Against the backdrop of Africa’s first revolutions since the fall of the Berlin Wall (notably in Tunisia and in Egypt), a gruesome post-electoral conflict in Cote d’Ivoire, and the election of opposition leader, Michael Sata, in Zambia, the legacy of President Joseph Kabila Of the Democratic Republic of Congo – who has been in charge in Kinshasa for more than 10 years, five of them without a popular mandate – will come under strong challenge.
From the outset, the DRC’s electoral process has been marred by threats to its legitimacy.
Firstly, the ruling Parti du Peuple pour la Reconstruction et le Développement (PPRD) changed the electoral law in January, scrapping the possibility of a second-round run-off and thus making whoever wins most votes in the first round the winner – whether or not the candidate gains a majority. Given that the next incumbent could be elected with a mere 15 percent of the vote, this will taint the legitimacy of the presidency.
Secondly, Kinshasa has witnessed a string of violent acts since Etienne Tshisekedi, the leader of the Union pour la Démocratie et le Progrès Social (UDPS), registered officially his candidature in August. The headquarters of the UDPS have been vandalised and set alight in what appears to have been a revenge attack after the PPRD offices were ransacked by unidentified mobs. And the offices of the RTLV television and radio station, which is sympathetic to Tshisekedi, have also been set alight and completely destroyed.
Tshisekedi made a surprise comeback to the political scene late last year after his detractors had declared him both politically and physically dead. His return to Kinshasa, after years of illness which had forced him to live in Belgium, drew huge crowds of supporters to Ndjili Airport, the Stade des Martyrs and to his home district of Limete. The turnout confirmed his status as the leading opposition figure, particularly since Jean-Pierre Bemba, the runner-up in the 2006 election, is languishing in jail in the Netherlands, where he faces war crimes charges in the International Criminal Court.
There is no doubt that Tshisekedi’s popularity prompted the ruling party, with its majority in the National Assembly (NA) and in the Senate, to discard a second-round ballot. It appears that Kabila is banking on opposition forces remaining fragmented – although he seems also to have hedged his bets by registering as an independent candidate.
No plan B
As if to confirm the correctness of his strategy, several other contenders have emerged as either opposition or independent candidates. However, Kabila and his ruling party have no credible Plan B should most of the presidential candidates stage a last minute move to unite in order to unseat the incumbent.
The task may be Herculean. But its achievement is possible. Vital Kamerhe, a former speaker of the NA ousted after a fallout with Kabila, Leon Kengo wa Dondo, current Speaker of the Senate and former collaborator of Mobutu, Nzanga Mobutu and Oscar Kashala have all had run-ins with Kabila and all are serious contenders. Put differently, Kabila is their common enemy.
Those seeking a way to bring opposition contenders together could take lessons from two administrations in United States history. In 1860, Abraham Lincoln demonstrated profound self-confidence and unexpected greatness by appointing “a team of rivals,” drawing for his Cabinet from the ranks of those who had opposed him during the Republican primary elections. Similarly, in 2008 Barack Obama demonstrated courage and a commitment to America’s unity by appointing Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State.
While the DRC is not the United States, there are striking resemblances. Lincoln was, in the words of historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, “accustomed to relying upon himself to shape events… displaying a fierce ambition, an exceptional political acumen, and a wide range of emotional strengths, forged in the crucible of personal hardship”. One might say just the same of Obama and the Tshisekedi of 2011. Lincoln and Obama took power in troubled times, just as Tshisekedi is seeking the rebirth of a DRC destabilised by years of civil and regional wars, as well as persistent dysfunction and the collapse of the state.
Tshisekedi’s popularity and enduring struggle for democratization places him in a position to be an architect of a united opposition made up of rivals whose positions are not irreconcilable.
Kamerhe, for example, has told whoever who wants to listen that he is willing to work with Tshisekedi. His fallout with Kabila is too recent for him easily to take on the mantle of a leader of the opposition; he was Speaker until 2009. And he has to live down his undeniable role as kingmaker in 2006, when he campaigned and delivered Kabila’s victory in the East.
Kengo wa Dondo
Kengo wa Dondo is currently the constitutional number two in the country by virtue of his position as Speaker of the Senate. His rivalry with Tshisekedi dates to the Mobutu era, during which he often held key senior positions, including the position of Prime Minister in 1996, at Tshisekedi’s expense. Accolades and a good ambiance characterized a meeting Kengo had with Tshisekedi in Brussels on September 29, but no clear agreement of alliance.
After Tshisekedi’s nomination by more than 80 political parties as a common candidate of the opposition, he is in a position to reach out to Kamerhe, Kengo and other political groupings to ensure that the opposition vote is not split. And, even without a united vote, he could still be elected under current voting rules and form a team of rivals after the the polls, taking into consideration the realm and representivity of each opposition candidate.
Opposition candidates have to strike a deal to ensure democratic change in the DRC. For this to happen, Tshisekedi needs to capitalize on his long history and reputation in DRC politics to usher in what would be an unprecedented and long overdue victory for popular democracy, which is essential for the birth of a new DRC where people’s aspirations will take centre stage. In so doing, Tshisekedi would keep his “unflagging faith” in the DRC’s cause alive.