OPINION: Value Democracy Over Stability—Even in Africa

President Tshisekedi of the D.R.C. walks with other regional leaders at the Brazzaville airport. ( Wikimedia Commons)

President Tshisekedi of the D.R.C. walks with other regional leaders at the Brazzaville airport. (Wikimedia Commons)

The State Department released a statement on January 23 endorsing the results of the December presidential election in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In the elections, widely considered fraudulent by both domestic and international observers, Felix Tshisekedi took the presidency in the country’s first-ever peaceful transition of power.

Initial drafts of the statement condemned the election as “deeply flawed and troubling,” according to documents leaked to Foreign Policy; as recently as January 3, the statement threatened that those involved in election rigging would be “held accountable” and “cut off from the U.S. financial system.” The final statement, however, included none of these warnings, instead declaring the State Department “committed to working with the new D.R.C. government” and mentioning only in passing “reports of electoral irregularities.”

Many State Department officials who had worked on the first drafts expressed their dismay at the final statement. “It’s blatant hypocrisy,” one official told Foreign Policy. “Everyone knew the elections were crap, but … they thought they had to accept [Tshisekedi]” to prevent the civil strife that would arise from international condemnation of the results. “A peaceful transition of power, however fraudulent, [was] the least bad option.”

This tension between stability and democracy is evident in the recent U.S. response to the contentious election in Venezuela, after which Juan Guaidó assumed the position of interim president. In Venezuela, however, the State Department’s response focused on democracy; the secretary of state’s February 4 statement emphasized “support[ing] the Venezuelan people … and … the National Assembly’s efforts to return constitutional democracy to Venezuela.” Although Venezuela and the D.R.C. are situated in different historical and regional contexts, the difference in American responses remain striking.

Congolese and Venezuelan citizens are equally deserving of free and fair elections. The State Department’s prioritization of stability over transparency in the D.R.C. is indicative of a lack of commitment to democratic ideals and signals to Burundi, Ivory Coast, and Sudan—all of which have combative elections scheduled in 2020—that the U.S. has no credible response to a stolen presidency. African states cannot be written off as lost causes, or as incapable of democracy. The State Department must advocate for the integrity of the electoral process across the globe, not just in its own backyard.