How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
On December 30, 2018, millions of citizens of the Democratic Republic of the Congo braved torrential downpours, navigated chaotic crowds, and stood in long lines to do something they had not done in seven years: vote. According to Congo’s constitution, elections were supposed to have been held in 2016, but the regime repeatedly delayed them. After a failed effort to lift presidential term limits, Congo’s leadership finally relented to mounting domestic, regional, and international pressure, agreeing last year to hold elections and endorsing a successor from the ruling coalition.
Some Congolese voters held out hope for peaceful change in a country that has been ruled for 21 years by the Kabila regime—first under Laurent-Désiré Kabila and now under his son Joseph. But many suspected that the electoral commission would rig the vote on behalf of the ruling coalition’s candidate. It came as a surprise, then, when, on January 10, the commission made the provisional announcement that someone else had won: Felix Tshisekedi, the son of a long-time opposition hero.
The outcome was quickly called into question. Leaked data from the electoral commission and from the Catholic Church, which fielded 40,000 electoral observers, indicates that the true winner was a different opposition candidate, Martin Fayulu, and rumors are swirling of a backroom deal in which Kabila agreed to name Tshisekedi president, presumably in exchange for continued control over the security services and the maintenance of the Kabila family’s wealth. The regime seems to have calculated that anointing the ruling party candidate as president would have been a bridge too far in a country where the governing class is deeply unpopular, and so it settled on Tshisekedi, apparently a more accommodating opponent than Fayulu, as a fallback option.
In the short run, the announcement of an opposition victory likely averted an immediate popular uprising. But by demonstrating to Congolese that true reform is unlikely to happen through the ballot box, it has sown the seeds for deepening disorder and instability down the line. In the last three years, Congo has seen a remarkable proliferation of homegrown citizens’ movements and nonviolent protests, particularly among young people in cities. Now, however, many Congolese are beginning to express doubt that nonviolent action will bring about the political change they want—a misgiving that will only grow if Tshisekedi’s presidency fails to deliver, as is likely. And so Congo may end up reverting to a method of political protest that it knows all too well: violence.
Congo’s election was not supposed to play out like this. The candidate Kabila chose as his successor was Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, a member of parliament whom the president seems to have picked precisely because he lacked a power base of his own and was thus a good proxy. But given how unpopular Shadary was—a pre-election poll put his share of the vote at just 19 percent—naming him the victor would no doubt have set off mass protests.
Nor could Kabila have let the presumed winner, Fayulu, become president, since that would have endangered both Kabila’s control of the security services and the wealth he has earned during his tenure. Had Fayulu won, he would have allowed the return to Congo of Kabila’s most prominent rivals: Jean-Pierre Bemba and Moise Katumbi, both of whom live in exile and, after being barred from running for president, endorsed Fayulu. By handing the presidency to Tshisekedi, Kabila managed to avoid both mass protests and a complete loss of control.
Many Congolese are in fact pleased with the result of the election. Tshisekedi’s party—the Union for Democracy and Social Progress, or UDPS—is the oldest and best-organized political opposition party in Congo, and its supporters are jubilant. The provisional win has succeeded in neutralizing the party’s more militant members, known as “the combatants,” who had threatened to take to the streets had Shadary emerged victorious, and it has quieted the very vocal UDPS diaspora, too. The decision also satisfies many outside the party, including people who are simply relieved to see an opposition leader win the presidency, no matter how questionable the result. “Anyone but Kabila,” went one popular refrain that presumably covered his designated successor, as well. Thus, the protests that followed the announcement have been relatively muted.
The electoral commission’s announcement has also succeeded in dividing Congolese human rights and civil-society groups that have bedeviled the president and rallied many in the international community against him. Some of these, including the Catholic Church, have called for a recount, arguing that the voice of the Congolese people must be heard. Fayulu himself has challenged the results in court. Others, however, contend that a negotiated deal between Kabila and Tshisekedi is the best outcome that can be expected, and that annulling the election results would hurt the country.
The decision has also divided external actors. Belgium, France, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the European Union have all called for a recount and for the publication of detailed results broken down by polling station. In the region, the International Conference on the Great Lakes called for a recount, whereas the Southern African Development Community initially urged one, too—only to backtrack and advocate a unity government. An African Union meeting convened by Rwandan President Paul Kagame, its current chair, called for the postponement of the final results and agreed to send a delegation to Congo to find “a way out of the post-electoral crisis.”
Within Congo, the announced results have further strengthened an already potent politics of identity. In the eyes of some Tshisekedi supporters, particularly his ethnic brethren in his home region—the Luba people in the Kasai—other regions and ethnic groups have all had a shot at national power. The Bakongo people had their moment after independence from Belgium in 1960 with President Joseph Kasavubu, the Equateur region got its 32-year feast under Mobutu Sese Seko, and Katanga province had a profitable 20-year spell with Laurent-Désiré Kabila and his son Joseph. But having struggled for years in opposition, those who back the UDPS or come from the Kasai region have never managed to get their turn until now. They are likely to protest any attempt to take the presidency away from them. Fayulu, on the other hand, hails from a multiethnic province without a dominant group, so his home region is unlikely to rise up effectively in his defense.
If the provisional results hold, the outcome will probably have staved off massive, nationwide protests. But this will do little to address the countless, long-term problems afflicting Congo, from persistent poverty to the proliferation of armed groups to widespread corruption. Most Congolese people are deeply disappointed with the way they have been governed at all levels for the last two decades. They have repeatedly displayed great faith in the electoral process and displayed a strong anti-incumbency streak. In the past, they have consistently used parliamentary and provincial elections to vote in new representatives.
That tendency is at odds with the announced results of the legislative elections that were held at the national and provincial levels, in which the ruling party (including members of Kabila’s family) scored major victories. Whether these results are real or fake is up for debate, but they will have major consequences. The National Assembly (the lower chamber of Parliament) elects the prime minister and will probably put a Kabila ally in the position. The provincial legislatures, meanwhile, elect the members of the Senate (the upper chamber of Parliament) and provincial governors across the country. And as a former head of state, Kabila himself has the constitutional right to serve as a senator. That means he could conceivably have himself elected president of the Senate—first in the line of presidential succession. Then there are the security services, which will likely remain in the hands of the current regime, since if there was indeed a deal between Kabila and Tshisekedi, maintaining control of the security services would have been one key element of it. The bottom line is that Tshisekedi will probably end up being a figurehead with no real power.
Elections—even imperfect ones—have consequences. Kabila already disappointed some members of his coalition who have political ambitions of their own when he named Shadary as his successor. His decision to hand the presidency to an actual opponent has no doubt alienated even more of his supporters and allies. Thus, Kabila risks being weakened within his own party.
Tshisekedi has his own political problems to worry about. Many UDPS parliamentary candidates who failed to win seats will have difficulty squaring his victory with their loss. If there was a backroom deal, Tshisekedi risks being seen by his own party as having negotiated only for himself. If the discontent deepens, his circle will narrow, and the UDPS—the only party with a long-standing national base—could be reduced to a regional party popular only in the Kasai, or even limited to his ethnic base there, the Luba.
In other words, what may look now like a win-win deal for Congo’s outgoing president and its incoming one may turn out to end badly for both. The real losers, however, will be millions of Congolese—the loyal citizens who exercised their democratic right in the vain hope that it would bring about real change.
How long before grievance converts into violence? A year ago, the sensible argument to make was that after years of violent conflict, few Congolese would support any sort of violent uprising. Now, one cannot be so sure. If the current ruling elite retains real power or if Tshisekedi’s win continues to be questioned, then whatever combination of elites ends up running the country will very likely fail to improve the everyday lives of Congolese.
If that happens, then the hopes of those who sought to alter the country’s governance through the election will have been dashed. Under these circumstances, it is easy to imagine more and more Congolese losing faith in nonviolence and once again taking up arms in pursuit of revolutionary change. This would be a terrible turn of events for a people who have already suffered so much violence.
It is a common refrain among some observers that the Congolese people, beaten down by decades of dictatorship, will never rise up—or that if they do, they will last only a few days before the bullets send them running. But such thinking elides Congo’s revolutionary history. In the years after Congo’s first post-independence leader, Patrice Lumumba, was deposed and assassinated, the country saw a national revolutionary movement—the so-called Congo Rebellions of the 1960s—that would have been victorious had the West, especially the United States, not sent military forces to put it down. In 1977 and 1978, Congolese rebelled again against their central government and were once again defeated by Western military intervention. In 1996, a coalition of neighboring states invaded the country and joined forces with Congolese armed groups to topple Mobutu and replace him with Laurent-Désiré Kabila. Two years later, new rebellions aimed at removing him from power were foiled by regional interventions. It’s a similar story, again and again: the Congolese rise up against their rulers in the capital, and when they fail to oust them, it is because the central government has been rescued by foreign backers.
Now, armed groups have grown in number and power. In the east, they have gained control of territory and have positioned themselves as public authorities in opposition to, and in some cases in the place of, state institutions. They draw their legitimacy from the voluntary compliance of communities in which they are socially embedded, even when they are fundamentally ruling through coercion. Far from demonstrating passivity, since independence, the Congolese people have shown a remarkable tendency to resist the central government not just through peaceful means but also with force.
Even though no two are alike, revolutions are generally the product of a combination of risk factors. Sadly, today, Congo has all the ingredients for a violent uprising: an unpopular political elite, declining standards of living, massive inflation, rising economic inequality, brutal repression of dissent, an unfair justice system, growing protest movements, and proliferating armed groups. Moreover, today’s younger generations do not have the discouraging memory of failed attempts to overthrow their rulers. In 1978, the American sociologist Charles Tilly explained how such perfect storms of discontent lead to revolution, through what he called an “idealized revolutionary sequence.” First, the ruling establishment fragments; then, the people mobilize against it; finally, the regime is unable to contain that mobilization. Congo has moved through the first two steps of this sequence and is somewhere in the middle of the third.
Predicting what may happen in Congo in the coming months is futile. But if the pattern of recent years is any indication, in the absence of a single leader to channel violent action into an armed nationwide movement, the country could see something much more fragmented: deteriorating security conditions, increased localized violence, and the continued proliferation of armed groups. This would be a nightmare scenario for the Congolese people, above all, but also for Congo’s neighbors, which have a long history of competition and backyard interventions.
In coping with delay after delay, the Congolese people have been profoundly patient. In showing up to vote in elections that were rife with problems, they demonstrated an enduring faith in the power of the democratic process. But now, many see an election they waited for and supported as having produced illegitimate results. It is only logical, then, to expect that they will lose both their patience and their belief in elections. That opens the door for violent revolution.