A Divided Opposition Stands Between Democracy and the Congo

A Divided Opposition Stands Between Democracy and the Congo

An opposition supporter stands on a car next to a placard with an image of opposition figure Jean Pierre Bemba.

SourceJUNIOR D. KANNAH/Getty

Why you should care

The DRC’s opposition could ensure the country’s first-ever democratic transition of power. But first, it needs to decide on a leader. 

The political opportunity of a lifetime stared at leaders of 20 opposition parties as they huddled in a Kinshasa party office on Sept. 16. After 17 years in power, Democratic Republic of Congo President Joseph Kabila had finally given in to pressure and agreed to leave office after presidential elections in December. His pick as successor, internal security minister Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, appeared vulnerable to a united opposition. Six hours later, opposition leaders emerged from the meeting, expressions grim. Forget unity; they were more divided than ever.

Kabila agreed to the Dec. 23 elections two years after he was constitutionally required to quit, and following months of increasingly violent protests led by citizens and the Catholic church that left his government weakened. A July 2018 poll by the Congo Research Group at New York University and Congolese polling firm BERCI showed that a united opposition could defeat Kabila’s nominee. That would end the rule directly or by proxy of a family that has led the country since 1997, when Kabila’s father, Laurent-Désiré Kabila, overthrew his predecessor, Mobutu Sese Seko.

But that opening against Kabila is only deepening fissures within the opposition as different parties jockey to place their candidate as the united face they hope will defeat Shadary. When the country’s national election commission, the CENI, announced presidential candidates three days after that Sept. 16 meeting, the list had 20 opposition names. That’s nearly twice the 11 opposition candidates who contested Kabila in the last elections, in 2011, when the president won with 49 percent of votes.

Pride, prejudice, lust for power and tribalism are among the causes of disunity.

Alex Volo, political analyst

The Sept. 16 meeting wasn’t the only attempt to forge opposition unity. Facilitated by global pro-democracy groups and parties, the opposition parties have met more than 10 times — in their country, in South Africa, Belgium and in the U.S. They met before the candidates’ list was released, and since then, to forge a consensus candidate. There’s still hope — at their last meeting, in New York on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), the main opposition parties said they would try to announce a common candidate a month before the elections. And on Thursday, opposition leaders began yet another meeting — in Geneva this time — to try to agree on a common candidate. But so far, unity has been elusive.

“Pride, prejudice, lust for power and tribalism are among the causes of disunity … that have led them to fail to come up with a single candidate,” says retired political science lecturer Alex Volo.

Some opposition leaders are accusing Kabila of fomenting discord in their ranks. Charles Mbede, secretary of the Congo Rally for Democracy party, cites the election commission’s decision to disqualify Jean-Pierre Bemba, a former vice president, over a past corruption conviction. Bemba received the most opposition votes in the BERCI-Congo Research Group poll, and was the likeliest candidate others could have united around. “I believe Kabila has a hand in that move,” says Mbede. “Kabila is happy with a divided opposition.”

But to ordinary Congolese opponents of Kabila, including supporters of the opposition parties, blaming the president only cuts so much ice. The current candidates are all well-known public figures, some with decades of political experience.

They include Félix Antoine Tshisekedi, leader of the oldest and largest opposition party, the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDSP), and Tryphon Kin-Kiey Mulumba, a former Mobutu spokesman and Kabila minister. Former Prime Minister Samy Badibanga, ex-cabinet ministers Vital Kamerhe, Freddy Matungulu and Sylvain Maurice Masheke, and other leaders of opposition parties — Radjabo Mbira Tebabho Soborabo, Gabriel Mokia Mandemo, Marie-Josée Ifoku Mputu, Pierre Kazadi, Jean Mabaya Gizi Amine — have also entered the fray. Entrepreneurs-turned-politicians Seth Masudi, Alain Daniel Shekomba, Martin Fayulu and Francis Mvemba, scientist Yves Mpunga, pastors Joseph Maluta and Théodore Ngoy, and economists Charles Diavena and Noël Tshiani round off the list.

Tshisekedi and Kamerhe, the former minister, are widely viewed as the strongest of the 20 opposition candidates. If Shadary is defeated, it would mark the first democratic transition of power in the mineral-rich country since it gained independence half a century ago.

It’s that hope for change that made Santos Mbiziri, a mobilizer in the Congo Rally for Democracy, wait expectantly with thousands of others outside the venue where many of these leaders were meeting on Sept. 16. But his hope quickly turned to disappointment. “They came out with gloomy faces, and I guessed right that they had failed to agree on a single candidate,” says Mbiziri.

As the election draws closer, that frequent swing between hope and disappointment is one that Mbiziri and others opposed to Kabila are increasingly getting used to. Officially, opposition leaders have maintained that they recognize that their best shot at defeating Shadary is with a unified candidate.

But months of conferences and cajoling by international friends are yet to yield results. In May, the UDSP’s Tshisekedi and veteran opposition leader Moise Katumbi participated in a roundtable meeting at the Atlantic Council in Washington to try to reach an agreement on a candidate. They failed. “They stressed at the Atlantic Council that their union was strong and stable but ironically failed to agree on one person to stand in elections,” says Andrew Longwa, a secretary in the Christian Democracy Party. Two weeks before their September meeting, opposition leaders met in Belgium. Again, they couldn’t agree on a candidate.

On Sept. 18, the African National Congress in South Africa hosted the opposition leaders, but couldn’t get them to agree on a candidate. And during the UNGA, Katumbi and Martin Fayulu of the Engagement for Citizenship and Development party jetted to New York for talks in a plush 35th-floor lounge of the Mandarin Oriental hotel. The trans-Atlantic flight didn’t help either.

“When we fail to get one opposition candidate, we increase the chances of Kabila’s chosen candidate to win the elections,” says Jackson Rubilya, UDSP coordinator for the country’s east. Each time in the past, coups were the weapons that denied the country a peaceful, democratic transition. If Kabila continues his reign by proxy, this time the opposition may have no one but themselves to blame.

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