Herman J. Cohen is the former assistant secretary of state for African affairs (1989–1993), the former U.S. ambassador to the Gambia and Senegal (1977–80), and was a member of the U.S. Foreign Service for thirty-eight years. This originally appeared on Ambassador Cohen’s blog. He is responding with a different perspective to a blog post on the recent DRC elections by Michelle Gavin, current CFR senior fellow and former U.S. ambassador to Botswana and the SADC (2011–14), which appeared on February 6. It is reposted here with Ambassador Cohen’s permission.
In the daily Africa in Transition blog on February 6, 2019, Ambassador Michelle Gavin, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations Africa Program, harshly criticized the United States government’s policy toward the December 2018 presidential election in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The title of the article summarizes Ambassador Gavin’s point of view quite succinctly:
“The Truth About United States’ Complicity in DRC’s Fraudulent Election.”
The word “complicity” in my view, is both unfair and unjustified. Here is why:
Starting in early 2015, DRC President Joseph Kabila expressed an interest in amending his nation’s constitution to eliminate the two-term limit on the head of state. His proposal stimulated major street demonstrations by ordinary Congolese people. As a result, he stopped talking about changing the constitution.
Nevertheless, Kabila continued to maneuver to remain in power. The presidential election scheduled for November 2016 received no funding, effectively cancelling it. The DRC Constitutional Court ruled that in the absence of an election, the President remains in power until an election can be organized.
In response to general discontent, Kabila held a number of “consultations” coordinated by the Conference of Catholic Bishops (CENCO) during 2017 and early 2018. The consultations were constructive. Nevertheless, they basically served to delay elections and maintain Kabila in power.
The growing instability caused by Kabila’s refusal to consider relinquishing power caused the international community to intervene. Most importantly, U.S. United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley visited Kabila in September 2017, and persuaded him to pledge to organize an election prior to the end of 2018, and to pledge that he himself would not be a candidate. Kabila’s decision constituted a successful diplomatic action by the U.S. government.
Kabila kept his pledge to Ambassador Haley, but he did it in such a way as to try to maintain himself in power through a surrogate. For the 2018 presidential election, Kabila named Ramazani Shadary as his “heir”. During the election campaign, Shedari was one of three principal candidates. The other two were opposition candidates Martin Fayulu and Felix Tshisekedi.
In view of the history of presidential elections in the DRC, dating back to 2006, most observers expected the vote count to be manipulated fraudulently so as to give the victory to Kabila’s surrogate Shadary. But to everyone’s surprise, the authentic election count gave so few votes to Shadary, that Kabila could not possibly get away with declaring him the winner.
All of the voting stations had witnesses and observers. The largest number of witnesses were from the UDPS party that supported Tshisekedi. The largest number of observers were from the Catholic Church. The Church reported that the candidate with the most votes was Fayulu. The UDPS reported that candidate Tshisekedi was the winner. Other sources reported to have seen the vote count of the official electoral commission (CENI) that had Fayulu as the winner.
Not being in a position politically to declare Shadary the winner, Kabila had to choose between Fayulu and Tshisekedi. He chose Tshisekedi because Fayulu was financed by his arch enemy Moise Katumbi. To Kabila, Tshisekedi was clearly the lesser of the two evils.
The International Community Responds
In the first twenty-four hours after the election, with so many conflicting claims as to the real winner, the African Union, the Southern Africa Development Community, and the European Union requested that the DRC Government not announce the winner, and instead initiate a recount. The DRC ignored these requests, and the Constitutional Council went ahead and declared Felix Tshisekedi the new head of state.
The U.S. did not comment until after the Constitutional Court declared Tshisekedi to be the elected President. The official announcement congratulated the Congolese people for their peaceful election, and expressed the determination to work with the Tshisekedi government for the development of the DRC.
Ambassador Gavin’s criticism of the U.S. decision misses the main point. If Washington had denounced the election, and declared that Tshisekedi’s victory was fraudulent, U.S.-DRC relations would have arrived at a dead end. What is really important, is that Kabila is no longer in power, and that his corrupt, predatory system is on the way out. The Congolese people have been waiting for this for more than a decade, and their wish is finally fulfilled. Now, there is much potential for the U.S. and the DRC to cooperate on many aspects of development, private investment and security.
The U.S. decision was correct. Ambassador Gavin’s severe condemnation of that decision emphasizes useless idealism at the expense of pragmatic progress in the right direction. I am surprised that she is insisting on the perfect at the expense of the good. That does a great disservice to diplomacy.