By Francois Conradie, Head of Research at NKC African Economics
On Sunday, November 11, the last day of a three-day meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, the Congolese opposition picked a unity candidate for the presidential election on December 23: the choice fell on Martin Fayulu of the Engagement for Citizenship and Development (Ecidé).
This unusual unity lasted just under 24 hours.
Late at night on Monday, November 12, two key opposition members who had signed the deal changed their minds and pulled out of it, and are now expected to run against Mr Fayulu and against Emmanuel Ramzani Shadary, the candidate of President Joseph Kabila’s Common Front for Congo (FCC). The election is a one-round affair: the candidate who gets the most votes becomes president.
The opposition conference in Geneva was an interesting process, piloted by the Kofi Annan foundation. It brought together seven opposition figures: Mr Fayulu, a 61-year-old Lingala-speaker from Kinshasa, educated in France and the US, who entered politics in the last days of Mobutu Sese Seko’s rule after a career as an oil executive with ExxonMobil; Felix Tshisekedi of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS), whom we saw as the most likely man to lead a united opposition campaign; Jean-Pierre Bemba of the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), who looked like the most potent challenger but who was disqualified in August because of a conviction for witness-tampering at the International Criminal Court (ICC); Moise Katumbi, the popular and rich former governor of Katanga, who has not returned home since 2016, and who was thus unable to register for the election; Vital Kamerhe of the Union for the Congolese Nation (UNC), who is from South Kivu and is popular in the east of the country; Freddy Matungulu, a more marginal party leader who used to be an economist with the IMF; and Adolphe Muzito, who served as prime minister under Mr Kabila until 2012 and who was disqualified from running on a technical point.
The way the voting took place to choose a presidential candidate explains why Mr Fayulu ended up getting the nod rather than Mr Tshisekedi or Mr Kamerhe, who are more popular.
In the first round of voting the four men who had registered for the election (Messrs Fayulu, Matungulu, Tshisekedi and Kamerhe) could pick two names: their own, and that of one of their colleagues (also one allowed to run). As each man ended up giving the name of someone he did not consider a particularly menacing challenger to himself, Mr Fayulu and Mr Matungulu went through to a second round ahead of better-known peers. In the second round all seven opposition figures voted, and Mr Fayulu carried it.
On Sunday in Geneva, Mr Tshisekedi said: “I know this is going to be very tough for the UDPS base, but we accepted this game of nominating a common candidate and we must play it to the end.” And it was very tough for his base: protests were reported outside the UDPS offices in Kinshasa on Monday. The same happened in Mr Kamerhe’s UNC: its members also protested the fact that Mr Fayulu got the nod rather than their man.
On Monday Mr Tshisekedi announced that he was withdrawing his signature to respect the wishes of his voting base; tellingly he told Top Congo FM that going against his base would be the “end of my political career.” Very shortly afterwards Mr Kamerhe announced that he was also rejecting the deal on the basis that the opposition ought to have searched for consensus rather than use the two-round election system, even though he had agreed to it.
Mr Fayulu called on the two men to change their minds and asked the rhetorical question: “What signal are we sending? This shows that some of us are in politics out of personal interest, clan interests, and not for the higher interest of the nation.”
As of writing he still appeared to have the support of Mr Bemba and Mr Katumbi, which does count for a lot.
We had seen the way in which the seven opposition members put aside their differences to throw their collective weight behind Mr Fayulu as positive for the opposition, even though we continued to consider Mr Shadary the favourite, given the FCC’s dominance and the opportunity it will have to use government resources for party political ends: the Independent National Electoral Commission (Ceni) is certainly inclined to favour the FCC in the upcoming polls, and controversial electronic voting machines from Korea will make the election easier to rig.
Now we consider Mr Shadary’s win a foregone conclusion, as he will not only have the same structural advantages as he would have had facing Mr Fayulu as the unity candidate, but the opposition vote will probably be split among three men (we expect Mr Tshisekedi and Mr Kamerhe to run), making his job easier given the one-round system.
Congolese contacts have told us they are convinced that both men are in fact controlled opposition and playing Mr Kabila’s game; this is entirely plausible.
We still expect some protests in the next month, probably over the issue of voting machines, but the split in the opposition means that they will probably be smaller and less concentrated than could have been expected if Mr Fayulu had been the opposition candidate. This is positive from the point of view of violence, but FCC rule after Mr Shadary’s win will in no way be good news for governance.