Analysis: DR Congo elections open new wounds

An opposition supporter in front of burning tyres in Kinshasa on 9 December 2011

Democratic Republic of Congo President Joseph Kabila's victory in the 28 November election is fragile and contested.

His swearing-in ceremony is scheduled for Tuesday. But main opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi, 79, will also be sworn in as president "by the people" on Friday at a mass rally Martyrs' stadium in the capital, Kinshasa.

People voted, votes were counted - but we don't know who is in control. DR Congo - two-thirds the size of Western Europe - is headed for a period of institutional sluggishness and isolation in the West.

An incumbent entourage that is likely to continue pillaging the country's resources opposes an aged runner-up with a political ego larger than his capacity to propose a constructive political agenda.

Even before outside observers cast doubts on the veracity of the results, Mr Tshisekedi cried foul, unilaterally declaring himself president.

Mr Tshisekedi is the charismatic leader of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS), a historically important political movement.

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Europe and the US have relatively little leverage over President Joseph Kabila because DR Congo has the natural resources that the world needs”

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Kinshasa then braced itself for mass uprisings. But the doomsday scenario did not unfold.

DR Congo's demonstrators do not want to be martyrs like those of the Arab world.

The fear of winding up in The Hague at the International Criminal Court (ICC) calmed tempers.

Like the announcements by the election commission and the Supreme Court, Mr Kabila's ceremony is likely to be a non event.

The foreign minister of former colonial power Belgium, Didier Reynders, will not attend.

He accused the Supreme Court of not having examined the results thoroughly enough when confirming Mr Kabila's victory with 49% of the vote to Mr Tshisekedi's 32%.

'Barter deals'

Other Western governments are likely to follow suit because they often take Belgian cues as to what diplomatic stance to take towards Kinshasa.

A girl cries after her brother's arrest in Kinshasa (10 December 2011) Congolese people always pay the price when politicians fight

Mr Reynders' position is a slight embarrassment to Mr Kabila but doesn't really count for much.

Europe and the US have relatively little leverage over him because DR Congo has the natural resources that the world needs.

Barter deals made in recent years with China are proof. China is rehabilitating Congolese infrastructure in exchange for favourable mining contracts.

The opposition was fragmented during the electoral campaign and suffered from their inability to agree on a common opposition candidate.

But there are now hints that the opposition may finally be tying to forge a united position.

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Mr Tshisekedi is not going to bow down to Mr Kabila or be shoehorned into a power-sharing arrangement”

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Mr Tshisekedi wields popular support, particularly in the two Kasai provinces and in Kinshasa.

He has more to win by peaceful action than by inciting violent street movements.

A group of peaceful demonstrators with bible in hand is more powerful in the Congolese context than mobs throwing stones.

His capacity to badger Mr Kabila cannot be underestimated.

Pockets of the country could follow him, putting pressure on the central government's capacity to levy taxes and control territory, blemishing Kinshasa's reputation nationally and internationally.

'Kabila vulnerable'

Mr Tshisekedi destabilized ex-dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in the early 1990s by organizing peaceful Christian marches and general strikes, earning himself the nickname Moses. People saw him as a saviour.

Kasai, also under his impetus, refused Mr Mobutu's five million Zaire banknote, putting further pressure on the dictator.

DR Congo in figures

  • Population: 70 million
  • UN human development index: Bottom of 187 countries surveyed
  • Life expectancy: 48 years
  • Has 70% of the globe's coltan - vital for mobile phones
  • Average annual income: $300 (£200)
  • With 13% of the world's hydropower potential, its network of rivers could power much of Africa
  • Just 9% of the population has access to electricity
  • Sources: Estimated figures from the UN and World Bank

This success helped overshadow a skeleton in his closet: He was an actor in the assassination of DR Congo's first independence leader, Patrice Lumumba. According to Ludo De Witte's book The Assassination of Lumumba, Mr Tshisekedi has not commented on the allegation.

Mr Tshisekedi is not going to bow down to Mr Kabila or be shoehorned into a power-sharing arrangement.

He can take advantage of Mr Kabila's vulnerability in Kinshasa.

Imagine President Barack Obama being persona non grata in Washington DC. That is Mr Kabila's situation in the city that is the seat of the country's institutions.

The risk of an even worse investment climate also weakens Mr Kabila.

The Dutch brewery Heineken, which keeps the beer flowing in DR Congo, or US mining company Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc, for example, could find themselves under pressure by shareholders sensitive to the problems of paying taxes to a government seen as illegitimate.

Mr Tshisekedi is also stubborn and unpredictable.

This explains why Western diplomats and businessmen actually prefer to have Mr Kabila wearing the emperor's clothes.

Young men push wooden bicycles in the Democratic Republic of Congo's North Kivu province on 4 December 2011. Despite DR Congo's mineral wealth, most people are poor

Despite certain problems with him - such as the lack of investment security in the mining sector - he does represent a sense of continuity.

When Mr Tshisekedi, 79, dies, most observers believe, the UDPS will wither away.

Mr Kabila, 40, could improve his legitimacy by investing some of the country's wealth into improved macroeconomic management and social programmes - even as a benevolent dictator.

The country has its own resources to do so and could rely on continued international aid if human rights and investment conditions are improved. This depends on political will.

Alternatively, he could govern the country as a reclusive and unpopular strongman catering to opportunistic business partners. Another revision of the constitution, prolonging his mandate or legalizing a third term, is not to be excluded.

As the stalemate drags on, Congolese people continue to pay the price.

Theodore Trefon is senior researcher at the Royal Museum for Central Africa and author of the blog Congo Masquerade: The political culture of aid inefficiency and reform failure.

Inside DR Congo
size map
The Democratic Republic of Congo covers 2,344,858 square km of land in the centre of Africa, making it the 12th largest country in the world.
size map
Eastern DR Congo is awash with a variety of different rebel groups – some have come from neighbouring countries, while others have formed as self-defence groups. Many are taking advantage of the lack of a strong state to seize control of the area's mineral riches.
mineral wealth map
DR Congo has abundant mineral wealth. It has more than 70% of the world's coltan, used to make vital components of mobile phones, 30% of the planet's diamond reserves and vast deposits of cobalt, copper and bauxite. This wealth however has attracted looters and fuelled the country's civil war.
transport map
Despite the country's size, transport infrastructure is very poor. Of 153,497km of roads, only 2,794km are paved. There are around 4,000 km of railways but much is narrow-gauge track and in poor condition. Waterways are vital to transport goods but journeys can take months to complete. Overcrowded boats frequently capsize, while DR Congo has more plane crashes than any other country.
population map
With an estimated population of 71 million, DR Congo is the fourth most populous country in Africa. Some 35% of the population live in cities and the capital Kinshasa is by far the largest, with more than 8 million inhabitants. DR Congo has around 200 ethnic identities with the majority of people belonging to the Kongo, Luba and Mongo groups.
demographic map
Given its size and resources DR Congo should be a prosperous country, but years of war, corruption and economic mismanagement have left it desperately poor. In 2011 it lags far behind in many key development indicators, with average life expectancy increasing by only 2 years since 1980, after a period when it actually fell during the mid 1990s.

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