No other country in Africa has had its name change as many times as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). It has at various times been the Congo Free State, Congo Leopoldville, Congo Kinshasa, Zaire and now DRC.
Most of this time has been one of long misrule and there does not seem to be an end to that dubious distinction any time soon. In a sense the frequent name changes reflect its instability.
In that time, the DRC has scored a number of firsts, not all necessarily to be proud of.
It was the first country of its size to be the personal estate of an individual. As the Congo Free State, it was the property of the Belgian King Leopold.
His ownership of the Congo was marked by untold plunder of its resources and cruelty to the Congolese. That cruelty, alongside that of the Germans in South West Africa (Namibia today), has become the yardstick of colonial barbarity.
Immediately after independence in 1960, the first known overt regime change by foreign powers took place here with the assassination of Congo’s first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, and accession to power of Mobutu.
He ruled with the consent and support of the West and soon turned the country into a personal fiefdom in the King Leopold fashion, perhaps without the barbarity. Misrule continued as did the plunder.
Then in 1996, Congo scored another first, this time a more positive one. Mobutu was removed from power by Congolese rebels with help of a coalition of African countries.
That had never happened before. The only time something close had happened was the removal of Idi Amin from power in Uganda by Ugandan rebels and Tanzanian forces.
Now in 2019, the DRC has registered another dubious first like many others before. It is the first country where a ruling party has colluded with an opposition presidential candidate to rig the election in favour of the latter.
Only it is not that straight forward. The collusion seems to have been intended to shut out Martin Fayulu, another opposition candidate and crucially, two other politicians he is allied with and who had been barred from standing in the election: Moise Katumbi and Jean Pierre Bemba.
And so, against all expectations, Felix Tshisekedi was declared winner of the December 30 poll. Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, President Kabila’s party’s candidate unusually readily conceded defeat. Martin Fayulu cried foul.
He called the announcement by the electoral commission an electoral coup and appealed to the Constitutional Court. When the court confirmed Tshisekedi’s election, he called that a constitutional coup d’etat.
To many observers, including the Catholic Church, some of whom claim to have a different vote tally reflecting the correct outcome of the election, the supposed collusion between Kabila and Tshisekedi is a blatantly opportunistic electoral collaboration meant to entrench certain interests and thwart the will of the Congolese people.
Last week we thought we had another first in DRC. The African Union and regional blocs working together asked the DRC to suspend announcement of final results because of what they called “serious doubts” about the outcome and was dispatching a high level team to help reach a consensus on a way out of the post-election crisis. They were also concerned about outsiders meddling in DRC affairs.
This is another side of the AU that has been emerging in the last few years. It is no longer prepared to be an onlooker or leave outsiders to get involved in African problems and mess them up instead of resolving them.
The AU has been prepared to enforce respect for the popular will while also vowing to respect national sovereignty.
This is not the first disputed election. There have been others before that were mediated differently, either by outsiders, regional groupings or resolved by armed force. In nearly all these cases, the outcome has been a temporary arrangement meant to buy time for a more permanent solution.
This time, however, the AU and regional blocs have decided to take firm action. It is probably an indication of future direction when similar disputes occur.
For now, however, this AU initiative seems to be on hold and DRC will not have another first to its name.
The government ignored the plea not to announce final results. The constitutional court declared Tshisekedi duly elected as president. The Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), which had initially called for a vote recount and was later part of the AU plan, quickly congratulated the winner.
The stage seems to be set for DRC to continue in its familiar state of instability and will doubtless keep affecting what happens in the neighbourhood and on the continent.
The views expressed in this article are of the author.