When the constitutional court declared him the next president of the
Democratic Republic of Congo, Félix Tshisekedi toasted his victory
with a glass of champagne. He was due to be inaugurated as The
Economist went to press. Optimists chirp that this is Congo’s first
peaceful transfer of power since independence in 1960. South Africa’s
president, Cyril Ramaphosa, congratulated Mr Tshisekedi and urged “all
stakeholders” to accept the result and “continue with a journey of
consolidating peace, uniting the people of Congo, and creating a
better life for all”.
What a travesty. The election was really won by Martin Fayulu, a
former oil executive—and by a wide margin. Bishops from the Catholic
church, one of Congo’s few functional and respected institutions, sent
out 40,000 observers. According to their tally Mr Fayulu won more than
60% of the vote. This matched data leaked by officials, which showed
that 59% backed him. Mr Tshisekedi came a distant second with 19% of
the vote. Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, a former interior minister
handpicked to succeed Joseph Kabila, the unpopular incumbent, won a
paltry 18.5% (see Middle East & Africa section).
It is hard to exaggerate the scale and flagrancy of the fraud. Before
the vote, the Kabila regime used all its powers to nobble the
opposition, barring popular candidates, banning rallies, firing on
crowds and using state resources to promote the hapless Mr Shadary.
When that was not enough, because voters are thoroughly sick of their
corrupt, incompetent rulers, the count was rigged. Declaring Mr
Shadary the winner would not have passed the laugh test, so Mr
Tshisekedi, the callow son of a revered opposition leader who died in
2017, was tapped instead. Many suspect a stitch-up. Mr Kabila’s party
still controls the national assembly. Mr Tshisekedi says they can work
together. Mr Fayulu, by contrast, seemed more likely to investigate
the graft that flourished during the 18 years that Mr Kabila was in
charge. Small wonder the establishment fears him.
At first the stolen election prompted a sharp response from the
African Union (au), a regional body. After the electoral commission
announced the result but before the constitutional court endorsed it,
the au called on Congo to hold off on declaring Mr Tshisekedi the
winner, adding that it would send a delegation of regional leaders to
investigate. The Southern African Development Community (sadc), of
which Congo is a member, called for a recount. But after the court,
packed with government stooges, declared Mr Tshisekedi the victor,
sadc backed down almost immediately. The au and many Western
governments seem willing to turn a blind eye, too.
Some argue that a transition, no matter how flawed, will break Mr
Kabila’s hold on the country and set a precedent for cleaner elections
in five years. Others are more cynical. There is little they can do
for Congo, they shrug. It is vast, poor, violent and practically
roadless. It has never been well or honestly governed. Not only is it
pointless to make a fuss; it might make matters worse. Calls for a
recount might spark violence, some fear. This is not an idle worry.
Congo’s most recent full-blown civil war, from 1998 to 2003, sucked in
nine countries and caused perhaps 1m-5m deaths (mostly from
war-induced starvation and disease), depending on which estimate you
believe. Thanks to more recent fighting between mass-raping militias,
some 4m of Congo’s roughly 80m people have fled their homes and 13m
desperately need humanitarian aid. Rather than get embroiled in this
mess, many leaders of other countries would prefer to grapple with
troubles back home.
Yet there are costs to ignoring Congo’s great election robbery.
Calling Mr Tshisekedi the winner fools no one. Mr Fayulu’s supporters
are justifiably outraged. Mr Kabila’s rich cronies are not happy,
either—they had hoped that he could rig the poll more competently.
Congo now has an illegitimate regime, riven with internal bickering,
ineptly running a country in severe economic distress. That is hardly
a recipe for stability, as riots and repression in Zimbabwe
Democracy is beleaguered across the world. If even its supporters,
such as Mr Ramaphosa, do not speak up when an election is
ostentatiously filched, autocrats everywhere are emboldened. The au is
not completely powerless. After it adopted a “zero-tolerance” policy
for coups in 2000, the number of successful military takeovers in
Africa fell, from 38 between 1980 and 2000 to only 15 since then. The
policy is inconsistently applied. The au pretended to believe that the
coup against Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe in 2017 was not a coup (and
that the election that replaced him with Emmerson Mnangagwa was fair).
Zimbabwe under Mr Mnangagwa is in turmoil. Far better to call a coup a
coup and a stolen election stolen. No one should recognise Mr
Tshisekedi’s election. Africa will not be stable until Africans freely
choose their rulers.