Joseph Kabila. Picture: REUTERS/CARLO ALLEGRI
Joseph Kabila. Picture: REUTERS/CARLO ALLEGRI

Joseph Kabila has never given so many interviews or had such a broad smile. As the Congolese president met with the press in Kinshasa on December 9, two weeks ahead of historic elections, it was as if he was enjoying the media’s attention for the first time in his 17 years in the presidency. The role of patriarch of the nation about to step down and dispense his wise counsel to his successor seemed to suit him well.

But Kabila’s hint at a possible return in 2023 will not please the majority of Congolese, nor reassure them that the polls they are about to take part in will be free and fair.

"Well, I am not going to rule out anything in life," Kabila told journalists.

"As long as you are alive and you have ideas as strong as you have — a vision — you should never rule out anything."

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is at an unprecedented crossroads in its history. It is hoped that elections scheduled for December 23 will determine its first peaceful and democratic transfer of power. After the terror of colonisation, the murder of Patrice Lumumba, the 30-year dictatorship under Mobutu Sese Seko, and the successive wars that brought the Kabilas — father Laurent and son Joseph — to power, the Congolese people will for the first time choose a man (there are no women running) to lead them for five years. Or so one hopes.

But as Kabila steps down — against all odds and expectations, and after delaying the elections for two years — his shadow looms large over the vote. His throwaway comment about a comeback in five years has only fuelled fears that polls will not be free and fair. They’ve also raised concerns that Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, his designated dauphin (a royal heir in the French monarchy), is in fact the Dmitry Medvedev to Kabila’s Vladimir Putin, holding a guaranteed ticket to the presidency.

It does not help that the electoral commission has been accused of being subservient to the ruling party, nor that it is set on using electronic voting machines, despite the opposition calling them "defrauding machines".

The South Korean devices require sustained power and only permit about one minute per person for voting, a constraint due to the restricted budget allocated to the elections that did not allow more machines to be bought. In Kindu, the only voting machine for 300 voters recently broke down, and local candidates to the parliamentary elections from all parties have requested that the machine not be used — to no avail.

The broader logistical challenges to organising elections in a country the size of the DRC have led in the past to the state relying on foreign help, through either donors or Monusco, the UN peacekeeping mission in the DRC. This time, offers of support were flippantly rejected by the government on the grounds that they would come with an unacceptable degree of foreign interference.

Observers from the EU and the Carter Center have been denied accreditation to monitor the elections. However, the AU and Southern African Development Community will be allowed to send observers. Their responsibility is hard to overstate. "At stake is not the integrity of an exercise, but the longer-term trajectory of the DRC and the wider Great Lakes region," says Stephanie Wolters at the Institute for Security Studies.

It is in this context that three main contenders will face each other. First, there’s Shadary, the candidate of the ruling People’s Party for Reconstruction & Democracy (PPRD) and Kabila’s hand-picked heir. His designation as candidate was not without controversy, as none of the senior members of the party was involved in his selection. The announcement was made at the last minute before the end of the enrolment period for presidential candidates. Pictures taken on the day show Shadary looking as surprised as everyone else.

A staunch Kabila loyalist, the permanent secretary of the PPRD was also the minister of the interior during the wave of demonstrations in 2016 in which tens of thousands of Congolese took to the streets to demand Kabila step down at the end of his mandate in December that year.

The extreme violence meted out by the security forces led to EU sanctions against Shadary and 13 key members of the Kabila regime. Last Monday, the EU declined to lift them, despite pressure from the DRC, saying it would "review the restrictive measures in the light of and following the elections in the DRC and [it] stands ready to adjust them accordingly".

If the ruling party is presenting an awkward candidate with precious little popularity, the opposition has also worked tirelessly to undermine itself. After months of promising a unique candidate, and a solemn meeting in Geneva — an odd location that only underlines politicians’ distance from the people they claim to serve — the opposition presented Martin Fayulu as its champion. Then the pact fell apart in a grandiose display of ego. Félix Tshisekedi, the son of Étienne Tshisekedi, the historical opponent to Mobutu, and Vital Kamerhe, a shrewd politician from the east who used to be allied with Kabila, broke ranks and decided to run together under their own banner, comically named Fatshivit.

Fayulu, a former Exxon executive and less well-known outside Kinshasa than either Tshisekedi or Kamerhe, is still backed by two heavyweights: Jean-Pierre Bemba, the former warlord recently released after 11 years in jail in The Hague, who still retains much popularity but was not legally allowed to run; and Moïse Katumbi, the former governor of Katanga and the strongest contender, who is in exile after being convicted of illegal property selling and sentenced to three years in prison in absentia (he denies any wrongdoing). Widely appreciated among the political class in Kinshasa, Fayulu has remained upright and determined in the past few years, participating in demonstrations with the population and retaining a clear political line.

Not as much can be said of Kamerhe, nicknamed "the Kamerleon", who has a reputation for switching sides. He betrayed the consensus against the political dialogue imposed by Kabila in 2016 by not only participating in the dialogue, but moderating the discussion.

Tshisekedi, meanwhile, relies mostly on the aura of his extremely popular father (who died in 2017), and has no political career of his own. As the leader of the historical opposition party, the Union for Democracy & Social Progress, he had the most support of the three candidates in terms of voting intentions in a poll carried out before the Geneva debacle.

But during a recent Fatshivit rally at Camp Luka, one of the poorer neighbourhoods of Kinshasa, it was Fayulu’s name the crowd was chanting.

The fiasco of the unique opposition candidate carries two important consequences for the December vote.

First, given the opposition’s inability to present a unified front — at the elections and for the past three years — it is unclear whether the candidates aspiring to replace Kabila will be any better at running the country, or be any more capable of putting their personal interests aside.

Second, a split vote will simply make it harder for the opposition to allege election fraud, if it comes to that: Shadary, backed by the PPRD campaigning power and esources, does have a real shot at the presidency.

So what might happen? We can expect, in any scenario, that controversy and some form of violence will follow the results.

If the opposition wins, several key players loyal to Kabila, especially in the security forces, could refuse to accept the outcome and use the means available to them to contest it.

In the more likely event of a Shadary win, the opposition will almost certainly claim the vote was rigged, triggering demonstrations in the urban areas.

Over the past few years, as Kabila’s power became increasingly contested and illegitimate in the eyes of many, armed groups proliferated in the east of the country. And while a popular uprising that began in the western Kasai province — where the Tshisekedis come from — was ruthlessly crushed by the army, it demonstrated that the population is capable of organising itself.

The tragedy of the elections is that it is assumed, for good reason, that they will be rigged. So unless the opposition wins, no outcome will satisfy the population. The Putin-Medvedev game plan hinted at by Kabila also does not bode well for the stability of the country.

But there is a silver lining: any change, however small, is a change. Whether Kabila’s intentions are to use Shadary as a puppet or not, by stepping down he has set the country on a new path that he will not be entirely able to control. After all, much like Putin was meant to be a Boris Yeltsin puppet, and Kabila himself became head of state to satisfy the plans of his father’s friends, his successor will be the president.

For better or worse, the DRC is writing a new page of its history — one that is the start of an entirely new chapter.