DR Congo’s shambolic election should be a wake-up call for the SADC

The regional body cannot continue to allow electoral irregularities to threaten democracy and development in the DRC or anywhere else in Southern Africa.

Voters queue outside a polling station during the presidential elections in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2023. [AP Photo/Mosa'ab Elshamy]

On January 9, the Constitutional Court of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) confirmed incumbent President Felix Tshisekedi’s landslide victory in the hotly disputed December 20, 2023 election, but failed to pull the Central African nation out of its full-blown electoral crisis.

According to the DRC’s Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) and highest court, Tshisekedi legitimately won a second and final five-year term in office with an impressive 74 percent of the vote, ahead of Moise Katumbi and Martin Fayulu, who placed second and third respectively. However, in the eyes of many, including failed presidential contenders Fayuli and Katumbi, the country’s synchronised presidential, local, provincial and national polls were a complete “farce”, and perhaps even less trustworthy and legitimate than the shambolic 2011 and 2018 elections.

The joint observer mission from the Catholic Church and the Church of Christ of Congo (ECC) said they documented 5,402 cases of serious irregularities at polling stations. The churches said these alleged anomalies – malfunctioning voting devices, unopened polling stations, vote buying, plundering of polling materials, shoddy electoral lists, and ballot stuffing – could have compromised “the integrity of the results”.

On Christmas Eve, while the shambolic election was still ongoing in many localities where the state failed to open polling stations on election day, the Archbishop of Kinshasa Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo voiced the feelings of countless angry voters in the country when he said: “What should have been a great celebration of democratic values quickly turned into frustration for many.”

Indeed, it was extremely frustrating to see the DRC repeat the mistakes of the past, ignoring insistent warnings. Last April, for example, Fayulu, who many independent observers believe won the country’s controversial December 2018 presidential poll, published an opinion piece on this very page warning his country was “heading towards another sham election” and encouraging CENI to change course and ensure a “free and fair” presidential poll before it is too late.

Denis Kadima, the president of CENI, however, chose to ignore this and other similar counsel.

Confident as ever, he even launched a thinly veiled attack on the opposition a few days before the polls opened, claiming there were “political groups in this country that are not ready for elections” who “discredit the process, no matter what we do’’. When the sheer scale of the electoral fiasco became obvious in late December, Kadima went on to call Fayulu and other candidates who understandably demanded a rerun “bad losers”.

In the end, Fayulu and others refused to challenge Tshisekedi’s win in court, saying state institutions were not trustworthy or independent. Now, the Congolese people are forced to accept the results of a clearly bungled poll and a leader with a crisis of legitimacy for the second time in five years.

It is time to admit that electoral malfeasance and incompetence have become a substantial menace to societal cohesion, peace and development in the DRC. And regrettably, this is a widespread and deep-rooted problem across the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region.

Take Zimbabwe, which has failed to hold a single truly free, fair and transparent election since its independence from British colonial rule in April 1980.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa has won two disputed elections – in July 2018 and August 2023 – over his chief rival, Nelson Chamisa, leader of the main opposition Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) party.

Last year’s polls, for example, were deemed a colossal failure after many polling stations opened late or failed to open at all. The anomalies were particularly prevalent in Harare and Bulawayo, traditional strongholds of the opposition, raising suspicion the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) wanted to suppress votes there and give the ruling Zanu-PF party a helping hand.  Meanwhile, the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN) and Election Resource Centre (ERC) stated Zanu-PF actors were engaged in voter intimidation tactics throughout the country.

Understandably, Chamisa asserted the polls were a “blatant and gigantic fraud”, while his party called for a rerun. And just like the DRC’s Fayulu, he refused to challenge Mnangagwa’s corrupted triumph in court, alleging Zimbabwe’s Constitutional Court was “captured”.

Meanwhile, a SADC electoral observer mission (SEOM), led by Dr Nevers Mumba, the former vice president of Zambia, delivered a scathing preliminary analysis of the August 2023 poll.

Among others, the SEOM criticised aspects of ZEC’s Delimitation Report of 2022, and highlighted the contentious decision to exclude Saviour Kasukuwere, a former Mugabe-era Zanu-PF minister, from the presidential race. In this regard, the mission found that “some aspects of the Harmonised Elections, fell short of the requirements of the Constitution of Zimbabwe, the Electoral Act, and the SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections (2021)”. A plethora of delays, it added, had “a knock-on effect as they dissuaded voters from voting in the first place” and effectively had “the unfortunate effect of creating doubts about the credibility of this electoral process”.

Harare denounced SEOM’s objective assessments and demanded revisions to the preliminary report.

At the same time, government-owned media launched a vicious smear campaign against Mumba, accusing him of being on a Western-sponsored “regime change mission”, all without offering a shred of evidence.

Meanwhile, South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa came to Harare’s defence, as he usually does, by declaring that other countries, like the US, also have electoral challenges – as if millions of frustrated and disfranchised Zimbabweans care at all whether such problems are also experienced to some extent in Washington.

This is not a problem only for Zimbabwe, or the DRC, or whatever country that experiences the latest election debacle either.

It is important to uphold SADC electoral standards, in every single member country, as Mumba boldly advocated for in his preliminary report, to improve our shared wellbeing in Southern Africa.

SADC leaders have failed us all. The ability to deliver peace, stability and socioeconomic change through the ballot box has been turned into a mere pipe dream in most SADC countries.

Zimbabwe has extensive socioeconomic problems, including an underperforming economy, a dilapidated health sector, and high unemployment for many decades. And every suspicious election only serves to deepen these woes.

Amid persistent insecurity in North Kivu, South Kivu, and Ituri provinces, the mineral-rich DRC appears to be on the same path as Zimbabwe, and I’m afraid SADC leaders seem willing to idly watch the rapid deterioration of the country’s fragile democracy.

Instead of deflecting attention to sloppy practices in Western countries, Ramaphosa and his colleagues must insist that every SADC country adheres to the SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections.

And whenever infringements arise, SADC must impose punitive measures.

With five years to prepare for elections, SADC member states have no plausible excuse to hold substandard polls and effectively endanger the sociopolitical stability of their countries.

To be clear, whom the Congolese or Zimbabweans choose to elect as their president is not a matter of contention, but the electoral processes in the DRC and Zimbabwe must always be open, fair and transparent.

They must enhance democracy and not foster outright suspicion, division or violence.

In August 2005, SADC officially established the SADC Electoral Advisory Council, with a mandate to transform election observation, the conduct of democratic elections and the prevention of electoral-related conflicts in the SADC Region.

Thus far, it has definitely underachieved.

SADC leaders have clearly diminished the council’s envisioned effectiveness over the last 18 years, just as they have shamelessly endeavoured to change, undermine and disregard Mumba’s preliminary report on Zimbabwe’s sham election.

Mozambique’s October 2023 municipal polls, Angola’s August 2022 general elections, Tanzania’s 2020 presidential election, and Malawi’s 2020 presidential election were also plagued by serious electoral contraventions, including accusations of fraud, ballot tampering, violence and repression.

This, unquestionably, is indicative of a wider malaise in Southern Africa: democratic backsliding.

Going forward, SADC leaders must actively monitor the workings of electoral bodies and implement effective interventions without fail.

The Congolese people and Zimbabweans deserve better.

Southern Africa deserves better.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.