Could Kenya’s election fiasco inspire change in DR Congo?

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Last month, Kenya’s Supreme Court did something never seen before in Africa. It annulled President Uhuru Kenyatta’s August election victory after opposition candidate Raila Odinga accused the country’s electoral commission of foul play.

Not only was it a landmark verdict for Kenya; it was the first time an African judicial system overruled an election result. Odinga has since pulled out of the running in hopes of forcing broader changes to electoral proceedings, but the court’s verdict has already become an important milestone that will reverberate well beyond any single election.

It comes more than a year after a senior judge in the Democratic Republic of Congo admitted she was pressured into sentencing President Joseph Kabila’s main political opponent, Moise Katumbi, in absentia to prevent him running in the DRC’s next presidential election – a vote which should have been held a year ago.

The contrast between these key Kenyan and Congolese judicial proceedings couldn’t be stronger. Kenya’s judges are standing up to an electoral system with obvious flaws, while the DRC’s buckled under political pressure. It’s a contrast that runs throughout the political makeups of each country in 2017 – but could events in Kenya inspire change in the DRC?

DRC says it’s not ready for elections

Unlike Kenya, which is due to hold its second presidential election in the space of a few months, the DRC is wondering whether it will get one at all. President Kabila, whose second term in charge has already ended, agreed a deal in January that elections would be held this year. However, the country’s electoral commission still says it lacks the funds and logistic capabilities to hold a presidential poll.

Moise Katumbi – the man who was widely tipped to replace Kabila – has said since last year that he plans to return to the DRC from Europe to participate in the election, but the poll has been pushed back three times since his initial statement.

Now the electoral commission says it won’t be ready to hold an election until April 2019 at the earliest. Not to be deterred, Katumbi told attendees the Financial Times Africa Summit this week that he would be DRC-bound in December.

Opposition groups are calling for protestors to hit the streets but the government’s message is that any dissent will be squashed. And we’ve seen it before. At least 60 people were killed in September 2016 during a crackdown on protests in the capital Kinshasa and other major cities, but protests continue. In terms of an election, the DRC is at a political standstill.

DRC’s weak judicial system

It’s not unusual for African judicial systems to fall weak under their ruling governments. In Uganda, Yoweri Museveni’s main rival Kizza Besigye is constantly being arrested for his political activities. The opposition leader has faced charges of treason twice and was placed under house arrest for contesting Museveni’s latest election victory. And now lawmakers in Uganda are pushing for constitutional changes that could allow him to keep running for reelection until the day he dies.

Her application for candidacy was denied on the grounds of using forged signatures, and she was promptly arrested after Kagame’s 99% landslide election win on the ground of forgery and tax evasion. Yet she now faces charges of inciting insurrection, and there is no mention of the supposed tax evasion that was used to arrest her and her family members.

However, the situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo is a little different. Its judicial system actively sentenced a key opposition official to prevent him running against President Kabila, unlike the retrospective action we’re used to seeing.

The other key difference is more significant. There’s dissent from within the DRC’s Supreme Court over the government’s involvement. Unlike Rwanda, where Kagame has a firm grip on legal proceedings, Kabila’s authority isn’t as resolute – which gives hope to the notion that its judicial system could someday follow in the footsteps of Kenya’s Supreme Court and stand up to Kabila’s unconstitutional government.

Public calls for change

One thing the DRC does have in common with Kenya is a vocal opposition group with public support. Despite the government’s efforts to curb political activities, the general public is vocal about its demands for change. Many predict Moise Katumbi would win a fair election, if the electoral commission committed to actually holding one. According to polling conducted in May by the Congo Research Group, Katumbi is far and away the single most popular candidate, with 38% of voters saying they would back him.

Kabila came in second place in that poll… with 10%.

In the words of opposition member Martin Fayulu, “the people are tired… they want elections and they want Kabila to go before the end of the year. Even football crowds are now chanting ‘Go Kabila Go’,” he says.

You won’t find that kind of public display taking place in Rwanda.

The general public isn’t alone either. In September, 40 leaders from organisations including the Catholic Church launched the Manifesto of the Congolese Citizen, which calls for elections and a peaceful transition of power to Kabila’s successor.

The longer Kabila stays, the more fragile the political environment becomes. Analysts are concerned the country could slip back into a conflict similar to the war that killed 5 million people between 1996 and 2003 – the deadliest in modern African history. Parts of the country still suffer from localised violence with an estimated 7 million people in need of emergency assistance, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

The Kenyan influence?

The situation in DRC is a concern for African and international powers alike. Conflict in the country will have a significant impact on the wider African community, including Kenya’s closest neighbours. However, there is hope that Kenya’s Supreme Court could have a positive influence on other African nations after becoming the first across the continent to nullify an election result.

The DRC’s own judiciary system could learn a lot, and analysts are hopeful Kenya’s influence could have a positive impact.

“I think it creates a lot of expectations for the region, for the continent, sending out a very positive example,” says Yarik Turianskyi, a governance expert at the South African Institute of International Affairs, a research institute based in Johannesburg. “And then next time something like this happens, everybody will be mentioning this example and hoping that due process will also be followed up.”

 

Featured image: By UN Photo / Cia Pak, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35707886

About Aaron Brooks

Aaron Brooks is a UK journalist who wants to cut out the international agendas in news. Spending his early years in both England and Northern Ireland he saw the difference between reality and media coverage at an early age. After graduating from the University of Chester with a BA in journalism, his travels revealed just how large the gap between news and the real world can be. As Editor-in-Chief at East Africa Monitor, it’s his job to provide a balanced view of what’s going on in the region for English-speaking audiences.