Congolese President Sworn In Despite Election Credibility Questions
For the first time since its independence nearly six decades ago, the Democratic Republic of the Congo has experienced a peaceful transition of power. Felix Tshisekedi, a former opposition leader, was sworn in on January 24 in a historic ceremony during which he briefly fell ill.
Tshisekedi, the leader of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress, the DRC’s largest opposition party, took a hard stance on corruption in his inaugural speech, swore to foster national unity and peace, and vowed to free all the country’s political prisoners.
"We are committed to building a modern, peaceful, democratic, and caring state for every citizen," he announced, calling for "a state that will guarantee the happiness of all."
The 55-year-old Tshisekedi succeeds Joseph Kabila, who has ruled the resource-rich central African country since 2001. Though his term was up in 2016, Kabila managed to delay elections for years until finally buckling under international pressure for democratic elections.
The former-president and dictator did not plan to relinquish all power, however. Kabila’s hand-picked successor, Emmanuel Shadary, however, failed to earn a majority in the January vote that saw Tshisekedi elected, to the surprise of the international community. The unexpected result suggests that Shadary earned so little of the vote that announcing his victory would instigate violence.
It is likely, however, that Tshisekedi was not the legitimate winner of the elections, either. According to estimates from the 40,000 independent observers deployed by the Catholic Church, opposition leader Martin Fayulu won with about 60 percent of the vote.
The electoral commission’s subsequent announcement that Tshisekedi was the victor after a substantial delay thus raises concerns about the validity of the election. Fayulu brought the case to the Supreme Court earlier this month, but they upheld the victory, prompting Fayulu to describe the ruling as a “constitutional coup.”
Despite being a former opposition leader, Tshisekedi is seen as being more malleable than his opponent—and thus a more palatable choice for the Kabila regime. Fayulu, on the other hand, is an American-educated former Exxon manager who has been a harsh critic of Kabila. His anti-Kabila platform and rhetoric gained him a devoted following of Congolese frustrated with the rampant corruption in their poverty- and violence-ridden country.
While the United States and regional powers such as Zambia, Angola, and South Africa initially criticized the election results, they have since praised the peaceful transition of power in a conciliatory change of tone.
For now, it is unclear what effect the questionable circumstances of his election will have on Tshisekedi’s presidency moving forward. Though he was likely not the Congolese people’s first choice, his peaceful ascent to power has already inspired hundreds of rebels in the country’s war-torn Kasai province to surrender their arms in a gesture of support.
For his part, Kabila has been named a senator for life, and looks likely to be named president of the senate.