The Democratic(ish) Republic of Congo?

Friday, 21 December 2018
Nicholas Westcott

The Democratic Republic of Congo was scheduled to go to the polls this weekend, but the election has been delayed a week to 30 December. What voters will find on that date is still uncertain. 

The untried hyper-modern laptop-based electronic voting system at least comes with low expectations that it will work smoothly, if at all. But the odds are that most polling stations will be able to operate, even if far more slowly than expected. The ballot 'paper' will be simpler than it might otherwise have been as two of the most well-known candidates - Jean-Pierre Bemba and Moise Katumbi - have been excluded from running by a nervous government. Though Felix Tshisekedi has name recognition, thanks to his father the veteran opposition politician Etienne, his party organisation is thin and the opposition divided. Businessman Martin Fayulu, at one point the sole opposition candidate until the opposition split (again), has run a good campaign. But the assumption is still that President Kabila's anointed successor, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, will - by hook or by crook - become the next elected President.
The likelihood is that we will never know what the Congolese electorate really thought. And in growing parts of the country where law and order has effectively broken down completely, the result of the election will be purely academic, as the local disorder will remain unaffected. 
Until President Kabila began his evasive action over two years ago to try and avoid leaving office, I was a Congo optimist. The path was bumpy, but progress towards a working and peaceful political system was continuing. With a gradually more effective and legitimate central government, the chances were that the lawless areas could be contained and eventually reduced to irrelevance.
But the struggle to hold presidential elections at all, and now to make them transparent and inclusive enough, has done serious damage to the credibility of Congo's political system and therefore to the chances of any government being able to restore the rule of law and a reliable peace. The Catholic Church has played a consistent and honourable role in trying to bring some openness and order to the political process, but cannot manage this single-handed.
The truth is also that the DRC is an almost impossible country to govern. Its traumatic colonial experience, followed by turbulent years after independence and the stultifying and apparently endless dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko, have left little feeling of civic pride or duty and encouraged Congolese to focus first and foremost on their simple survival. These elections will not change the physical and political fragmentation of the country where survival is the only priority - and a logical one - for the vast bulk of the population.
The country will not collapse, whatever the result of the election, and whether or not anyone believes it. The people of Kinshasa will probably riot for a while, and the disorder and disintegration will slowly continue in the rest of the country, bringing a fatal malaise closer to the elite politics of Kinshasa. But the new government will continue the policies of its predecessor, cling on to enough power and revenue to survive, while the rest of the world will continue to reap profit from the country, wring its hands, and hope for the best.
One day the people of Congo will tire of the ineptitude and lassitude of their government. But I will be surprised if that time is yet.
Nicholas Westcott is the director of RAS.