Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Why Did Washington Let a Stolen Election Stand in the Congo?

If the Biden administration wants to advance democracy around the world, it needs to fix U.S. diplomacy first.

By , the author of American Foreign Policy in the Congo: 1960-1964 and A Culture of Deference: Congress’s Failure of Leadership in Foreign Policy.
An electoral agent arranges ballots.
An electoral agent arranges ballots at a polling station in Kinshasa, on Dec. 31, 2018. MARCO LONGARI/AFP via Getty Images

The Biden administration has arrived with some grand promises for its foreign policy, among them to “rally the nations of the world to defend democracy globally” and “empower” U.S. diplomats who were “politicized” under the previous administration.

But a controversial recent election in one of Africa’s largest countries raises a fundamental question. Is the U.S. foreign-policy apparatus even capable of exploiting opportunities to assist potential democratic breakthroughs? How and why U.S. diplomats—mainly veteran career officers rather than Trumpian outsiders—decided to spurn such an opportunity in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in 2018 has important implications for the Biden administration.

The Biden administration has arrived with some grand promises for its foreign policy, among them to “rally the nations of the world to defend democracy globally” and “empower” U.S. diplomats who were “politicized” under the previous administration.

But a controversial recent election in one of Africa’s largest countries raises a fundamental question. Is the U.S. foreign-policy apparatus even capable of exploiting opportunities to assist potential democratic breakthroughs? How and why U.S. diplomats—mainly veteran career officers rather than Trumpian outsiders—decided to spurn such an opportunity in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in 2018 has important implications for the Biden administration.

It suggests that to fulfill his pledge, Biden will need to take steps to ensure his top foreign-policy appointees are strongly invested in democracy promotion and that career foreign service officers are not only empowered but also incentivized to think beyond short-term accommodations with local leaders.


The DRC’s December 2018 presidential and parliamentary elections were a long-awaited chance for Congolese to replace the unpopular, corrupt, and repressive government of then-President Joseph Kabila with one that would serve their interests. Kabila had designated Emmanuel Shadary as his preferred successor. Martin Fayulu and current Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi were the leading opposition candidates.

As the government-controlled election commission, the CENI, pondered what to do with ballots that threatened to end Kabila’s sway, the Catholic Church—the most important and trusted civil institution in the country—discreetly unveiled to its foreign donors the results of its 40,000 person-strong electoral observation project. Among the largest funders were the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Carter Center. Based on a scientific sample of 10 percent of polling stations and a compilation of 42 percent of the total vote, the church’s Episcopal conference, called CENCO, projected an overwhelming victory for Fayulu. Since it was illegal for anyone but CENI to publish voting results, the church publicly divulged only that it had determined a clear winner.

There ensued a remarkable conversation between Kabila and church leaders, one that foreshadowed the choice that U.S. diplomats would eventually make to “pragmatically” accommodate Kabila’s plausible short-term threats rather than pursue the more challenging path of supporting a longer-term democratic advance.

Although USAID and the Treasury Department strenuously objected to the State Department’s portrayal of anointing Tshisekedi as democratic, they never offered a full-fledged alternative.

As CENCO secretary-general Abbé Nsholé remembered it, “Kabila told us if we publicly released our results, there would be blood in the streets, and the church would be responsible for it,” Nsholé said. “Archbishop (now Cardinal) Ambongo replied, ‘We have the same preoccupation with peace, but this comes from free and fair elections, not unfair ones.’”

Over the next three weeks, U.S. policy evolved toward an endorsement of Kabila’s eventual decision to anoint Tshisekedi his successor. Although USAID and the U.S. Treasury Department strenuously objected to the U.S. State Department’s portrayal of this choice as “democratic” and occasionally challenged some assumptions underlying the policy, they never offered a full-fledged alternative.

This account is based primarily on 20 interviews—including 10 with U.S. officials—that were conducted on background and without attribution to promote candor. Foreign Policy offered the U.S. State Department the opportunity to comment on passages stemming from interviews with U.S. officials, but it declined.

In a Jan. 3, 2019 press statement, the State Department urged CENI to transparently count votes and “ensure” its results “correspond to results announced at each of DRC’s 75,000 polling stations.” At the same time, the department ignored the one resource that could have held the Kabila-dominated, corruption-laden CENI to account: the church’s U.S.-funded election observation project.

Taking their cue from the U.S. Embassy in Kinshasa, the main State Department policymakers refused to accept the likelihood of CENCO’s conclusion that Tshisekedi had lost decisively. Nor did they modify their position in the following days as evidence accumulated in favor of the church’s assessment. This would prove fundamental for determining U.S. policy. According to two leading department officials, if it had been clear that Fayulu had won, the United States would probably or certainly have taken a different stance.

During several interagency “policy coordination committee” and “deputies committee” meetings first reported on by Foreign Policy on Feb. 1, 2019, the State Department’s resistance to the CENCO results was criticized by representatives of USAID, which managed an annual half billion-dollar program in the DRC, and the Treasury Department, which had previously blocked U.S. assets of Kabila associates for undermining democracy. They felt the department’s stance contradicted U.S. democratic values, risked damaging Congolese perceptions of the United States, and undermined the credibility of U.S. support for democratic elections in Africa and other places, such as Venezuela.

Three embassy officials explained the main bases for their skepticism. First, although they did not trust CENI to deliver accurate results, they took seriously misleading information from CENI officials that CENCO likely had only 10,000 to 16,000 accredited observers rather than 40,000 accredited observers. Secondly, they believed CENI President Corneille Nangaa’s accusation that CENCO was conducting itself “as if it was acting on behalf of a political party.” They also complained the church did not, at first, respond to certain questions or reveal detailed results and was vague about its methodology.

Upon investigation, including interviews with and documents provided by CENCO staff and those who knew the church project best, I found the embassy’s overall mistrust could not be sustained. The Carter Center, renowned for its expertise in international election observation, had been working with CENCO since the disputed 2011 elections that kept Kabila in power.

It provided technical assistance and financial support for the 2018 observation project, including recruitment and training of observers; methodology for the polling station sample; and design of the structure for data collection, transmission, uploading for tabulation, and analysis. Before and during the election, the center had several staff on the ground observing recruitment and training and providing technical backup. The center’s project managers concluded, “we have confidence in [CENCO’s] work and their result.”

Moreover, within the embassy, USAID, which had managed the CENCO project since 2014, did not share the predominant view. It noticed that development colleagues in other Western embassies that had supported the project were not skeptical of its findings. It communicated its opinion to its Washington headquarters.

Nevertheless, USAID officers conscientiously probed further. After mid-January 2019, when the church released more detailed results to the press and donors, it examined its database of polling station reports and asked CENCO to recover official badges from the 15,000 observers financed by USAID. The church over-complied, producing 23,000 badges before running out of money to retrieve the rest from the furthest corners of the vast country. It also commissioned an independent audit for its foreign donors.

Four U.S. diplomats, based in both Kinshasa and Washington, report Nangaa stated or implied that Fayulu had won.

What made the State Department’s stance even more problematic was a secret meeting that occurred at the very moment of the church’s report. Nangaa paid a visit to a U.S. embassy official. He said if he announced the real winner of the presidential election, he would be killed. Arrangements were made for possible political asylum through the British Embassy. Four U.S. diplomats, based in both Kinshasa and Washington, report Nangaa stated or implied that Fayulu had won.

There was one finding from the church project that the United States agreed with and acted on. A few months before the election, the embassy had been prepared to swallow an expected Shadary victory, even with some CENI cheating. At least Kabila would be gone. But after the vote, it found Kabila’s associates deeply worried that Shadary had done so badly that rigging a Shadary victory would trigger massive protests and bloody confrontations. Fearing spreading violence, embassy officials and the U.S. Special Envoy to the Great Lakes Region made it clear to Kabila as well as concerned regional African states that the U.S. opposed Shadary’s designation.

Kabila then decided to abandon Shadary in favor of Tshisekedi, the far weaker opposition candidate and the one whom Kabila believed from past dealings he could manage more easily. The outgoing president retained strong political assets. Through fraud and corruption, his political coalition had won control of two-thirds of the parliament, and his loyalists dominated the security forces.

Without saying so publicly, the United States backed CENI’s Jan. 10, 2019 provisional declaration of Tshisekedi’s victory. Despite key European and African partners’ dissatisfaction with Kabila’s choice, the U.S. State Department feared if the international community questioned the president’s decision, he would use it as an excuse to annul the election, perpetuating his misrule and provoking widespread violence. The latter was the very consequence the U.S. government had sought to avoid in opposing Shadary. Since Kabila would never accept Fayulu, the most realistic option, in their view, was to accept Tshisekedi. An authentic—albeit inexperienced—opposition leader, the State Department hoped he would eventually challenge Kabila’s influence.

Consequently, the United States did not back statements by Great Britain, France, Belgium, and Germany at a Jan. 11, 2019 U.N. Security Council meeting that supported CENCO’s call for CENI to release individual polling station results to officially verify the overall count. (Actually, according to two State Department officials, the United States had information that CENI could not have complied with that demand because it lacked the technical capacity to create false results.)

The U.S. position did not change on Jan. 15, 2019 when the Financial Times compared detailed CENI election results, leaked by a credible whistleblower, to figures provided by CENCO, discerning “a near perfect correlation.” According to that report, Tshisekedi had gotten around the same number of votes as Shadary; each received just a third of Fayulu’s total.

Nor did the U.S. budge on Jan. 17, 2019 when a stunning communique flowed from the headquarters of the African Union (AU), the continent’s regional organization. A meeting of heads of state and government had “concluded there were serious doubts on the conformity of the provisional results as proclaimed with the votes cast.”

The DRC was called on to suspend its proclamation of final election results. A delegation, including the chairperson of the AU and other heads of state and government, would be urgently dispatched to Kinshasa to “interact with all Congolese stakeholders, with the view to reaching a consensus on a way out of the post-electoral crisis.” The European Union quickly endorsed the initiative. The State Department’s special envoy to the region, an outside political appointee, thought it a constructive step, as did his Belgian counterpart. Still, the State Department remained silent.


In interagency meetings, according to four participants, USAID and Treasury Department representatives at times raised the possibility of wielding sanctions against Kabila to further democracy. One representative shocked a senior State Department official who warned of violence by observing that some people may have to die to achieve democratic change. Another pointed out that an international response could affect whether violence was used.

One of these dissenters remembers being excited by the African Union initiative. Still, USAID and the Treasury Department never proposed a full-fledged alternative policy, including backing the AU. This was not completely surprising. Their agencies lacked personnel on the ground—in the DRC and its region—who knew the situation and were familiar with the key political players.

There was another less certain but potentially productive path that could—and, in my opinion, should—have been taken. The United States, the most influential Western power on the DRC, could have determined the announced election results were not credible. It could have worked with concerned European partners and regional governments (particularly Rwanda, Angola, Congo-Brazzaville, and a wavering South Africa) to carefully press Kabila to negotiate a political solution with Fayulu and Tshisekedi.

Kabila had a recent record of eventually backing down when confronted with substantial internal and international pressures. Thus, he had abandoned plans to revise the constitution to allow him a third term; negotiated—with church mediation—an agreement with the opposition to move toward elections, which were reluctantly conducted; and then thrown his political heir under the bus. He knew annulling the election could spark intense, unrelenting Congolese and foreign reactions.

When I presented this alternative to two key State Department officials, they defended their stance but allowed that Kabila possibly could have retreated. The 2019 Foreign Policy article indicated “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.” An experienced top official of a non-U.S. agency who was on the ground agreed: “I would have gone with the votes. Worked to make it acceptable so the country holds together. Used diplomatic leverage. If it were me, I would have tried.”

On Jan. 18, 2019, Kabila rejected the AU mission, and the group postponed its visit. The next day, an obedient Constitutional Court certified Tshisekedi’s victory. In a joint press conference on Jan. 22, 2019, EU and AU representatives coolly “took note” of the court’s decision, indicating they would continue to work closely with the country.

The following day, a State Department press release sounded quite different. “The United States welcomes the Congolese Constitutional Court’s certification of Felix Tshisekedi as the next President,” it began. While encouraging the new government to be inclusive and “address reports of electoral irregularities,” it saluted “a peaceful and democratic transfer of power,” praising Kabila as the first DRC president to “cede power peacefully through an electoral process.”

A senior State Department policymaker recalled being lambasted for the press release in calls from his counterparts in Britain, France, and the EU.

As Foreign Policy reported at the time, USAID and Treasury Department representatives were upset the secretary of state had substantially altered the interagency committee’s draft press release at the prompting of senior diplomats. The latter considered the usual compromise language as too many oars pushing in different directions. The agreed draft had only “taken note” of Tshisekedi’s election while referencing its “deeply flawed and troubling” nature. Also, according to a USAID official, it had not referred to a “democratic” power transfer or praised Kabila. Anxious to move forward in its working relationship with Tshisekedi by not casting doubt on his legitimacy, the U.S. Embassy in Kinshasa appreciated the secretary’s firmness.

Other Western countries were disappointed by the abandonment of democracy concerns. A senior State Department policymaker recalled being lambasted for the press release in calls from his counterparts in Britain, France, and the EU.

The State Department correctly anticipated the Congolese people would not take to the streets and risk death once rid of Kabila. But Tshisekedi, lacking a strong popular mandate and shackled to Kabila’s political coalition and security forces, struggled for two years to make critical executive appointments. Recently, he exploited divisions within the Kabila grouping and wielded presidential patronage to formally bring most pro-Kabila elected officials into his political orbit.

There remains a significant danger, however, that the absorption of a corruption-fueled political network and the persistence of Kabila loyalists in the military will subvert the reform impulse. U.S. diplomacy can help ensure political leaders know they will have to answer to the people in the 2023 elections. It should therefore support current proposals for broad electoral reforms, including depoliticization and transparency of the CENI, and state its intention to dispatch congressional and other election observers to back up Congolese ones.


The factors that drove top U.S. officials to ignore credible evidence of fraud and endorse the supposed victory of a candidate who had decisively lost are deeply rooted. Lagging U.S. support for a democratic outcome in the DRC cannot be dismissed as an African anomaly. In both Washington and Kinshasa, key State Department officers had relevant experience elsewhere in the world. Furthermore, it is well known that U.S. diplomats have often been slow to grasp the potential for nonviolent democratic breakthroughs, from apartheid South Africa to the Marcos and Mubarak dictatorships in the Philippines and Egypt, respectively.

Those three climactic weeks in the DRC provide insights into U.S. diplomacy’s deficiencies and how they can be remedied. The U.S. Embassy in Kinshasa offered valuable perspectives on the thinking of Kabila, his entourage, and their possible options. But it gave little attention to how international actors might influence those choices. Most importantly, it failed to provide Washington with an adequate analysis of election results.

Officers extrapolated from limited observations and took the word of people close to the government instead of relying on the expertise of USAID officers, European donors, and Carter Center staff. Anxious to solidify its standing with the new regime, the embassy was fine with welcoming a false democratic transition.

Anxious to solidify its standing with the new regime, the U.S. embassy was fine with welcoming a false democratic transition.

Senior career diplomats in Washington failed to ask the right questions about the embassy’s analysis of the election and prized short-term “stability”—namely preventing violence, including Kabila attempting to stay in power—over longer-term democratic progress. Although possessing a broader view of African reactions to the crisis than the embassy had, they did not try to partner with dissatisfied regional and European actors to carefully pressure Kabila toward an inclusive negotiated political settlement.

They thought the outcome less certain than accommodating the local power structure. Although former U.S. President Donald Trump has been rightly reviled for his violations of democratic norms, it was, ironically, his political appointees in USAID and the Treasury Department who worried most about sacrificing democratic values.

If the Biden administration wishes to “defend democracy globally,” especially in those rare instances when dramatic transformations may be achievable, it needs to ensure its top foreign-policy appointees and career diplomats are aware of, and rewarded for, making this a high priority. It has to empower diplomats to better serve democratic purposes. Otherwise, its noble rhetoric will ultimately ring as hollow as that of so many of its predecessors.

Stephen R. Weissman is the author of American Foreign Policy in the Congo: 1960-1964 and A Culture of Deference: Congress’s Failure of Leadership in Foreign Policy. He is the former staff director of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Africa subcommittee.