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An Eerie Calm in the DRC

Following heavily disputed elections, why has the violence many predicted not been seen?
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Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Western writers commentating on the Democratic Republic of the Congo are more used to describing political violence than accounting for its absence. However, since Joseph Kabila was re-elected president last month in elections that were described as “too flawed to be credible”, the violence that followed, although tragic, has been less extensive and damaging than many feared.

John Campbell, in his article for the Atlantic “Anti-Christian Violence, and Maybe Worse, in Congo” attempts to account for the “apparent passivity of the Congolese population” while comparing it to the more impassioned responses of other citizenries, specifically Kenya in 2007 and Zimbabwe in 2008. But while Campbell poses an interesting question and points to important factors of diversity and ethnic rivalry, he fails to qualify or contextualize them. In the course of his argument, however, Campbell makes some substantive claims, which are worth examining in more detail.


Campbell argues that in Nigeria and Congo much of the population has historically felt alienated from the government, which is seen as following its own agenda with little input from the general populace. This sense of alienation may empower secessionism, as seen historically in the Biafran War, or movements in Katanga or Kasai. However, Campbell seems ready to ascribe both political apathy and secessionist politics to the effects of alienation. This is not implausible, but other variables must be taken into account to provide a comprehensive explanation of these varying responses.

The idea of alienation as engendering resignation rather than anger has some traction, particularly in the case of the DRC. In her book In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz, Michela Wrong, for example, traces such a culture in Congolese history, in which political hegemony is established by King Leopold II, transformed yet maintained by Mobutu, and the Congolese people are blunted into acceptance, diverting their efforts into pursuits other than changing politics. Similarly, Adam Nossiter observes that daily struggles to find food are enough without needing to be concerned by Kinshasa politics.

While there is truth in this interpretation, however, it may be overly deterministic. Before the recent elections in the DRC there was a great deal of hope and optimism that the elections might bring about real change.

Pre-election optimism, however, turned to resignation amidst post-election violence. And it seems that alienation is not inevitable but at least partly a consequence of repression.

The opposition

What could lift the sense of resignation and alienation from politics and provide a sustained threat to a policy of repression? A well organised opposition seems a good place to start.

Etienne Tshisekedi, who has been placed under house arrest by Kabila since declaring himself the true president of the DRC, can talk coherently of the DRC’s problems and how he might tackle them. Having served in some of Mobutu’s early governments, he has managed to stay consistently in opposition for 30 years. He played a lead role in the attempted democratisation of Zaire in the early-90s, and at one time managed to hold the position of Prime Minister while managing to frustrate both Mobutu-ists and former president Laurent Kabila’s AFDL.

He has also managed to emerge from years of war in the DRC without being implicated in the violence, a big step for Congolese opposition politicians, given that Joseph Kabila’s main opponent in the 2006 elections of 2006, Jean-Pierre Bemba, is now on trial at the ICC from war crimes.

However, Tshisekedi is not always perceived as the most unifying of figures and Michela Wrong describes him as “mulish”. Theodore Trefon puts it more bluntly, commenting, "stubborn and megalomaniac, Tshesikedi (sic) is also unpredictable”. This makes him far from the ideal opposition leader. And indeed, his political strategies neither enabled him to win the majority of votes in the election nor handle the post-election environment in a way that would be politically beneficial for him.

This may be to the collective benefit of the Congolese people, and maybe Tshisekedi should take credit for maintaining the fragile peace over the Congo. Such credit might be more deserved, however, if he had been advocating peaceful resistance, for example. Instead there has been a strange mixture of bullish defiance and belligerent rhetoric, occasionally bordering on delusional. Any hope that his supporters had that he is substantially different to previous leaders, or that he can somehow harness political discontent in a peaceful way, has been dwindling.

Gérard Prunier wrote of Tshisekedi’s similarly erratic approach to the 2006 elections (where he flip-flopped as to whether he was going to contest them) that:

“The old fighter seemed oddly unresponsive to the new political environment, and the often heard remark about him was that 'he was frozen in 1992', the year of his greatest glory, when he had become prime minister of the Conférence Nationale Souveraine during Mobutu’s aborted 'democratic transition'”

Perhaps this antiquated “mandate” was the basis of his declaration that he had won the 2011 elections before they’d even happened. Either way, his tactics have played straight into Kabila’s hands.

Electoral process

Kabila didn’t win the election when polls opened on November 28, 2011. Nor did he win it when the results were announced on December 9, 2011. He won it almost a year earlier on January 5, 2011.

That was the day the government amended the constitution, abolishing the need for a second round presidential run-off. Unlike his opponent, Kabila has proved himself to be a shrewd political operative. Ten other candidates are easier for an incumbent to beat than one. Even a fantastically charismatic opposition leader, with broad-based support, might find it hard to gain a plurality in such circumstances.

If Tshisekedi had won a plurality of the vote, there is a good chance we would not have known about it. But given that debates on electoral irregularities have focused on the technical side of things (such as on how turnout in some districts exceeded 100%) rather than the consequences of the vote, the assumption seems to be that Tshisekedi was not the true winner.

As it was, Tshisekidi’s parallel inauguration appeared like a bizarre sideshow, not the anointment of a rightful king. And this explains the differing response by the international community that this presidential election received compared to that in the Ivory Coast.

This does not, however, mean the elections were legitimate. Nevertheless, it is still the case that opposition responses have been defanged by Tshisekedi’s failure to demonstrate that he would be a more legitimate leader. Anger, where there is anger, seems to be on the whole directed at the fact that Kabila did not really win, not that Tshisekedi did win. Tshisekedi does not have much political capital to go on to fulfil any mandate he feels he has gained. He can order the government to resign or for a boycott of parliament, but no-one will listen. And the eerie silence over the DRC will remain.

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 Déjà Vu or déjà Lu as French might put it. This is the feeling I have got reading this article.  I nailed down the name of Lumumba instead of Tshisekedi as it’s appearing along, and see myself facing what my parent went through in 1960.This election masquerade was one of cover-ups of a permanent coup against the right of people of Congo to auto-govern themselves. The silence people oppressed and penniless if really they are silent should not deceive anybody.  It’s just hard to listen the plead of the weak and poor!