African Leaders Must Act to Stop Electoral Fraud in Congo

South Africa and Angola have influence. They must use it to ensure that the Congolese government respects the will of voters.

Opposition candidates Felix Tshisekedi (right), Martin Fayulu (second from right), and the head of the African Union Election Observation Mission, former interim Malian President Dioncounda Traoré (second from left), leave after a joint meeting on Jan. 2 in Kinshasa. (John Wessels/AFP/Getty Images)
Opposition candidates Felix Tshisekedi (right), Martin Fayulu (second from right), and the head of the African Union Election Observation Mission, former interim Malian President Dioncounda Traoré (second from left), leave after a joint meeting on Jan. 2 in Kinshasa. (John Wessels/AFP/Getty Images)

As the people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo await the results of the Dec. 30 election and brace for possible violence, the U.S. government and its allies in Africa have a decision to make: Does the choice of the Congolese people matter, or is a messy charade sufficient to endorse business as usual in central Africa’s perpetually troubled giant?

Governance in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is too often a matter of form rather than substance. For many Congolese, the state consistently fails to deliver on its most basic duties—providing security to its citizens, controlling the country’s territory, or delivering the most basic of services. It is entirely possible that the recent elections were intended as an empty gesture as well—a “good enough” exercise to satisfy the international community, quiet the demands of civil society, and shore up elites’ credibility with investors, all without ever genuinely allowing citizens a say in who should hold the levers of state power.

The vote this past December was more than two years overdue; incumbent President Joseph Kabila’s mandate expired in mid-December 2016. It also represented the first time in Congo’s history that a new leader would be chosen democratically. Given that kind of lead time and historic significance, one might imagine that the election would be meticulously planned and executed.

But instead, in a bid to keep the opposition off-balance and boost the chances of Kabila’s chosen successor, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, the election had a haphazard quality. The same Congolese government that had justified extending Kabila’s time in office by citing the logistical and financial challenges of holding elections refused to accept international assistance to help get the job done.

Authorities insisted on procuring touch-screen voting machines, a choice that raised concerns about feasibility in a country with unreliable electricity supplies as well as the potential for manipulation of the vote tallies. Prominent opposition figures were banned from running for office, while those who were allowed to participate had their campaign events disrupted or were prohibited from attending some events at all. The electoral commission itself inspired little confidence among many Congolese citizens, who doubt its independence. State media were heavily biased in favor of the ruling party, and the voter roll was in a shambles.

The process then lurched from fundamentally flawed pre-election conditions to a peaceful but problematic Election Day. Polling stations were inexplicably moved, essential election materials were missing, electronic voting machines malfunctioned, and accredited election observers were denied access to the polling sites and to vote-counting processes. Significant populations—including the residents of Beni and Butembo, where the ruling party has little support—were simply denied the right to vote altogether; the government decreed days before polls opened that these populations would vote in March (after the new president is inaugurated in January) due to the Ebola outbreak in the country’s east.

Millions of Congolese went to vote anyway, well aware of these problems, because they wish for a day when the “Democratic” part of their county’s name will no longer be ironic. They seized their opportunity, sometimes waiting for hours. In a country rife with mistrust, conspiracy theories, and cynicism born of hard experience, people took the best shot available to them to try fix what has been so fundamentally broken—the lines of accountability between citizens and the state.

Now, in this tense postelection period, it is essential that foreign leaders heed the resolve of Congolese voters by exerting maximum effort to ensure that the will of the voters is reflected in the announced results. The millions who went to the polls last month do not believe that the mere appearance of democracy is sufficient, or that an unaccountable government is good enough. They don’t believe lazy assertions that Congo is just too vast, too complex, and too broken to move forward. And they will not believe the evasion that the results are uncertain due to all the flaws in the messy process.

The country’s Catholic bishops’ conference, which fielded 40,000 election observers, has as good a window into what happened on Election Day as any entity can. Its leaders have stated that there was a clear winner in the presidential contest, and while they have agreed to abide by the law and wait for the formal results to be announced, they will not remain silent about their findings for long. (Various reports have appeared indicating that the church believes opposition candidate Martin Fayulu was the actual winner.)

Congolese officials have announced that results will be delayed further. And as the government deploys troops to opposition strongholds, shuts down internet access, and even bans some news outlets in a bid to maintain control of information and the election narrative, confidence in authorities’ commitment to the truth is not high. Encouragingly, on Jan. 3, the U.S. State Department issued a statement calling for the will of the voters to be respected and warned that “those who undermine the democratic process … may find themselves not welcome in the United States and cut off from the U.S. financial system.”

A more powerful signal could come from African leaders. The region can either pretend that going through the electoral motions is sufficient—the direction that the African Union and Southern African Development Community election observers appeared to take in their preliminary postelection statements—or stand with the Congolese people and insist that their choices be honored.

Now is the time to engage, before any fixing of the result becomes a fait accompli. South Africa’s reluctance to take a stand for democracy during the weekend’s United Nations Security Council deliberations on Congo is especially disappointing. First, South Africa sided with Russia and China in rejecting a statement that would have signaled ongoing interest in a credible process and concern about some of the Congolese state’s postelection maneuvering, then it requested that the Security Council postpone a public meeting on Jan. 8 that had been scheduled to discuss the elections.

After decades of being an essential regional broker in efforts to stabilize Congo and a role model for democratic change globally, South Africa under President Cyril Ramaphosa seems either uninterested or unprepared to play more than a passive role. The Daily Maverick recently quoted a senior South African government official as acknowledging that South Africa was “seriously missing in action” when it comes to this decisive moment for Congo. While Ramaphosa and Zambia’s Edgar Lungu were finally moved to action on January 9, calling for election results to be released in short order, this public statement was once again about form, not substance. No one doubts that eventually a winner will be announced. Doubts surround the credibility of that announcement.

South Africa and Angola, another regional heavyweight with real interests at stake in Congo, could signal with private messages and public statements that it is not enough that the Congolese people were allowed to vote; their votes must be respected. Both countries are led by relatively new presidents eager to establish their reform credentials and turn the page on corrosive governance problems. But currently there is little indication that their commitment to supporting more integrity in government extends to foreign policy, and it is highly unlikely that other African powers will reject a less-than-credible result in Congo if South Africa and Angola acquiesce.

A clearheaded and farsighted view of Africa’s own interests should make the choice an easy one. A chaotic, unstable Congo at the center of the continent is a costly drag on African ambitions to enjoy more peace and prosperity in the decades ahead. While a credible election result certainly will not resolve all of Congo’s problems, it is a necessary step in what will be a long process of change. The Congolese, and the rest of the world, have waited long enough for that step to be taken.

Michelle D. Gavin, a senior fellow for Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, was the senior director for Africa at the National Security Council from 2009 to 2011 and the U.S. ambassador to Botswana from 2011 to 2014.