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DR Congo: A Full Plate of Challenges after a Turbulent Vote

What is happening in the Democratic Republic of Congo?

On 20 January, Félix Tshisekedi was sworn in for a second five-year term as president of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Official results showed him winning a clear victory at polls held on 20 December 2023, though turnout was low and widespread irregularities were reported. On 9 January, the Constitutional Court affirmed tallies indicating Tshisekedi had secured 73 per cent of the vote, compared to 18 per cent for Moïse Katumbi, his closest opponent. Katumbi’s support came almost entirely from the restive Katanga region, where he was formerly governor. President Tshisekedi and his allies also scored a major victory in legislative elections, which were held on the same day, though results were announced later. On 14 January, the National Electoral Commission (CENI) published provisional results indicating that his coalition had won more than 90 per cent of the seats in the National Assembly. 

While Tshisekedi’s margin of victory gives him a clear mandate, problems with the election will surely leave many voters, as well as those in the political opposition, feeling aggrieved. Chaos marred the polls, leaving millions of citizens without an opportunity to cast their ballots. The opposition, which contests the results, has significant anecdotal evidence of ballot stuffing and other shenanigans. But none of this evidence is likely to help the opposition, which risks being largely frozen out as the president’s coalition divides the spoils. 

The war with M23 insurgents in the east, which dogged Tshisekedi’s first term, was at the heart of the electoral campaign, particularly the issue of Rwandan backing for the rebels. In North Kivu, battles continued before and after the polls, although voting took place with little interference in parts of the province unaffected by the fighting. Candidate forums were a chorus of nationalist rhetoric, with Tshisekedi using the most extreme language, comparing Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame to Adolf Hitler on 8 December. He predicted Kagame would meet the same fate as that befalling Nazi Germany’s leader. At his final campaign meeting in Kinshasa on 19 December, Tshisekedi promised that, if re-elected, he would declare war on Rwanda and march on its capital – later asserting that the Congolese army, boosted by the acquisition of new weapons including armed drones, could destroy Kigali without crossing the border. In addition, Tshisekedi frequently insinuated that rivals were working for foreign powers. Informal observations by Crisis Group staff, journalists and Congolese analysts indicate that this nationalist positioning likely helped him win re-election. 

Did the elections go smoothly? 

Although they were more peaceful than past polls and calmer than many had feared, the 20 December elections suffered numerous problems. Over a million eligible voters were unable to register beforehand due to insecurity. The opposition and civil society groups had moreover warned that the CENI’s preparations were highly deficient. A particularly blatant flaw was poorly printed voter cards, many of which had become unreadable since being issued earlier in the year, despite being a legal requirement for citizens to cast a ballot. The Catholic cardinal of Kinshasa, Fridolin Ambongo, summed up the electoral process as involving “gigantic organised disorder”.

On election day, according to the domestic observation mission led jointly by the Catholic and various Protestant churches, balloting was afflicted by missing voter lists and other vital paperwork, missing or broken machinery, the late opening of polling stations, and intimidation by security forces or others acting on behalf of the candidates. Crisis Group interviews with analysts in Goma, Kinshasa and Lubumbashi confirmed these reports. In one case, in Ituri province, people ransacked a polling station. The disarray, and in some places bedlam, on 20 December led the CENI to allow some stations to reopen the following day, in violation of electoral law. In fact, many stayed open on their own accord for up to six extra days.

Participation ... was the lowest in the country’s democratic history.

These troubles appeared to have a significant impact. Participation, officially at 43 per cent, was the lowest in the country’s democratic history. While there are not yet reliable data on the precise reasons, the problems detailed above could well have deprived millions of the 44 million-strong electorate of their right to vote. The CENI’s own figures for the presidential election result, published on 31 December, fail to account for ballots cast at 11,301 of the country’s 75,497 polling stations, some of which probably failed to open. The CENI offered no explanation for this gap, contributing to concerns about the tally’s credibility.

On 5 January, the CENI took the dramatic step of cancelling results in two constituencies and disqualifying 82 candidates from national and local races for alleged fraud. Those concerned are accused principally of having acquired voting machines and putting them in their private residences (presumably for the purpose of producing fake results). Most of the 82 sanctioned candidates are from Tshisekedi’s political coalition, including three serving ministers and four governors, as well as senators and members of parliament. Some of the 82 alleged fraudsters, such as the governor of the city of Kinshasa, denied the allegations and decided to refer the matter to the Constitutional Court. Later, after examining an appeal, the CENI proclaimed elected a candidate who had previously appeared on the list of 82. Given that many of those sanctioned belong to the ruling coalition, the CENI’s move may, on paper, appear to further accountability. But some analysts, as well as the Catholic Church, are worried that it creates a precedent for the CENI policing its own work and may in fact represent only a fraction of the cheating that occurred.

What did critics say about the polls, and will it matter?

The above-referenced domestic observation mission criticised the electoral process but stopped short of calling for a rerun. The mission’s public reports detailed several failures, stating that “numerous irregularities affected the integrity of the results of all the polls in some places”. Diplomats, informed by small, short-term foreign observer missions, noted the logistical problems but generally adopted a cautious tone.

In contrast, the opposition reacted vociferously, calling for a rerun. In the days following the polls, Katumbi claimed he had won the votes counted at that point. Another leading candidate, Martin Fayulu, who stood despite blocking his party from participating in the parliamentary polls, joined another candidate, Nobel laureate Denis Mukwege, in rejecting the entire process. None of them took their grievances to the Constitutional Court, which they see as lacking independence, instead urging street protests that did not gather momentum. At present, it does not seem that the opposition has a clear strategy in the face of Tshisekedi’s steamroller triumph.

The Catholic Church, having pressed the CENI, as part of the national observation mission, to come clean about its failings, also took the gloves off in a hard-hitting communiqué issued on 16 January. It pointed to the CENI’s direct responsibility for what it called an “electoral catastrophe”. The CENI replied with its own communiqué refuting the claims and pushing back against the idea of an independent enquiry.

Despite progress compared to previous elections, notably that the authorities did not exclude any candidate from running prior to the vote, the December ballot left deep scars, with no consensus about the remedies. The danger is significant that Tshisekedi and his international partners, comfortable with his margin of victory as per the official results, will minimise legitimate criticism and fail to investigate the poll’s organisational problems, despite the fact that they disenfranchised swathes of the population. Should that happen, the same problems and mistakes could recur next time.

Where does the outcome leave Congolese politics?

The strong showing in the parliamentary polls boosted Tshisekedi, but he will have to deal with a restive governing coalition. The provisional results published on 14 January give the parties belonging to that coalition, the Union Sacrée de la Nation, nearly 450 of the 477 seats currently allocated in the National Assembly, pending the postponed vote in territories beset by insecurity. But the president’s own party, the Union pour la Démocratie et le Progrès Social, won only 69 seats. The parties of his key allies scored well. Those of Senate President Modeste Bahati and Deputy Prime Minister Vital Kamerhe both got 35 seats – and the latter can also rely on support from other parties in the fragmented ruling bloc. Defence Minister Jean-Pierre Bemba’s party got nineteen seats. Tshisekedi’s dependence on coalition partners means he cannot simply call the shots. Forming a government will entail competition for key offices (prime minister, in particular, as well as the heads of the National Assembly and Senate), requiring complex and time-consuming negotiations.

Having failed to unite behind a single candidate to challenge Tshisekedi, the opposition won just 28 seats, including eighteen for Katumbi’s Ensemble de la République. While election irregularities may have played a part in this poor performance, other reasons include the decision by two prominent opposition figures (Fayulu and Joseph Kabila) to sit out the parliamentary polls; the incumbent’s capacity to attract local leaders to his coalition; and the opposition’s failure to build grassroots party structures outside their home bases.

What is the situation in Katanga?

The situation in the mineral-rich former Katanga province, split into four provinces in 2018, is a worrying element of the elections’ outcome. Katumbi swept the board in the four provinces while scoring poorly elsewhere. Results in the provincial and parliamentary races in Katanga tipped in contrast toward the ruling coalition, triggering protests in various places, as it became evident that Tshisekedi’s alliance, sometimes fielding nearly unknown candidates, had nevertheless scored well. Protests turned violent (though with no loss of life) in the Katangan towns of Kipushi, Likasi and Kolwezi following the parliamentary results. Suspicions of fraud abound in this region, whose fraught dynamics Crisis Group assessed in a pre-election report.

Katangan elites are among Tshisekedi’s most prominent critics.

Katangan elites are among Tshisekedi’s most prominent critics. Aware that the area’s mining industry is vital for the government’s budget and nostalgic for their long period of power under former Presidents Laurent-Désiré and his son Joseph Kabila (together ruling from 1997 to 2018), they are resentful of their current exclusion in favour of Tshisekedi’s allies from his native Kasaï region.

Furthermore, there have been regular clashes over local power between Katangans and Kasaians. The latter, whom some among the former regard as “immigrants”, are attracted to the region’s economic and employment opportunities. A worry for Tshisekedi is that Katanga becomes a hotbed of opposition calling for greater power and resources to devolve to provincial authorities. Some might even try to create momentum behind demands for secession, which have been largely rhetorical up to now.

What is the situation in the war-torn east?

The war in North Kivu, which pits the Congolese army, supported by numerous pro-Kinshasa armed groups, against the well-organised and equipped M23 insurgency and the Rwandan army, remains a major challenge for Tshisekedi and the country. This predominantly Tutsi insurgency, which is widely understood to be backed by Kigali, resurfaced in November 2021 after a decade of inactivity. The M23’s leaders accuse Kinshasa of having neglected commitments to demobilise and reintegrate its fighters.

Rwanda’s motivations remain difficult to discern: it denies supporting the M23 but makes it known that combating the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda or FDLR (an armed group opposed to Kigali’s leadership, whose leaders participated in the 1994 Rwandan genocide) in North Kivu remains a national priority.

Recently, the M23’s demands have become more political. Spearheaded since December 2023 by a new umbrella organisation, the Alliance du Fleuve Congo (AFC) – whose emergence is discussed further below – it now explicitly aims to overthrow the national authorities, even if such an aim appears a rather distant prospect at present. The risk of direct escalating clashes between Rwandan and Congolese regular forces was underlined again on 16 January, when the Rwandan army shot dead a Congolese soldier in Rwanda’s Rubavu district and arrested two of his companions. According to the Congolese high command, the troops had inadvertently crossed the border into Rwanda.

The M23 refused to allow the CENI to register voters in areas it controlled.

The elections have hardly helped the situation. The M23 refused to allow the CENI to register voters in areas it controlled – ie, most of North Kivu – meaning that more than a million people could not participate in choosing their national and provincial representatives. Others could not cast ballots, as they were displaced by the fighting, which continued before and after the vote despite a U.S.-negotiated truce between the army and the M23, with the apparent acquiescence of Kigali, in early December.

An EAC Regional Force, led by the Kenyan military, intervened in North Kivu beginning in November 2022 but failed to calm the conflict. The force did succeed in slowing the M23’s battlefield advances, primarily through negotiations with the insurgents, preventing the rebels from capturing the city of Goma. But Kinshasa judged it ineffective as it did not go after the M23 militarily. The force left in December amid recriminations between Kinshasa, on one hand, and the EAC secretariat and Kenyan commanders, on the other.

Burundi, also part of the EAC, played a different role. Its troops, both as part of the Regional Force and deployed on their own, engaged the M23 in combat. Their action drew appreciation from Kinshasa, but ire from Kigali, which accused Bujumbura of allying with the FDLR against the M23. The Burundian authorities, for their part, charge Rwanda with supporting RED-TABARA, a Burundian rebellion operating from South Kivu in the DRC. Its leaders are reported to be in exile in Kigali. On 11 January, following a deadly attack by these rebels on Burundian soil not far from the Congolese frontier, Burundi closed its border with Rwanda, barely two years after it was reopened. The spat between the two neighbours is now clearly a big part of regional tensions.

Frustrated with the EAC’s failure to push back the M23, in mid-2023 President Tshisekedi invited the countries of another bloc, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), to dispatch their own troops to help turn the tide in North Kivu. The first SADC troops, principally from South Africa, arrived in Goma in December. While Kinshasa says the new force will have a resolutely offensive mandate, others are sceptical that it can make a substantial difference against well-embedded adversaries. They are also concerned that the force’s financing, currently coming from stretched national budgets, may be unsustainable.

The fighting in North Kivu [against the M23] could ... lead to deeper division between the [African] regional blocs.

The SADC deployment represents a change of dynamics at a time when regional organisations are jostling for position in the Great Lakes. In particular, South Africa has frosty relations with Rwanda. Meanwhile, Rwanda, although it did not send troops into the DRC under the now-expired EAC mandate given its support for the M23, is a key member of that bloc and enjoys good relations with the Kenyan leadership. Given those relationships, there is a perceptible degree of competition between the pro-Kinshasa southern African leaders and those of East Africa, who seem to tilt more to Kigali. The fighting in North Kivu could thereby lead to deeper division between the regional blocs.

Tensions in the east took a further twist in mid-December. On 15 December, Corneille Nangaa, a former CENI head under Kabila from 2015 to 2019, announced he was forming the AFC, which as noted above is an insurgent alliance dedicated to overthrowing Tshisekedi. While nominally including a number of groups under its umbrella, the AFC seems principally aimed at widening support for the M23. Nangaa was a close ally of Kabila when the latter was president. Other known Kabila confidants, mainly from Katanga, have joined him in the AFC, raising concerns among Congolese and Great Lakes analysts and diplomats contacted by Crisis Group that Kabila’s largely Katangan entourage may be using the alliance to undermine his successor.

Nangaa’s announcement of the AFC in a hotel in Kenya’s capital Nairobi added to regional frictions. The Kenya-led “Nairobi process” that, since 2022, has been trying to bring armed groups and the Congolese government to the negotiating table is also at a standstill. Kenyan authorities denied supporting the AFC, but Kinshasa nonetheless withdrew its ambassador to Nairobi in protest. Nangaa has since joined the M23 in the Rutshuru territory of North Kivu. 

What are Tshisekedi’s immediate priorities, and how can international partners help? 

The list of attendees at Tshisekedi’s second investiture ceremony hinted at the challenges his government faces in the months ahead. Southern African counterparts were prominent, as were the president’s Central African and West African peers. Kenya’s President William Ruto made the trip, as did President Evariste Ndayishimiye of Burundi who enjoys close relations with Tshisekedi. But other EAC leaders, including the Rwandan, Ugandan and Tanzanian presidents, stayed away. Tshisekedi’s sabre rattling toward Rwanda on the campaign trail, particularly likening Kagame to Hitler, has doubtless alarmed neighbours. Immediately after being declared winner, the president echoed the rhetoric, promising to “defend [our] land”, in particular by boosting recruitment and purchasing more equipment for the army. Helpfully, however, his inauguration speech took a more conciliatory line, engaging in no mudslinging with foreign leaders and recognising the need for deep reform of the armed forces. It also included conciliatory words for domestic political opponents.

The president should now do more to bridge the dangerous fault lines in Congolese politics and reduce regional tensions. First, Tshisekedi and his new government must make sure that electoral mismanagement and, where apparent, fraud is investigated and sanctioned. As recommended by church authorities who led the national observer mission, Kinshasa should set up an independent commission of enquiry to shed light on the irregularities and violations of the law during the elections. It must not be left to the CENI to pass judgment on its own record. The country’s law enforcement apparatus should be involved in the investigations. Admittedly, Tshisekedi has little apparent inclination to support this move. But such a step would send a strong message of reconciliation to the opposition, in line with his inauguration speech. It would most of all signal a much-needed commitment to better electoral practice and could pave the way for better organised elections in 2028, preparations for which will start long beforehand.

Tshisekedi should seek ways to bring political debate off the street and back into the country’s institutions.

Secondly, Tshisekedi should seek ways to bring political debate off the street and back into the country’s institutions. In his inaugural address, Tshisekedi supported implementing a dormant provision in a 2007 law for a “spokesperson” (in effect, a leader) of the opposition with rank of minister, giving him or her a significant role in parliament. The holder of the position would be chosen by his or her peers in the opposition. Previous attempts at naming an opposition spokesperson have run aground, with politicians struggling to reach consensus amid opaque negotiations. It is worth another try, however, as it would help include losing candidates, and critically, the provinces they come from, in formal institutional decision-making. The opposition, part of which risks getting stuck in a dead end of refusing to acknowledge Tshisekedi’s victory, should instead welcome this initiative and put their disputes aside to find consensus on a figure who can represent them in parliament.

Finally, tackling insecurity in a more sustainable fashion should be a key priority for Tshisekedi. The various military initiatives, including joint operations with neighbouring countries and other external partners, and the introduction of a “state of siege” (akin to martial law) in North Kivu and Ituri, and recruitment of new army auxiliaries drawn from pro-Kinshasa armed groups, have produced poor results.

Kinshasa has persistently refused to enter negotiations with the M23, which is well embedded and strengthened by foreign support. This stance is understandable, given that the rebellion continues its advances, exposing the army’s weaknesses. Both sides should pull back. The fighting is causing immense human suffering, without Kinshasa achieving a significant military victory. Nor is the M23 able to achieve its stated political goals in the impasse. Unless it treads carefully, the Southern African force, which has little chance of making more progress on the ground than its EAC predecessor, risks adding to tensions and hurting already hamstrung diplomatic efforts. Southern African leaders should make clear from the outset that the force is intended to help stabilise the situation and enable diplomacy. They should temper any expectation in Kinshasa that the force will be a silver bullet that solves its problems in the east.

[Tshisekedi] would be well advised to seek to repair relations with his East African counterparts.

To achieve a much-needed ceasefire, hopefully paving the way for a new regional stability pact, African and international actors with sway in the region must press both sides. The U.S., which has maintained the greatest critical distance from Kigali among Western partners and retains good influence both there and in Kinshasa, is well placed and has seemingly grasped the need to work closely with African powers. They should impress on Tshisekedi that, rather than investing ever more resources on the battlefield, he would be well advised to seek to repair relations with his East African counterparts, starting with the Kenyan leadership, while dialling down his anti-Rwanda rhetoric. The presence of Kenyan President Ruto at his inauguration may be a promising early signal – Nairobi has a big stake in the Great Lakes region and should wish to avoid antagonising Kinshasa, following the unfortunate circumstances around the AFC’s creation. Equally, international partners might advise Tshisekedi to avoid playing regional organisations against each other, lest he find himself isolated should the Southern African deployment, too, become a source of mutual frustration.

Finally, it is critical that Tshisekedi start to consider the future of the armed groups and auxiliaries fighting alongside the national army. Paying, arming and legitimising these predatory armed groups has evident mid-term risks, and Tshisekedi’s partners need to impress upon him the necessity of scaling back their involvement.

Equally, international actors must pressure Kigali. Rwanda should pull back its troops from North Kivu, stop support for the M23 and articulate, in private if necessary, the parameters of a new regional stability pact that would be acceptable to the Rwandan leadership, while allowing the DRC’s government control over its territory.