillaging of the Congo by Belgium's King Leopold, starting in mid-19th Century, the Congo has never been a republic or democratic except for the independence period when Patrice Lumumba became the country's first and still only truly democratically elected leader.
No perceptive observer expected the Congo to have a truly free, fair and credible presidential election. As the elections drew closer late last month, at an academic conference in Dakar, Senegal, I asked the eminent and veteran Congolese scholar Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja what he thought of the election. Nzongola has been around long-enough and participated in Congolese politics quite a bit. He told me he didn't expect anything short of incumbent Joseph Kabila rigging the election for his anointed successor, the ruling party's candidate.
Kabila had become so unpopular in the majority of the country, seen largely as a sellout and woefully incapable of defending the national interests of the Congo. In the end, Kabila pulled off something that stunned many - it appears that the election was fixed not for the ruling party candidate, but for one of the Opposition candidates, Felix Tshisekedi, son of a man who was a permanent opposition leader until his death in 2017, Etienne Tshisekedi wa Mulumba.
It is widely believed that in the scheme of rigging elections and managing power transitions, Kabila engineered something novel. To fix an election outcome, you need to have a candidate who is remotely popular. Kabila was hugely unpopular, but his chosen candidate was even worse. So the speculation is that he struck a deal with an Opposition candidate who was willing to grant him some guarantees.
In comes the African Union (AU) with utterly outrageous pronouncements and untenable proposals. First, the continental body's member-heads of state gathered at the headquarters in Addis Ababa cast doubt on the credibility of the election outcome. Ideally, the right thing to do, but not for the AU and the club that it is.
Second, the AU called on the Congolese Electoral Commission to delay announcing the final results and for the Constitutional Court to refrain from rendering a decision. On what basis was the AU determining that Congo's highest court was not in order to entertain and determine the election outcome? Third, the current AU chairman was to lead a team to the Congo to mediate the election dispute and help the country move forward. Again, a sensible thing to do under normal circumstances, but again not for the AU.
The issue here is credibility and consistence. The AU lacks both. Before long though, South Africa and Kenya congratulated the Congolese president-elect. And most importantly, the Southern African Development Cooperation (SADC), recognised and congratulated Tshisekedi. Game over. SADC's position left egg on the face of the AU.
The SADC bloc is the most democratic of all African regions. It leads the way in terms of countries that are modestly democratic, followed by West Africa. Eastern Africa is deeply ambivalent with only Kenya having some consistent if contested flashes of functional democratic practice. Central Africa is decidedly authoritarian and so is North Africa with the sole exception of Tunisia.
To put it mildly, the AU is a big joke. Since its founding in 2002, it has been largely an autocratic club. The man who initially pushed the AU agenda, Muammar Gaddafi, was for long spells the longest surviving African autocrat with no pretensions to democracy.
The AU has time and again rushed to certify electoral fraud involving its club-member autocrats. It has shielded the Sudanese president from accounting for crimes he is alleged to have committed in Darfur.
The crux of the task at hand in the Congo is for its people to reclaim their sovereignty and own the endowments of their great country. Congo has never been an independent state since Henry Morton Stanley first secured it as a personal real estate for King Leopold.
There is a remarkably stable international consensus that the Congo remains the place where foreign forces and actors can freely mine and despoil. It was in large part the radical rejection and denunciation of this international greedy-agenda that Lumumba was assassinated in cold blood.
The equally greedy and puppet Mobutu stabilised the system of international despoliation, which Kabila did little to undo during his close to two decades stay in power. This is the monumental problem staring at the new president.