On Dec. 30, 2018, 46 million citizens cast their votes in a historic election in the Democratic Republic of Congo. There hasn’t been a peaceful transition of power in this country since the end of Belgian rule in 1960. If this election produces a result that’s widely viewed as credible, it will cement a new era of representative government in Africa.
The deferral of representative government in the DRC has a long history. After the Berlin Conference (1884-85), Belgium acquired the Congo as a colonial territory and, from Léopold II to King Baudoin I, Belgian administrators oversaw one of the most brutal regimes on the continent.
In 1960, Patrice Lumumba became the first prime minister, sharing power with Joseph Kasa-Vubu as president. A confluence of internal and external factors unleashed a crisis that led to Lumumba’s assassination in 1961 and Mobutu Sese Seko’s rise to power in 1965. With the support of Western nations, Mobutu presided over the looting of his country’s natural wealth as one of the most tenacious gatekeeping dictators of the 20th century. He clung to power for more than 30 years.
In 1997, Laurent-Désiré Kabila took over as president in the midst of conflict that spilled over from the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Assassinated by his bodyguard in 2001, Kabila was succeeded by his son Joseph who has been in office ever since. Violent protests followed rigged elections in 2006 and 2011. The quiet work of pro-democracy activism has been ongoing in the Congo since 2012 and the process of cultivating a demanding citizenry is visibly yielding results. A recent example was when 21 civic organizations mobilized vowing to use non-violent protest to defend the outcome of the election.
There can be little doubt that a paradigm shift of historic importance is underway.
Widespread irregularities have been documented in the recent election despite the presence of 40,000 observers. Nonetheless, preliminary reports by the powerful Catholic church with direct knowledge of the process, claim that one presidential candidate has clearly won. Diplomatic sources identify the winner as Martin Fayulu.
Once results started to come in on Dec. 31, confirming Fayulu’s overwhelming victory, the government shut down the Internet, Radio France Internationale’s FM broadcasting signal, and cell phone service across the country. Many believe Kabila’s attempt to fix the election in favour of his handpicked successor, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, didn’t work. They interpret the information blackout as stalling and censorship, rather than a means of avoiding false news as alleged.
As the world waits amid growing international pressure for the national electoral commission to make official the results, it’s already possible to see that significant change has come to the Congo.
Massive voter turnout under very difficult circumstances is compelling evidence of the people’s commitment to a democratic transition, even though the process was far from perfect.