Democratic Republic of Congo has first peaceful handover in 59 years

Democratic Republic of Congo celebrates its first peaceful transfer of power in 59 years as opposition candidate wins a surprise victory but Catholic Church questions the result and runner-up cries foul

  • President Joseph Kabila has led the mineral-rich African country since 2001 
  • He announced last year that he would step aside and Congolese voted on Dec 30
  • The official results handed victory to Felix Tshisekedi by a margin of 684,000
  • Tshisekedi’s next nearest rival Martin Fayulu has called the election a ‘robbery’
  • Commentators say Kabila and Tshisekedi may have colluded behind the scenes
  • The Catholic Church said its 40,000 observers had reported a Fayulu landslide
  • Western countries offered no congratulations but noted results and urged peace
  • Despite a heavy military presence on the streets DR Congo was mostly calm  

The Democratic Republic of the Congo appeared on the cusp of its first peaceful transfer of power in 59 years following the surprise victory on Thursday of opposition candidate Felix Tshisekedi. 

With no major protests in the capital Kinshasa and limited violence elsewhere in the vast Central African country, the population seemed to be choosing stability over credibility, accepting Tshisekedi’s win as ending President Joseph Kabila’s long and turbulent rule. 

However concerns were raised by influential parties including the Catholic Church and the United States after signs emerged that rival opposition leader Martin Fayulu actually won a landslide and observers warned that a court challenge to the results could spin the country into chaos. 

Supporters of DR Congo’s opposition leader Felix Tshisekedi celebrate after he was declared the winner by the electoral commission on Thursday 

The Catholic Church, which deployed 40,000 observers at all polling stations, said official results did not match its findings, and diplomats briefed on them said Fayulu had won easily.

The doubts of the influential Catholic Church will cloud the vote’s legitimacy and come as a blow to the country’s hopes of peace. 

The United States also demanded ‘clarification’ over the result and its statement congratulating ‘courageous’ Congolese voters stopped short of recognizing the declared winner. 

DRC’s electoral commission allocated Tshisekedi 38.57 percent of the votes from last month’s election, which had been plagued by two years of delays.

Congo opposition leader Felix Tshisekedi has won the long-delayed presidential election, the electoral commission announced early Thursday

‘The National Independent Electoral Commission has announced provisional results, but we await clarification of questions which have been raised regarding the electoral count… We urge all stakeholders to remain calm as the process continues,’ US State Department deputy spokesman Robert Palladino said in a statement. 

But Palladino also noted the ‘importance of President Joseph Kabila’s decision to abide by his constitutionally mandated term limits and transfer power to a successor.’

Kabila had been due to step down two years ago but held on to power, sparking a political crisis and protests that were bloodily repressed.

The announcement of an opposition win was a shock as many had expected the results to be stacked in favor of Kabila’s preferred successor, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary. He came a distant third with 23.8 percent of the vote.

Runner-up and opposition rival Martin Fayulu, who was awarded 34.8 percent of the vote, immediately called foul on the result, decrying ‘an electoral coup.’  

He alleges that Kabila engineered a backroom deal with the largely untested Tshisekedi to protect his power base in a country with staggering mineral wealth. 

Outgoing leader Joseph Kabila (left) and opposition candidate Martin Fayulu (right) cast their ballots on December 30

Supporters of DR Congo’s opposition leader Felix Tshisekedi celebrate in the capital, Kinshasa, on January 10 after he was declared the winner by the electoral commission

An outspoken campaigner against DR Congo’s widespread graft – it ranked 161th among 180 countries in Transparency International’s latest index – Fayulu denounced the official results as ‘robbery’, calling on people to ‘rise as one man to protect victory.’

As night fell, scores of police with automatic rifles and tear gas launchers were positioned along a road in Kinshasa leading to the Kingabwa neighborhood, a Fayulu stronghold. One vehicle was filled with military personnel in combat gear.

Some protest violence was reported in Kikwit, another Fayulu stronghold, where police said three people were killed. Police also confirmed ‘agitations’ in DR Congo’s third-largest city, Kisangani, but said they were quickly brought under control. 

People celebrate outside the Union for Democracy and Social Progress party’s headquarters in Kinshasa, DR Congo, after its candidate Felix Tshisekedi was declared to have won last months’ election  

Gleeful Tshisekedi supporters took to the streets in Kinshasa to celebrate and said they were happy to see Kabila step down 

For the most part, the nation of 80 million remained largely calm despite the heavy security presence.

It was not immediately clear whether Fayulu would challenge the election results in court. Candidates have two days after the announcement to file challenges and the constitutional court has seven days to consider them before results are final.  

Observers appeared to be watching for the reactions of Fayulu’s supporters.

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Two diplomats said all major election observation missions, including those of the African Union and the Southern African Development Community, showed similar results to those of the Catholic Church. 

The diplomats spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.

Tshisekedi had not been widely considered the leading candidate. Long in the shadow of his father, the late opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi, he startled DR Congo last year by breaking away from the opposition’s unity candidate, Fayulu, to stand on his own.

Pierre Englebert, a fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, said Tshisekedi won because he ‘positioned himself to bargain with the regime’

Fayulu, a former Exxon manager and Kinshasa lawmaker, was a vocal activist during the two-year delay in DR Congo’s election, insisting it was time for Kabila to go. He was backed by two popular opposition leaders barred by the government from running.

Even before the election announcement, some observers suggested that Kabila’s government might make a deal with Tshisekedi as hopes faded for ruling party candidate Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary.

Many Congolese objected to Shadary, suspecting that he would allow Kabila to continue to rule from behind the scenes and protect his vast assets.

Several DR Congo analysts agreed that it appeared Kabila made a quiet agreement with Tshisekedi, saying Fayulu would have posed more of a threat.

‘If Fayulu and his allies, with their own independent security and financial networks, had taken power they would have changed the power structure of DR Congo and definitively ousted Kabila and his clan,’ said Patrick Smith of the newsletter Africa Confidential. ‘Tshisekedi, with his weaker network, looks like being the junior partner in his accommodation with the Kabila establishment.’

People celebrate after Felix Tshisekedi was named the provisional winner of a long-awaited presidential poll paving the way for the crisis-hit country’s first transfer of power in 18 years

Pierre Englebert, a fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, said Tshisekedi would be more malleable and might allow Kabila’s network to continue.

‘One possibility for today’s result is that once the regime saw the catastrophic mistake Kabila had made by nominating Shadary, it scrambled to come up with a Plan B. Enter Tshisekedi,’ Englebert wrote in an analysis . Tshisekedi ‘has wavered at times in his opposition to the regime and is far from having his late father’s intransigence.’

By breaking away from the opposition coalition supporting Fayulu, Tshisekedi ‘positioned himself to bargain with the regime,’ Englebert wrote. ‘But if the history of the Kabila regime and its tight control on the state and its security apparatus are any indication, the … new president-elect is likely to end up on the losing end of this bargain.’

A billboard of DR Congo’s outgoing President Joseph Kabila that was burned by supporters of the opposition leader Felix Tshisekedi in Limete, Kinshasa 

Western powers appeared wary. Britain’s foreign secretary said he was ‘very concerned about discrepancies’ in DR Congo’s results, adding that the United Nations Security Council would discuss the matter on Friday. 

France’s foreign minister bluntly cast doubt on the official results and Belgium’s foreign minister expressed concern.

The delayed results, 10 days after the December 30 vote, came after international pressure to announce an outcome that reflected the will of the people, with the U.S. threatening sanctions.

The largely peaceful election faced numerous problems as many voting machines that DR Congo used for the first time malfunctioned. Dozens of polling centers opened hours late as materials went missing. Most alarming to many Congolese, some 1 million of the country’s 40 million voters were barred from participating, with the electoral commission blaming a deadly Ebola virus outbreak.

The difference between Tshisekedi and Fayulu in official results was some 684,000 votes. Some observers said the barred voters could have made the difference.

DR Congo’s government cut internet service the day after the vote to prevent speculation on social media. It remained off in parts of the country on Thursday.

The provisional result announced early on 10 January placed Tshisekedi ahead of the ruling party candidate Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary and his rival opposition candidate Martin Fayulu. Fayulu immediately denounced it as an ‘electoral coup’

Some Congolese, weary of Kabila’s 18-year rule, the two turbulent years of election delays and years of conflict that killed millions said they simply wanted peace. Some said they would be happy as long as Fayulu or Tshisekedi won, recalling the violence that followed past disputed elections.

Kabila has ruled since 2001 in the troubled nation rich in the minerals key to smartphones around the world. He is barred from serving three consecutive terms, but until he announced last year that he would step aside many Congolese feared he’d find a way to stay in office.

Now DR Congo faces a new leader who is little known after spending many years in Belgium and standing behind his outspoken father. The 56-year-old Tshisekedi took over as head of DR Congo’s most prominent opposition party in early 2018, a year after his father’s death.

Gleeful Tshisekedi supporters who took to the streets in Kinshasa to celebrate said they were happy to see Kabila step down.

‘This is the coronation of a lifetime,’ said the deputy secretary-general of Tshisekedi’s party, Rubens Mikindo. ‘This is the beginning of national reconciliation.’

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