A Stolen Election in the DRC – Where does US Policy Go From Here?

Outgoing president Joseph Kabila adorns incoming Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi (right) at his inauguration on January 24, 2019. Photo Credit: Jerome Delay/AP

 By: Taylor Clausen, Columnist

It has been two months since the Democratic Republic of Congo’s presidential election, and nothing has gone according to plan. For the past year, the United States’ foreign policy in DRC has pushed for a democratic transfer of power through elections. When results evidenced that the vote tally was rigged, the U.S. seemingly chose to maintain stability over promoting democracy – unwilling to denounce a sham election and declare support for the true winner. Thus, the 2018 elections are emblematic of a fatal flaw in the US approach to the DRC. If the stated policy goal is democracy then the U.S. must expand its engagement apart from humanitarian assistance, expect more from its policies, and show consistent follow-through with its diplomatic outreach. Without a more comprehensive approach to the country, US policy is only capable of reacting and thereby pressured to follow and accept political developments as they come. Such a flaw is how the U.S. accepted a rigged outcome out of an election process that was the antithesis of its stated policy goals. It is not too late to correct course, but first, we must come to terms with the mistakes and misguided assumptions that lead the U.S. and DRC to this point.

The biggest question leading up to the December 2018 election was whether or not President Joseph Kabila would step down after overstaying his mandate by two years. In August 2018, there was a collective sigh of relief when Kabila committed not to run.[i] But the auspicious gesture gave way to increasing anxiety when the President publicly endorsed his longtime aide Emmanuel Shadary.[ii] At the time, it seemed there were two possible outcomes: a free and fair election that would most likely lead to the election of Martin Fayulu (a former ExxonMobile executive who was widely favored to win) or a sham election that would produce Shadary as the next President of the DRC, keeping Kabila in power through a proxy.

To the shock of observers and Congolese participants, neither outcome happened. Felix Tshisekedi, one of many opposition candidates and son of the late and intensely popular former Prime Minister, Étienne Tshisekedi, was declared the winner in a close race with many asking, ‘what just happened?’[iii]

We now know, thanks to a whistleblower from the DRC’s independent electoral commission, that the election was rigged in favor of Tshisekedi. The Financial Times reported the original electronic tallies showing 86% of the total votes cast. Of those votes, Fayulu earned 59.4% and Tshisekedi earned a mere 19%.[iv] Furthermore, the Catholic Church had 40,000 election observers collecting data on the day of the election at nearly 29,000 polling stations across the country. Their findings are consistent with the original electronic tallies and report that, with 43% of the total votes cast, Fayulu earned 62.8%.[v] The DRC electoral commission’s “official” election results later declared Tshisekedi the winner with 38.57% of the vote, followed by Fayulu with 34.8% and lastly Shadary with 23.8%. These numbers are irreconcilable with multiple independent reports.[vi] Lastly, Kabila’s party won three-quarters of the seats in parliament, an unfeasible result given the opposition candidate’s win.[vii][viii]

The overwhelming evidence of election rigging makes the US decision to congratulate Tshisekedi and Kabila on a democratic transition of power a confounding statement.[ix] One former official speaking on the condition of anonymity stated, “Everyone knew the elections were crap, but … they thought they had to accept [Tshisekedi], [that] they had no other recourse here,”[x] The lack of recourse is precisely the reason the United States must craft a more comprehensive policy towards DRC. Of the $411 million the U.S. disbursed to the DRC in 2017, around 70% was categorized as health and population, humanitarian, and administrative costs.[xi] These programs are reacting to the fluid security dynamic in the Kivus, the prevalence of treatable and preventable diseases such as malaria and Ebola, as well as the need for basic services like clean water and sanitation. These programs are necessary, however, they are a stopgap for DRC’s systemic problems that decades of corrupt Congolese leaders have failed to address. It is time the U.S. move away from the soft bigotry of low expectations in the DRC, and directly address the fundamental problem of a fraudulent, unrepresentative government.

Anti-corruption policy may hold the biggest point of leverage for the U.S. in aiding the Congolese towards a true democratic transition of power. The U.S. previously signaled it would use its sanctions authority to crack down on corruption in the country if elections were not held in December 2018.[xii] Moving forward, sanctions leverage along with clear diplomatic messaging provides the U.S. with tools to incentivize behavior toward an honest electoral process. In 2023, the Congolese people deserve a fair election. Failure to install an uncorrupt, representative government will further exacerbate the the country’s many economic and security challenges, continuing its cycle of instability. The U.S. must take a committed, consistent, and proactive approach to avoid this very outcome and restore faith in the democratic process before 2023.


[i] Sewell Chan, “Joseph Kabila, Congo Strongman, Will Step Down After 17 Years in Power,” The New York Times, August 9, 2018, sec. World, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/08/world/africa/joseph-kabila-congo.html.

[ii] Alcyone WEMAËRE, “Shadary: Loyal Hardliner and Anointed Successor to DR Congo’s Kabila,” France 24, August 8, 2018, https://www.france24.com/en/20180808-shadary-emmanuel-ramazani-hardliner-successor-dr-congo-kabila-election-president.

[iii] William Clowes and Mike Cohen, “Why Congo’s Election Results Confounded the Pundits,” Washington Post, January 21, 2019, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-01-08/why-congo-election-is-destined-for-a-chaotic-outcome-quicktake.

[iv] Tom Wilson, David Pilling, and David Blood, “Congo Voting Data Reveal Huge Fraud in Poll to Replace Kabila,” Financial Times, January 15, 2019, https://www.ft.com/content/2b97f6e6-189d-11e9-b93e-f4351a53f1c3.

[v] Gabriele Steinhauser, “Catholic Church Questions Surprise Congo Election Results – WSJ,” January 12, 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/catholic-church-questions-surprise-congo-election-results-11547136950.

[vi] Editorial Board, “Congo’s Presidential Election Result Looks to Be an Enormous Fraud,” The Washington Post, January 17, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/congos-presidential-election-result-looks-to-be-an-enomormous-fraud/2019/01/17/aba05bc8-19d6-11e9-8813-cb9dec761e73_story.html?utm_term=.30fb694411fc.

[vii] Max Bearak, “Félix Tshisekedi’s Improbable Inauguration Leaves Congo in a Confused Daze,” Washington Post, January 24, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/africa/felix-tshisekedis-improbable-inauguration-leaves-congo-in-a-confused-daze/2019/01/24/36f51a84-1cf1-11e9-a759-2b8541bbbe20_story.html.

[viii] Jason Stearns, “An Imperfect Victory for Democracy in Congo,” The New York Times, January 11, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/11/opinion/congo-election.html.

[ix] “U.S. Response to Constitutional Court Decision in the Democratic Republic of the Congo,” U.S. Department of State, January 23, 2019, http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2019/01/288532.htm.

[x] Robbie Gramer O’Donnell Jefcoate, “How Washington Got on Board With Congo’s Rigged Election,” Foreign Policy (blog), February 1, 2019, https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/02/01/how-washington-got-on-board-with-congos-rigged-election-drc-tshisekedi-kabila-great-lakes/.

[xi] “U.S. Foreign Aid by Country – Congo (Kinshasa),” USAID, 2017, https://explorer.usaid.gov//cd.

[xii] Enough Team, “Bipartisan Congressional Bill on Congo Is Timely Warning for President Kabila, Includes New Sanctions Requirement,” The Enough Project (blog), June 28, 2018, https://enoughproject.org/press-releases/bipartisan-congressional-bill-congo-timely-warning-president-kabila-includes-new-sanctions-requirement.

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