Congolese businessman Moïse Katumbi cemented his place as the fiercest opponent to Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) President Joseph Kabila this month, after being elected by dozens of opposition leaders to represent them in this year’s expected presidential elections. Two days later, Katumbi announced the launch of his opposition party “Together for Change”, with which he hopes to finally unseat Kabila from power. Following the death of popular candidate Étienne Tshisekedi in February 2017, Katumbi emerged as the only viable counter-candidate for the presidency.
It certainly helped that Katumbi is already a household name in the DRC due to his position as president of the successful TP Mazembe football team, and governor of the Katanga province from 2007 to 2015. During his tenure as governor, contributions to the national coffers increased from $150 million to $3 billion as production of copper rose from 8,000 tons to 1.3 million tons, according to an interview with African Arguments.
Faced with escalating popular unrest and Katumbi ranking consistently high in the popularity polls, Kabila has resorted to extra-legal methods to stifle Katumbi’s presidential bid. After Katumbi announced his intention to run for the presidency, Kabila accused him of real estate fraud, claiming he had misappropriated a building that did not belong to him. Katumbi was convicted in absentia to three years in prison and still awaits trial on spurious charges of “hiring mercenaries”.
However, Katumbi maintains that the charges have been fabricated as a means to keep him out of the country – a position shared by the influential Congolese Catholic Church. As it turned out, at least one judge has stepped forward admitting she was coerced into convicting the politician. Kabila has also blocked Katumbi’s return to the DRC by refusing him a passport at the Congolese embassy in Brussels, where he has been in exile for almost two years. Notwithstanding these obvious attempts to sideline a political rival, Katumbi has vowed to return to the country by June of this year and stand in the upcoming elections.
More tricks up his sleeve?
However, even if Katumbi successfully returns to the DRC and spearheads an anti-Kabila campaign, the incumbent is sure to put up a fight. Given that he has already delayed the election by more than two years, skeptics are concerned he will simply try to do so again. The Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) previously argued that it could not afford the $1.8 billion which an election would require until at least mid-2019. But heavy pressure from within and without the DRC, as well as outspoken opposition from the Catholic Church, led to them confirming December 23rd as the date on which the elections would finally take place.
Yet in a turn that came as a surprise to no one, the commission has now changed tack again. Adamant that the election cannot happen without the aid of electronic voting machines, the next dilatory actions are already under way. While CENI argues that the machines will help prevent electoral fraud, international observers and regime opponents fear that – contrary to CENI’s assertion – electoral fraud will in fact be facilitated by their usage.
Consequently, the US, UN and Catholic Church have demanded CENI to allow technical experts to be present before and during the elections to certify the machines haven’t been tampered with. US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley even asserted that America will withdraw its support if paper ballots are bypassed in the upcoming elections. Add to that the fact that several of the machines broke down in the intense Congolese heat during test runs, and the credibility of the elections is already in jeopardy.
And even if the machines work perfectly and transparently, there’s also the logistical angle. In order to receive all 46 million eligible votes, the 100,000 machines would afford each voter just 90 seconds to cast their ballot. In a country where 25% of the populace is illiterate, such an expectation is highly unrealistic. And so, the opposition and the international community face a dilemma: digging their heels in over the machines only seems to increase the danger that Kabila will use such resistance as another excuse to delay the polls once again.
December election more important than ever
Under Kabila’s corrupt rule, the DRC has drifted into a humanitarian crisis. Eight million suffer from extreme hunger, four million children are exposed to acute malnutrition and 4.5 million have been internally displaced as a direct consequence of governmental repression. Yet things could be so much different. As a major producer of copper and the world’s largest producer of cobalt, the DRC is one of the most resource-rich countries on the planet.
If elected, Katumbi is well placed to capitalize upon that natural wealth and reverse the country’s fortunes. But it all depends on whether the elections will really come to pass this time.