The Democratic Republic of Congo is expected to hold elections on 20 December 2023. The country’s electoral commission has announced President Felix Tshisekedi will be seeking reelection alongside 23 other candidates. They include Nobel Peace Prize winner Denis Mukwege and the runner-up in the 2018 presidential election, Martin Fayulu. The courts will confirm the final list of candidates. One key political figure has yet to make his intentions known: Joseph Kabila. He was president for 18 years until Tshisekedi took over in 2019. The DRC’s constitution allows two five-year terms, but he remained in power by delaying elections. He holds substantial political, military and business sway. Jonathan R. Beloff is a political scholar who researches the politics and security of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda. We asked him some questions.
What is the Kabila family’s place in the DRC’s politics?
Joseph Kabila was the country’s fourth president. He took office after the assassination of his father, Laurent Kabila, who was killed by his bodyguard in 2001. Joseph later won presidential elections in 2006 and 2011.
The surprise 2018 election of Felix Tshisekedi, who took power in January 2019, as president interrupted more than two decades of the Kabila family’s rule. At the time, Joseph was constitutionally barred from running for president – and he had already overshot his second term by more than three years.
The Kabila family became a political powerhouse after gaining control in 1996. With the assistance of other countries – such as neighbours Uganda, Angola and Rwanda – the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo, under the leadership of Laurent Kabila, overthrew the long-standing Zairian dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko. This was during the First Congo War (1996-1997).
Laurent’s tenure was riddled with ineffectiveness and corruption. In less than two years, he had dismissed his minister of defence, the Rwandan James Kabarebe, and begun arming anti-Rwandan forces. These forces contained actors who participated in the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda.
Laurent claimed his government only backed these forces after Rwanda attempted to overthrow his regime.
The bloody Second Congo War (1998-2003) led to at least two million deaths, many of them from disease and extreme poverty rather than warfare itself. While Kabarebe’s invasion attempt on the capital Kinshasa in 1998 failed, the vast DRC was divided into spheres of influence for different nations and their aligned rebel groups. This status quo only began to break after Laurent’s assassination, which led to the rise of his son Joseph.
Joseph learned military strategy, tactics and politics under Kabarebe. The two worked together after the Second Congo War to flush out many anti-Rwandan forces. This included the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda. They also campaigned together during the 2011 presidential elections, which Joseph won.
Joseph initially cast himself as a reformer who would end the Second Congo War and pursue policies to spur political and economic development. However, instability in eastern Congo persisted under his rule, with accusations of massive corruption that undermined the nation’s development.
How much sway does Joseph Kabila hold today?
Joseph Kabila remains a strong presence within Congo’s political, economic and military institutions. He has strong networks developed over 18 years in power. He could use this influence to sway the vote towards any of the candidates.
His influence stems from favourable business and political alliances he created when he was president. Like Mobutu, Kabila used his vast financial resources to secure favourable relationships with Congolese and foreign business leaders. A document leak in 2021 revealed that Kabila received over US$138-million from corruption and bribes.
There were claims that the former president originally convinced Tshisekedi to accept a power-sharing agreement. Under it, Tshisekedi would be president, while Kabila would control political decisions behind the scenes. The near appointment of Ronsard Malonda as the president of the electoral body illustrated Kabila’s political influence. Malonda held senior positions during the country’s 2006, 2011 and 2018 elections. He has been accused of rigging results in favour of Kabila.
Such accusations have benefited Tshisekedi’s election campaign. He is depicting himself as a candidate not tied to the corruption within DRC.
If Kabila does decide to campaign, political dynamics within much of Congo’s civil society, military and economy will be divided. Government ministers and officials will be forced to choose to support either the incumbent or Kabila’s preferred candidate.
What was Tshisekedi expected to change after he routed Joseph Kabila?
There was initial hope that Tshisekedi’s government would foster peace in eastern Congo, establish greater national unity and help solve the nation’s economic woes after decades of corruption and conflict. However, these problems have persisted.
Initially, Amnesty International praised Tshisekedi for pardoning political prisoners and allowing greater public space for criticisms of the Congolese government. He also began investigations on past mineral deals during the Kabila governments. As the African Union chair from 2021 to 2022, he pushed for greater attention to the COVID-19 pandemic and promoted the African Continental Free Trade Area.
The US Department of State has expressed concern about Tshisekedi’s anti-Banyamulenge rhetoric, as well as democratic transparency in the upcoming election.
Tshisekedi’s campaign strategy seems to focus on promoting security in eastern DRC by not only defeating the M23, but also attacking Rwanda for interfering in Congolese affairs. The securitisation of the Banyamulenge and Rwanda – the political manipulation to stir public fear – has helped deflect internal criticisms of the Tshisekedi regime.
Whether the elections take place is another area of concern. There are concerns that Tshisekedi will delay or cancel the election by citing security concerns. If this happens, it might be perceived by domestic and international partners as political interference by the ruling regime.