DRC election: Revise liberal democracy to suit African community setting

Felix Tshisekedi receives the presidential sash from the outgoing President Joseph Kabila during the inauguration ceremony whereby Tshisekedi was sworn into office as the new president of the Democratic Republic of Congo at the Palais de la Nation in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, January 24, 2019. REUTERS/Olivia Acland
Felix Tshisekedi receives the presidential sash from the outgoing President Joseph Kabila during the inauguration ceremony whereby Tshisekedi was sworn into office as the new president of the Democratic Republic of Congo at the Palais de la Nation in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, January 24, 2019. REUTERS/Olivia Acland

Africa's most anticipated election finally happened. After two years of waiting, the Congolese voted for President Joseph Kabila’s successor. Many thought after delaying the election for two years, Kabila had run out of tricks. However, keen observers knew he was not going to go quietly.

After all, he had attempted to change the Constitution to give himself a new term and only backed off after pressure.

He then tried to install a pawn as in his handpicked former Prime Minister Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, but the Congolese people wouldn’t fall for that.

No one saw his most audacious plan coming — the deal with opposition figure Felix Tshisekedi — whose controversial win was confirmed by the Constitutional Court.

What was even more stunning was the capitulation of Tshisekedi campaign ideals and his quick embrace of Kabila. "I pay tribute to President Joseph Kabila, and today we should no longer see him as an adversary, but rather, a partner in democratic change in our country,” Tshikesedi said prompting allegations of a power-sharing deal with Kabila’s party.

It was a shameless power grab. According to the powerful Catholic Church, which had 40,000 election monitors in the country, the third runner-up had been declared winner making a mockery of the election.

In unprecedented move, the African Union issued a surprise last minute call for Kabila’s government to suspend the final results citing “serious doubt” about them. In an embarrassing U-turn, the proposed AU delegation to Congo to find “a solution to the post-electoral crisis” was cancelled following the court judgment, signaling that,organisation may once again do nothing about fraudulent elections.

Martin Fayulu, another opposition leader and the likely winner of the election based on the influential Catholic Church alleged Tshisekedi came nowhere near victory. With the judges now confirming him as the winner, Kabila has rewritten the African election theft book.

Does it surprise anyone that an opposition in Africa has ‘lost’ an election and is crying election fraud. This time, in an unprecedented situation, it’s alleged that the state helped another rival opposition to win.

The farce that followed the DRC elections started with Zambia’s President Edgar Lungu, as chair of Sadc politics arm, calling for a unity government only to withdraw his proposed plan to allow for a petition, and finally endorsing Tshisekedi as the winner.

The continent is divided on the way forward: Sadc has endorsed Tshisekedi, while DRC neighbours — Republic of Congo, Uganda, Rwanda, Zambia and Angola — have remained silent. Some are still advocating for a “government of national unity”, which is AU’s default solution. Kenya and Zimbabwe had this arrangement in 2008. The last election in Kenya was finally settled by a handshake. With many politicians learning new tricks, a handshake (for Tshisekedi) allegedly happened even before the vote.

Even the much-trusted Catholic Church, which claimed electoral fraud, has failed to release its own results, probably fearing sparking violence. This would have given some evidence to Fayulu legal team. The endorsement by some African leaders and Sadc has left only Fayulu calling for protests. If this succeeds, it may come at a cost of many lives explaining why AU is likely to do nothing about the alleged fraud.

But why do most African elections results have to always end up in courts? Is this symptomatic of a failure of liberal democracy or, it’s deficiency in addressing elections in Africa?

“Diehards of liberal democracy are of the view that a backroom deal” that goes against the actual election results would be non-democratic,” Sasha Lezhnev, deputy director of policy at the US-based Enough Project said.

“The United States, Sadc, and the European Union should respond strongly with sanctions if that occurs,” Lezhnev recommended.

However, with key opposition leaders such as Raila Odinga strangely congratulating TShisekedi, the mooted deal between the new President and Kabila’s party is now eminent.

To understand why “backroom deals and unity governments” are common, and why DRC is not going to be any different, one has to analyse liberal democracy principles and its assumptions, especially when it comes to voting.

Democracy is desirable and has potential to transform politics in many African countries, only if it can adapt to diverse continental realities: That many people are more unlikely to vote for what is not necessarily in their best interest as individuals but vote more as a community, a tribe or even region. This is because voting this way is the basis of their basic survival. Political elites are thus likely to exploit this situation. And numbers don’t add up, “handshakes” and “backroom deal” remain the only way they stay relevant in their communities.

The DRC election was not different and that’s why the government prevented an estimated one million voters from voting, citing the Ebola outbreak, in regions, observers say, would not have voted in line with the government.

The Liberal democracy is applied in Africa based on an assumption that people vote mainly due to their individual “rational choice” (what is individually considered as the best choice) and the need to protect their personal property and interests. This individualistic approach to democracy is a not always suited for many community leaning African societies. This is not to say individual choices do not exist or not important in Africa but, an acknowledgement of realities on the continent. In fact, if Fayulu had been declared the winner, Tshisekedi supporters would have also cried fraud.

Away from the continent, democratic elections are developed alongside system such as welfare state (the government is capable of providing basic needs such as health, education and security). People don’t have to think about leaning back to family networks for basic welfare needs. In absence of strong governments in DRC since independence, people will continue to vote on regional and tribal lines.

Let’s not forget that even in Western Europe where liberal democracy started, voting is still very much aligned to class systems and identity. Similar like saying, “I vote Labour in the UK because I am from working class background”.

So, to acknowledge that many people in Africa will vote along tribes and regions should be an acknowledgement of our realities (and even adopted in their electoral systems).

Kabila may not still be in charge but influential. His party won more seats and Tshisekedi is almost going to be used as be a puppet. This being the

reality, it's important that liberal democracy be revised to suit African community setting.

Mugaju is a Ugandan writer and blogger.