How Washington Got on Board With Congo’s Rigged Election
The State Department endorsed Felix Tshisekedi’s unlikely presidency, taking some U.S. officials by surprise.
When the results of the presidential election in the Democratic Republic of the Congo were announced last month in favor of the candidate Felix Tshisekedi, officials from government agencies across Washington worked together to craft a U.S. response. Independent groups in Congo had detected widespread fraud in the vote, so U.S. officials agreed to condemn the process as rigged and vowed to hold those involved responsible.
But the statement that came out of the U.S. State Department on Jan. 23 caught some of the policymakers who worked on the region by surprise. Instead of condemning the election as “deeply flawed and troubling,” following the language of the original draft, the United States endorsed the results—with minor caveats—and offered praise for the election.
By doing so, the Trump administration went further than any of its Western counterparts or international organizations in embracing Tshisekedi, who many in Congo believe cut a corrupt deal with outgoing President Joseph Kabila to gain power.
The changes in the wording were dictated by a small group of diplomats, sources told Foreign Policy. They made some senior decision-makers in Washington “livid,” according to one senior U.S. official. To them, the new statement undercut the legitimacy of the United States in one of Africa’s largest and most influential countries just as it was undertaking its first peaceful transition of power in six decades.
The story of how the United States came to offer a full-throated endorsement of Congo’s election is being told here for the first time, based on interviews with nearly a dozen current and former U.S. officials and experts briefed on the internal deliberations. It sheds light on the chaotic policymaking process that has become emblematic of the Trump administration.
The State Department officials who reworked the statement apparently worried that rejecting the election results might have sparked more civil strife and violence in Congo and viewed a peaceful transition of power, however fraudulent, as the least bad option.
“Everyone knew the elections were crap, but … they thought they had to accept [Tshisekedi], [that] they had no other recourse here,” one former U.S. official briefed on the internal deliberations said.
Africa experts and Congolese civil society leaders reacted to the U.S. position with a mixture of anger and resignation, with some seeing it as a betrayal of long-standing U.S. commitments to advance democracy in Congo—an issue that Nikki Haley, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, pushed before stepping down in late 2018.
“The U.S. did a lot to get Congo where it got in terms of elections, but then the U.S. at the last minute washed its hands of it,” said Mvemba Phezo Dizolele, a Congolese professor and nonresident senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “We are in a very bad situation, where we have ended up with the old illegitimate guard still in place, and Tshisekedi does not have the legitimacy to bring change.”
“I think it was a cynical approach, based on low expectations, and you cannot have peace in Congo by pushing low expectations,” Dizolele added.
Despite its vast natural resources, Congo is one of the poorest and most politically fragile countries in Africa. In the eastern part of country, more than 100 armed groups are vying for power in unrest that has displaced around 4.5 million people. The area is also the epicenter of a deadly Ebola outbreak. Kabila became Congo’s leader after the assassination of his father in 2001 and ruled the country for 18 years—well beyond his constitutionally mandated term limit expired in December 2016. To many Congolese, he was both corrupt and inept—having failed to resolve the country’s biggest economic, political, and security challenges.
The United States, the European Union, and neighboring African countries had long been pushing for elections in Congo (alongside Congolese themselves), but Kabila kept finding reason to delay them.
Under mounting domestic pressure and international criticism, including a tense meeting between Haley and the Congolese president during her visit to Kinshasa in the first year of the Trump administration, Kabila finally called for the election at the end of December 2018—two years after his term legally expired. Eleven days later, Tshisekedi was declared the winner. But widespread accounts of vote rigging, backed by documentation leaked to the press and civil society organizations, indicated that Tshisekedi lost the election to the rival opposition candidate Martin Fayulu by a wide margin. Many Western officials and Congolese democracy activists believe Tshisekedi pulled off the victory with Kabila’s help, in an arrangement that could leave the former president and his family with significant behind-the-scenes power and influence.
“There were so many red flags throughout the process. From the pre-electoral period to the actual elections to the vote count, there was almost nothing that was credible and transparent about them,” said Sasha Lezhnev, an expert on Central Africa at the Enough Project, a Washington-based nonprofit. “The numbers from the official results seemed to come out of thin air.”
Fred Bauma, a Congolese activist and leader of the pro-democracy youth opposition movement Lucha, said Kabila may have created a new playbook on how autocrats can remain in power while going through the pageantry of fraudulent elections.
“What Kabila did is really a master play,” Bauma said, adding that Kabila’s strategy would be “a lesson to many dictators to find a very interesting way to rig elections and make it acceptable.”
After the provisional results were announced in the middle of the night on Jan. 10, U.S. officials raised concerns repeatedly about the fairness of the process. Meanwhile, representatives from the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Treasury Department, the Defense Department, and the National Security Council (NSC) held a series of meetings to decide how to respond, according to six current and former U.S. officials.
The meetings included Cyril Sartor, a former senior CIA official who is now President Donald Trump’s top NSC aide on Africa; Tibor Nagy, the State Department’s assistant secretary for African affairs; Peter Pham, the department’s special envoy for the Great Lakes region of Africa; Ramsey Day, the senior deputy assistant administrator for USAID’s Africa Bureau; and Pentagon and Treasury officials who handle international sanctions and foreign affairs policies. Officials said Mark Green, Trump’s USAID chief, also weighed in on the deliberations.
The group met several times over the course of January to calibrate the U.S. reaction to the election. All the while, two officials said, they worked to coordinate closely with the EU’s foreign-policy chief, Federica Mogherini, and her team, as well as the African Union.
In a series of preliminary statements crafted by the team and released by the State Department on Jan. 3, 10, and 16—before confirmation of the final results—the United States sharply condemned reports of election-related interference and violence. The Jan. 3 statement included a threat that people involved “may find themselves not welcome in the United States and cut off from the U.S. financial system.”
With the Constitutional Court’s decision to confirm the election later in the month and with news of widespread election fraud, the group drafted a new U.S. response on Jan. 23. It noted the election results rather than welcoming them—a diplomatic way of signaling displeasure—and condemned the “deeply flawed and troubling” election, according to a draft reviewed by FP. It also stated that Congo’s electoral commission “failed to live up to the responsibility” it had to carry out elections fairly and vowed that the United States would “hold accountable” any figures engaged in election fixing or violent crackdowns on any ensuing protests.
But none of this language made it into the final statement. Instead, Washington welcomed the results and declared itself committed to working with Tshisekedi. The revised statement made only passing mention to “electoral irregularities.”
Michael Hammer, the U.S. ambassador to Congo, along with Michael McKinley, a senior career diplomat advising Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, pushed for the revised statement, according to three U.S. officials. The department’s third-ranking official, David Hale, ultimately signed off on it, the officials said.
Senior U.S. officials in other agencies and some State Department officials—including the special envoy for the region, Pham—were kept out of the final decision entirely and did not know that a shift in policy was in the works, officials told FP. They said some officials found out about the shift in policy only once the statement came out. It left some of them fuming.
“If we said we’ll hold the government accountable … and five days later we congratulate a bunch of thieves, what good are our threats?” one senior U.S. official said.
One former State Department official familiar with the process said the implications went beyond Congo. “It was just a stupid decision to release that statement, a statement that has much bigger bearing on U.S. government democracy promotion in Africa,” the former official said.
The State Department, USAID, and NSC all declined to comment for this story. A State Department spokesperson also did not respond to a request to interview the senior diplomats who FP was told were involved in the process. Representatives of Tshisekedi also did not respond to a request for comment.
The State Department’s statement accepting Congo’s election came out on the same day that Trump announced the United States would back an opposition figure in Venezuela as the country’s interim president. Many experts noted the irony of the contrast.
“It’s blatant hypocrisy,” said a U.S. official briefed on the internal deliberations.
The data indicating systemic election fraud in Congo is difficult to dismiss. According to the Congo Research Group, the official results that suggest Tshisekedi won are statistically improbable. The Catholic Church—seen as one of Congo’s most trusted civil society organizations—dispatched a robust observation mission under the National Episcopal Conference of Congo, known by its French acronym, CENCO, with at least one observer per polling station. According to CENCO data that was leaked to the press, the Catholic Church expected Fayulu, the rival candidate, to win the election by a sizable margin—securing 63 percent of the vote compared with Tshisekedi’s 15 percent. And according to data leaked to journalists by a whistleblower, based on 86 percent of the total vote, the electoral commission put Fayulu ahead at 59 percent, compared with Tshisekedi’s 19 percent.
During the campaign, international humanitarian watchdogs and other civil society organizations in Congo cited government actions preventing credible and free elections, including voter intimidation and coercion by security forces. The government occasionally shut down the internet and prevented opposition candidates from holding rallies. It also closed polling stations in the east of the country, citing concerns about community violence and Ebola—preventing about 1.2 million Congolese from voting in what experts believe is a stronghold for opposition parties. And two leading opposition figures, Moise Katumbi and Jean-Pierre Bemba, were barred from running all together.
“It’s even more important to talk about the problems that occurred before voting day itself,” said Séverine Autesserre, a Congo scholar and professor at Barnard College, Columbia University. “On voting day, to me, the elections were already rigged.”
Other experts and organizations were similarly skeptical about the results. The African Union announced that it had “serious doubts” that the “verdict of the ballot boxes” was being accurately represented by the Congolese electoral commission. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said: “On the face of it, Mr. Fayulu was the leader coming out of these elections.” Meanwhile, the EU initially followed the AU’s lead in refusing to accept the results, highlighting serious doubts in the election process. The AU considered dispatching a delegation to Kinshasa to investigate and called on Congo to hold off on confirming the final results—a rare move for the international body.
But criticism of the election and opposition faded in recent weeks, culminating in the U.S. embrace of the results. The EU and some African leaders now appear to grudgingly accept the results while pointedly refusing to welcome them or congratulate Tshisekedi.
“I think the most startling thing is how quickly we have shifted from a discussion about the integrity of the electoral process to sweeping all these very serious and credible allegations of electoral fraud under the carpet,” said Jason Stearns of the Congo Research Group.
Bauma, the Congolese activist, said the U.S. government was simply papering over the fact that the election was stolen in the name of a realistic policy. “When it comes to talking about Congo, the ‘pragmatic and realistic option’ is usually just a synonym for defeatism,” he said.
Several current and former U.S. officials said the Trump administration could have coordinated an international response to the election rigging and pressured the government in Kinshasa to back away from trying to install Tshisekedi in office.
In the eyes of one U.S. policymaker, the diplomats handling Congo had no heavyweights on their side in Washington—particularly after Haley left—to coordinate a meaningful response with the EU, the AU, and other African countries or to credibly threaten new rounds of sanctions.
“It’s difficult for embassies to make these policies when they don’t know [if] they have backing in Washington from senior officials,” the policymaker said. “It’s not like we’re going to get a Mike Pence op-ed in the Wall Street Journal for Congo.”
Others believe the impact of accepting a stolen election in Congo could reverberate across the continent. Burundi, Ivory Coast, and Sudan all have elections scheduled for next year, and Western officials believe their leaders may be eyeing ways to retain power while still submitting to international pressure to hold elections.
“We have three super sensitive, contentious elections coming up in Africa in 2020, and of course they’re all looking at how we’re handling this,” one U.S. official said.
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer