Peaceful transfer of power in the Congo: Kabila had little room to do otherwise

Wednesday February 13 2019


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If I had been asked, say a year ago, whether former president Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was more likely to transfer power peacefully to another leader or cling-on like other rulers in the region, I would have answered: The latter! But here we are!

After 59 years of independence marked by three violent change of leaders, DRC witnessed a peaceful transfer of power from Kabila to Felix Tshisekedi on January 24. Tshisekedi unexpectedly beat opposition candidate Martin Fayulu and Kabila’s hand-picked “successor” Emmanuel Ramathani Shadary in polls.

So far, most of the debate has focused on “who” really won and whether Kabila struck a deal with Tshisekedi to “steal” the vote for him so he could allow him “free landing” or leeway to remain in control over some state matters.

What sparked this debate was the Catholic Church’s unprecedented move to claim long before the independent electoral commission of Congo (Ceni) announced provisional results that it “knew who had won.” The church went farther and asked Ceni to serve the “truth” and announce the name.

Ceni announced Tshisekedi as the winner with 38.57 per cent of the votes, throwing the opposition into a disarray as no one expected him to win!

The Catholic Church said the winner wasn’t the winner but Fayulu who had come in second with 34.8 per cent. Subsequently, Fayulu called the outcome an “electoral coup” and took his case to court.


Countries like France and Belgium also rejected the outcome and in an unprecedented move, even the African Union questioned the results and asked the DRC to delay announcing the final winner until a high-level delegation visited and helped resolve the conflict.

The court announced the winner and Kabila’s government set January 24 as the date for swearing in Tshisekedi in a ceremony attended by only one African head of state, President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya.

With this act, the country didn’t only register the first ever peaceful transfer of power from one elected leader to another since independence from Belgium in 1960, but the winner was also welcomed by the international community despite earlier reservations.

Just like that, Kabila managed to do what many of Africa’s leaders have failed to do for decades.

So, why did Kabila manage to do what many African leaders have failed to do or why didn’t he manage to hang-on despite interest?

First, Kabila transferred power not because he hadn’t tried to hang on like many of his peers because he failed to secure the removal of term limits in the constitution due to steady demonstrations against his desires.

In fact, Kabila did not only attempt to change the constitution but is also among the first presidents to ever ask his party go to court and ask “what would happen” if elections weren’t organised!

In response, the court said the incumbent would remain in office until a successor is elected; a factor that allowed him to stay in power for two more unelected years!

This makes Kabila not only the first to be accused of swindling the vote in favour of an opposition candidate but also one who went to court to ask what would happen if his government didn’t fulfil its mandate and organise elections as the constitution stipulated.

That said, Kabila was really able to transfer power due to three major factors:

Firstly, while he was president, Kabila was never really able to rule over the whole of DRC nor managed to stamp his or the state’s authority even in places where his forces had control.

Had Kabila managed to stamp his authority over DRC, there is no way, for example, the Catholic Church would wield the kind of power it does to the extent of attempting to usurp the power of the electoral commission to announce winners and losers in political contests. For in secular states like DRC, the church caters to matters of faith and God not matters of men and women in their struggle for power; that the Catholic Church does otherwise in DRC is a sign of a weak state and weak leadership.

Secondly, Kabila was able to step down, ultimately because he wasn’t brutal enough to crush the opposition and demonstrators who opposed his third term project.

In that sense, while Kabila’s failure to put in place a state with control over the whole of DRC is regrettable, it’s plausible to say that ultimately, it’s this weakness that convinced him to transfer power since he couldn’t outmaneuvre traditional centres of power contestation political parties, the church, etc.