DRC’s struggle for democracy enters new era

Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary suffered an inauspicious start as President Joseph Kabila‘s anointed candidate for the highest political office in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

En route to filing his candidacy on August 8, the last day of registrations for December’s long-delayed elections, Shadary found the gates guarding the electoral commission offices in the capital, Kinshasa, barred shut.

A moment of confusion ensued but Shadary, known to supporters as the “man for difficult situations”, eventually found a way through to ensure his name will be on the ballot – effectively putting to rest years of speculation about whether Kabila would seek to prolong his 17-year rule.

Shadary said at the time running for the presidency was a “great honour” and pledged to outline a “social programme” to voters in the near future.

He also praised Kabila for “keeping his word” by standing aside.

Shadary’s comments came after almost two years of political limbo caused by Kabila’s refusal to step down when his second and final constitutional term officially expired in December 2016. His move sparked violent demonstrations during which security forces killed scores of anti-government protesters, as well as donor threats to withhold aid funding for the resource-rich country.

The president’s decision to obey the two-term limit may signal the beginning of a new era in which the DRC will finally have a new president, but analysts predict little change if Shadary – a die-hard Kabila loyalist currently sanctioned by the European Union for his role in the crackdowns on protesters – wins the December 23 poll.

On the contrary, Kabila, who will be eligible to run again in 2023, is expected to keep exercising considerable power behind the scenes in the event of a Shadary win.

“Shadary is someone Kabila knows he can control,” says Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja, professor of African and Global Studies at the University of North Carolina.

“If there is no alternation of power, things are not going to change.”

Joseph Kabila (pictured) became president in December 2001 after the assassination of his father, Laurent-Desire Kabila [File: Kenny Katombe/Reuters]

Tumultuous politics

The DRC has never had a peaceful transition of power since the assassination of its first democratically elected leader, Patrice Lumumba, in 1961, one year after the country gained independence from Belgium.

Kabila took power in 2001 after the assassination of his father, Laurent-Desire Kabila, an opposition leader and former rebel who in 1997 had forced out President Mobutu Sese Seko, whose decades-long rule was marked by authoritarianism, brutality and corruption.

Joseph Kabila was declared the winner of elections in 2006 and 2011, but both polls were marred by violence and opposition allegations of widespread fraud.

The announcement on August 8 that he would not run again was welcomed by regional and international powers, but DRC’s already-tumultuous politics were complicated even further last week when electoral officials disqualified the candidacy of popular opposition leader Jean-Pierre Bemba.

In June, Bemba, a former rebel leader, was acquitted on appeal at the International Criminal Court (ICCof war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by fighters he sent to suppress a coup in neighbouring Central African Republic between October 2002 and 2003.

Following his release after 10 years in prison at The Hague, the 55-year-old received a hero’s welcome by his supporters upon his return to Kinshasa in early August to register his candidacy.

But on August 24, the National Independent Electoral Commission (CENI) cited a separate ICC conviction for witness-tampering to deem Bemba inadmissible – according to DRC law, people convicted of corruption are barred from running for president.

The commission’s decision can be appealed before a final list of candidates is published on September 19.

Bemba has been banned from running in the election because of a prior corruption-related conviction from the International Criminal Court [File: Goran Tomasevic/Reuters]

‘More of the same’

Bemba, a former vice president who finished second behind Kabila in the 2006 election, was widely tipped as a frontrunner in December’s vote.

In a rare opinion poll published by the Congo Research Group in late July, he ranked joint-first alongside opposition leaders Felix Tshisekedi, son of the late veteran politician Etienne Tshisekedi, and Moise Katumbi, a wealthy businessman who has been living in self-imposed exile since a 2016 conviction in absentia for alleged real estate fraud.

An erstwhile Kabila ally and governor of Katanga, Katumbi himself was also effectively barred from running for president after DRC’s authorities blocked his attempts to return to the country – first by airplane and then by car – and submit his candidacy before the deadline. The government subsequently issued an international arrest warrant for him on August 16.

According to Kris Berwouts, a political analyst and author of Congo’s Violent Peace: Conflict and Struggle since the Great African War, the events of the past few weeks laid bare the authorities’ intention to “organise the election in an environment which is as controlled as possible”.

“Keeping people out of the process, as they have done with Katumbi and Bemba, is reinforcing their own candidate,” Berwouts said, adding that the removal of key presidential challengers from the race cast doubt on the credibility of the election.

“This does not give many guarantees for free and fair elections.”

Nzongola-Ntalaja agreed.

“I don’t see the [possibility] that the elections are going to be free, fair, transparent and democratic,” he said, adding that upcoming poll promised “more of the same” following the votes in 2006 and 2011.

Anti-Kabila protests since December, 2016, have been dealt with violently by security forces, according to Human Rights Watch [File: Kenny Katombe/Reuters]

‘Regime stalwart’

Running against a curtailed opposition could prove critical to Shadary’s performance in the election, given that he remains relatively unknown outside the country’s political circles.

Shadary was born in the DRC’s eastern Maniema province in November 1960. He went on to study political science, first in Lubumbashi and then in Kinshasa, before being appointed in 1998 Maniema governor by then-President Laurent-Desire Kabila.

Four years later, Shadary co-founded the People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy (PPRD) alongside Joseph Kabila, and has since proceeded to hold several roles in the party.

“Shadary is a creature of the Kabilas, both Lauren and Joseph,” Reuben Loffman, a lecturer in African history at UK-based Queen Mary University of London, told Al Jazeera.

“He is a very loyal, regime stalwart for the PPRD and latterly the FCC … and seen as a safe bet in terms of someone who will protect people from the international community,” Loffman said, referring to the ruling Common Front for Congo (FCC) coalition.

“For the PPRD and the Kabila camp, protection is absolutely crucial,” he added.

In February, after serving as the government’s interior minister for 13 months, Shadary was appointed permanent secretary of the PPRD, marking an elevation to the upper echelons of party politics and government.

During his time at the interior ministry, he oversaw several crackdowns on anti-government protesters, especially after Kabila’s refusal to step down as president. Last year, the European Union hit him with an asset freeze and travel ban for his involvement “in planning, directing, or committing acts that constitute serious human rights violations in DRC”.

“The regime has deployed repression and he has been part of that,” Berwouts said.

“He [Shadary] is someone within the regime machinery with his own power base,” he added. “[But] If the party wants to go to the election and win, there is immense work to do to sell him to the public,” he added.

According to Loffman, Shadary’s “instrumental” role in the suppression of opposition could mean he struggles to concoct a convincing narrative on which to campaign for support.

“Opposition politicians have stories; Felix Tshisekedi can call on his father’s legacy of opposition and Jean-Pierre Bemba can, albeit controversially, call on fighting in the Second Congo War,” he said.

“But Shadary is tainted by the past … his story seems to be ‘I have been oppressing you for a long time, please let me continue to oppress you'” he added, noting that Shadary’s candidacy is particularly jarring when weighed against the decision to ban Bemba from the vote.

“Bemba still has this outlying conviction, and I think it’s problematic, but given the fact that Shadary has sanctions against him it’s kind of glass houses and stones, I think there is a lot of political motivation and that the election commission is acting under a lot of pressure from the regime,” Loffman said.

Felix Tshisekedi (pictured) ranked joint-first alongside Bemba and Katumbi in a pre-election opinion poll published by the Congo Research Group in July [File: Kenny Katombe/Reuters]  


All of the candidates permitted to run for the presidency will have to confront a daunting set of issues currently afflicting the DRC, the world’s leading cobalt producer and Africa’s top copper miner.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says 13.1 million people are in need of aid throughout the DRC and 4.5 million others are internally displaced – the highest number among all African countries.

In particular, violence in the southern Kasai region and throughout the Kivu provinces in the eastern DRC has left the country reeling under several ongoing security and humanitarian crises.

According to Human Rights Watch, more than 100 armed groups are operating in North and South Kivu, which, combined, border Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi.

Meanwhile, northern Kivu province has been hit by the country’s latest Ebola crisis – its 10th since 1976 – leaving health authorities scrambling for a response amid the “active conflict” zone.

The DRC’s turmoil has contributed to the fact that despite its vast natural resources and some 80m hectares of arable land, the country still ranks among the 11 poorest countries in the world.

“The level of violence, and the fact that there is an Ebola crisis going on, is going to mean in effect a lot of the election is about firefighting,” Loffman said.

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