The decision to postpone the already repeatedly delayed presidential elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) means the country’s citizens cannot decide on their next leader today.
Its nearly 40 million voters will have to wait patiently for another week to participate in this crucial event.
At least, that was the version offered by the Independent National Electoral Commission, or Ceni, on Thursday when it announced the delay.
Citing obstacles that ranged from an outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus to militias terrorising parts of the country and a lack of electoral equipment – a major portion of which was destroyed in a mysterious inferno at the Ceni warehouse in the capital, Kinshasa, on December 13 – the electoral body found it fit to delay the poll till next Sunday.
Corneille Nangaa, the head of the electoral commission, who had previously declared that the DRC would hold elections “come rain or shine”, said technical challenges had forced the commission to postpone the poll.
The government of President Joseph Kabila (47) rejected financial and logistical support offered by both the UN and the EU to help organise the election, saying the country was capable of managing on its own.
The fire that swept through a Kinshasa election depot 10 days ago destroyed an estimated 80% of the voting machines and ballot boxes needed to stage the vote for the population in the capital – which contributes at least 10% of the national voter average.
This was part of Nangaa’s explanation for the poll’s delay.
Following the blaze, the opposition and the ruling party accused each other of sabotage, with Martin Fayulu, leader of Lamuku – the opposition’s joint coalition group – saying it was impossible for an institution that was under a presidential security detail to be torched by private citizens.
Fayulu and his supporters went on to accuse the government of deliberately starting the fire in order to frustrate the election process.
But the ruling party hit back, accusing the opposition of destroying the voting materials.
They based this on the fact that the opposition had denounced the voting machines earmarked for Kinshasa as easy for authorities to manipulate and, as a result, had wanted them destroyed.
If the outgoing president had his way, these elections would not go ahead. In the past 20 years in which Kabila’s family has held power – three of them under the leadership of his late father, Laurent-Désiré Kabila – the DRC has remained impoverished, despite the central African nation being rich in natural resources.
Kabila and his officials have been accused of looting the country, but he has dismissed these allegations as baseless and false.
However, critics suggest that this is the main reason he wants to hold on to the presidency.
Kabila has indicated that he is not going anywhere. “Anything is possible in life and in politics,” was his response when a journalist recently asked him about a possible comeback.
And he is not looking any further than 2023.
This may explain his decision to pick former interior minister Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary – a surprise choice as Shadary is a little-known loyalist.
Speculation is rife that Shadary will merely warm the presidential seat to overcome a constitutional hurdle that prevents anyone from holding a life presidency.
For two years, Kabila has dilly-dallied, shifting from one position to another, as to whether he would seek a third term.
He delayed elections in the hope of buying time. Finally, he succumbed to domestic and international pressure to respect the country’s Constitution, which limits presidential terms to two.
In office since 2001, Kabila led the DRC through a transition period that delivered the first democratic election in 2006 and was re-elected five years later in 2011, which marked the end of his two-term mandate.
The longer Kabila stayed in power, the less inclined he became to step down when the time came. But various challengers for the presidential office have since emerged.
Former Katanga governor Moïse Katumbi has been a leading proponent of Kabila’s exit after his two terms expire.
The assertion forced Katumbi, who owns the Congolese football club TP Mazembe, into exile after authorities targeted him. He has since been barred from contesting the polls, as has ex-warlord Jean-Pierre Bemba.
The two political heavyweights have since thrown their weight behind Fayulu, following a meeting of opposition parties in Geneva in November.
Seven opposition leaders – including Felix Tshisekedi, Vital Kamerhe, Adolphe Muzito, Freddy Matungulu, Katumbi and Bemba – met on November 11 and elected Fayulu as their coalition’s opposition candidate.
However, within 24 hours of the Geneva accord, Tshisekedi and Kamerhe abandoned the agreement, claiming a revolt among their party’s grassroots members.
The two went on to sign an agreement in Nairobi, with Tshisekedi, leader of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress, as the flag carrier.
Katumbi, Bemba, Muzito, Matungulu and Fayulu upheld the Geneva agreement and sprung into campaign action under the name, Lamuka – a Swahili term loosely translated as “wake up”.
Fayulu In The Three-Horse Race
On a level playing field, the DRC election would be a three-horse race, leaning towards an opposition win.
Tshisekedi (55), who draws his legitimacy and political strength from his late father, Étienne – a long-standing opposition leader – is commanding good support, albeit in only one region.
His largest base is in his native Kasaï region, where he is assured of harvesting healthy numbers, particularly in Mbuji-Mayi and Kananga.
He is also guaranteed of some good numbers in Kinshasa, where authorities banned opposition parties from campaigning.
The ruling party, the People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy (PPRD), which is running a coalition of political parties it collectively calls the FCC (the Common Front for Congo), is relying on the strength of this grouping to retain power.
Its presidential candidate, Shadary, has toured the country extensively and faced hostility even in his hometown, Maniema, as he is viewed as a Kabila project.
Of the three major candidates, Fayulu has suffered the most frustration and humiliation on the campaign trail.
His rallies have been cancelled or disrupted by security agents, many of his supporters have been killed and his plane has often been grounded to stop him from reaching out to as many parts of the country as he would like.
The support he enjoys from Katumbi and Bemba has given him national representation in what has been described as an ethnically driven election.
There are 19 candidates on the ballot, but only Fayulu and Tshisekedi pose a real threat to Shadary and the ruling party.
Of the two strongest opposition leaders in the contest – Fayulu and Tshisekedi – the former has made marked gains in the past month of campaigning.
With the support of Katumbi, who is one of the country’s most popular politicians, Fayulu is guaranteed good numbers across the Swahili-speaking south [Katanga], east and central Congo.
The addition of Bemba gives Fayulu strength in the northern and western parts of Congo, as well as in Kinshasa, where the former vice-president enjoys a considerable following.
However, the reality remains that the election playing field is uneven. Fayulu was barred from holding a rally in Lubumbashi, the second largest city, where Katumbi enjoys massive support.
And in the cobalt rich Kolwezi in the Lualaba region, formerly a part of Katanga, Fayulu was denied a chance to meet the masses.
Whichever way the preparations go, the election in the DRC has the country on edge.
The DRC is going through a fractious period that has the potential to plunge the continent into chaos. Undoubtedly, the country has never known proper peace since the assassination of its first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba.
The fall of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who ruled for more than three decades, resulted in thousands of lives lost and people displaced. Kabila’s exit comes with the same consequences.
If there was ever a time that Africans should unite for their compatriots, this is it.