Félix Tshisekedi. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/LUIS TATO
Félix Tshisekedi. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/LUIS TATO

Could we be witnessing the awakening of a giant? It is hard not to be excited by the incredible political upset playing out in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where opposition candidate Félix Tshisekedi has been declared the winner of the presidential election, according to the electoral commission’s preliminary results.

Over the holidays, the DRC offered us a roller coaster of a spectacle.

From the possibility of an endless delay, to the exclusion of 1.2-million people from the vote in the Beni, Butembo and Yumbi areas for security reasons (including an Ebola outbreak), to a rather chaotic ballot marked by polling stations opening only at midday, few believed that the elections would happen at all — or that the outcome could be anything other than a win for Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, President Joseph Kabila’s chosen heir.

In a world shaken by political upsets, the DRC might have given us the African answer to Brexit, Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron’s elections. A smug Kabila recently told the French newspaper Le Monde: "I promised the Congolese people the organisation of elections and of course a peaceful handover of power for the first time in the history of this country. I hold my promises and I surprise everyone except myself."

Mic drop? Not quite.

Kabila is not about to peacefully retire to his farm, and the roller-coaster ride is far from over. If Kabila has abandoned the option of imposing Shadary, Tshisekedi’s win may simply be another tactical move on his part.

Official — though preliminary — records announced by the electoral commission (Ceni) show Tshisekedi at 38.57% of votes, while Martin Fayulu, the other opposition candidate, has 34.8% and Shadary 23.8%.

However, the National Episcopal Conference of Congo (Cenco), which deployed 40,000 election observers across the country — and announced days ahead of the Ceni that it was able to determine the true winner — puts Fayulu as the president-elect.

The results are tampered with. This unacceptable electoral scam is likely to cause widespread disorder
Martin Fayulu

The situation seems ludicrous: an election allegedly rigged in favour of the opposition — what could be the point of that?

Since the death of his father, legendary opposition leader Étienne Tshisekedi, in February 2017, Félix Tshisekedi has never stopped forming alliances and looking for mentors. First was Moïse Katumbi, the wealthy former governor of Katanga and former Kabila ally. Then it was Vital Kamerhe, the former president of the national assembly, also a former Kabila ally. At the end of 2018 Tshisekedi broke a deal, made with Kamerhe in Geneva, that designated Fayulu as the single opposition candidate.

That betrayal, insiders now say, allowed Kabila’s emissaries to begin their work.

In recent weeks or months, members of Kabila’s close circle were instructed to discreetly approach Tshisekedi — considered by the regime to be consensual and "controllable" (not to say manipulable) — to take full advantage of division in the opposition.

Far from holding the losing hand, Kabila’s Common Front for Congo coalition has allegedly won a parliamentary majority and will now weigh in on the choice of prime minister. Kabila will most likely do everything to maintain his hold on the security services too.

Facing him is Fayulu, who considers himself the real political heir to Étienne Tshisekedi. With support from Katumbi as well as former warlord and vice-president Jean-Pierre Bemba, he was the surprise of this election, charting an unparalleled rise from Kinshasa insider politics to become a national sensation among a population eager for radical change.

"The results are tampered with. This unacceptable electoral scam is likely to cause widespread disorder," he has said. He’s also called on activists to mobilise to "say no to this election hold-up" and asked Cenco to officially reveal the name of "the one who truly embodies the choice of the people". Though Cenco has circulated Fayulu’s name to diplomatic circles as the winner of the election, it has not yet made it public.

What it means

The former president is not about to peacefully retire to his farm, and the roller-coaster ride is far from over

In the face of a growing public outrage surrounding the provisional results, the Southern African Development Community deemed it necessary on Sunday to advise the DRC to "recount the votes".

But it backtracked on Monday, oddly calling for the formation of a "government of national unity" — a move that risks furthering the crisis by delegitimising the Ceni results and seeming to dismiss the Congolese people’s vote altogether.

The disputed results will lead to legal challenges — from the Fayulu team as well as Shadary’s. It is important that the issue surrounding the legitimacy of the results — of both the presidential and parliamentary elections — be resolved for the population.

But in this period of uncertainty, with tensions high and people frustrated by the chaotic process — in several polling stations in Goma, for example, ballots appear not even to have been opened — violence of any kind would be a dangerous spark.