Democratic Republic of Congo President Joseph Kabila displays ink on his hand after casting his vote at a polling station in Kinshasa, December 30 2018. Picture: REUTERS/BAZ RATNER
Democratic Republic of Congo President Joseph Kabila displays ink on his hand after casting his vote at a polling station in Kinshasa, December 30 2018. Picture: REUTERS/BAZ RATNER

The disputed elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Africa’s biggest country, remind of Mark Twain’s famous saying: “If voting made a difference, they wouldn’t let us do it.”

That the outcome has been heavily contested is unsurprising. The country, which won independence in 1960 after a brutal colonisation by Belgium, has never seen a peaceful, democratic transition of power.

Joseph Kabila, the incumbent president, has been in power since his father and predecessor, Laurent, was assassinated in 2001. His attempts to cling to power after his term ended at the end of 2016 were arguably only thwarted by international and local opposition pressure, which met sometimes deadly resistance from Kabila’s regime.

The vote, held on December 30 after another last-minute postponement, finally brought a provisional “winner”: an opposition candidate, Felix Tshisekedi, who is widely believed to have been elevated after a backroom deal with Kabila. The current president’s chosen successor, Emmanuel Shadary, who is under EU sanctions for his role in the deadly crackdown on protests, is believed to have performed so badly that it was impossible to cook the numbers in his favour in any feasible way.

Tshisekedi is best known as the son of long-time opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi, who died in 2017 after spending decades as a thorn in the side of Mobutu Sese Seko, the military dictator who ruled the vast country from 1965 to 1997, and the Kabilas.

Kabila has tried all the tricks in the book to make things go his way — banning western election observer groups, preventing certain opposition strongholds from voting because of an Ebola outbreak, shutting down the internet, deploying troops in opposition areas and delaying results.

That he has failed is the surprising thing, and should be a feather in the cap of protesters and institutions, particularly the Catholic Church, that have worked on improving and safeguarding democracy in the DRC. The Church is highly trusted in the DRC and it is partly thanks to the feedback from its 40,000 election observers that there has been mounting pressure on Kabila regarding the outcome.

Another welcome surprise has been the Southern African Development Community (SADC), which on Sunday called for a recount and urged stakeholders “to pursue a negotiated political settlement for a government of national unity”. Similar agreements were “very successful in SA, Zimbabwe and Kenya where governments of national unity created the necessary stability for durable peace”, the SADC said.

More civil unrest and insurgent activity, standard staple for the DRC as it is, is expected, Fitch Solutions said in a briefing note last week.

Whether Martin Fayulu, the former oil executive who is seen to have won the elections by a landslide, and his supporters would agree to a government of national unity remains to be seen, and many Zimbabweans, Kenyans and even South Africans would caution against the national unity route and the promises of “success”.

Kabila too is unlikely to be keen on any SADC-inspired deals. Interim results show parties aligned to him have won the majority of seats in parliament, which will give him significant leverage over the next president. He is also free to run again in 2023, a step he has not ruled out.

He would have been paying very close attention to the developments in Angola following the departure of long-time leader Jose Eduardo dos Santos in 2017, and will be doing everything in his power to protect his interests. Dos Santos’s hand-picked successor, João Lourenço, has shown surprisingly little loyalty towards the Dos Santos family, even charging his son Jose Filomeno with fraud and axing his daughter Isabel as the head of Sonangol, the state-owned oil company.

Fayulu, who took to Twitter over the weekend with video clips showing what he described as members of Kabila’s presidential guard entering his property to prevent him from filing an appeal against the election outcome to the country’s constitutional court, thanked the SADC for its call on a vote recount.

“It would be dangerous not to support the democratic process in the DRC,” Fayulu tweeted.

Whether his call will be heeded is another matter, and Twain would probably advise him not to hold his breath.