Information that the ruling political party in the Democratic Republic of the Congo was defeated in the December 2018 general elections, though controversial, is really good news for the continent. Surely a classic example of a country where the sit-tight political leader ruled absolutely cannot be disputed. Additionally, the Democratic Republic of the Congo exhibited the classic terrain of dynastic politics with Joseph Kabila succeeding his father Laurent Kabila upon his assassination in 2001. The rise of Laurent Kabila himself is an interesting story as he carved out for himself a State within a State in what was then the Congo in the 1970s and eventually overthrew Mobutu in 1997.
Joseph Kabila has been in power since 2001. Dynastic politics is not limited to the Kabilia’s however, for Tshisekedi himself has inherited power from his father Etienne, who was an important opposition leader under Mobutu. Mobutu himself having seized power in 1965 and ruled for thirty years until his overthrow.
So until recently the story of the Congo has really been one of political instability, military take overs, and violence. In that context, the apparent victory of Tshisekedi, leader of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress after a stalled election due in 2016, is good news for the democracy whatever the failings of the elections themselves. Truth be told, there has never been a successful democratic turnover of power in that country and the two turnover test is a minimum condition to determine whether democracy is or has taken root in any country.
Congolese politicians apparently perceive politics as “Le pouvoir se manage entire” (power is eaten whole) and so it ought not to surprise us that Joseph Kabila sought to hold on to power for life in spite of the constitutional change which limited him to two terms in office. Elections after all were constitutionally due in 2016 but were delayed for two years when finally Kabilia hand selected his successor Shadary through whom he hoped to continue to exercise power in the DRC. Fortunately this was not to be and Tshisekedi is the declared winner of the elections. Of course we have similar tendencies regionally as leaders seek to defy the democratic will of the people and select their successors, individuals who they can depend upon to protect their political and personal interest.
The only thing we know about democracy in the Congo is associated with the very short rein of Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, the first person to assume power via the ballot box in 1960. Lumumba was removed from power unconstitutionally within a few short months and since then the Congo has continued its descent into chaos, dictatorship and poverty amidst vast untapped wealth of zinc, cobalt, copper, copper, petroleum, diamonds, gold, silver, manganese, tin, uranium, coal and of course that “ Coltan.” Indeed, the DRC has one of richest sources of mineral wealth in the world and at one point produced 80% of the world’s industrial diamonds and 57% of all diamonds. What little has been tapped and retained by the State has been pilfered by the elite. Much of the country is parlayzed and violence of many forms continues unabated.
The first so called free elections since the assassination of Lumumba was in 2006 when Joseph Kabila won the presidency which had been contested by 33 candidates. But the election results were controversial and Kabila’s tenure heavily criticised.
The Gambia is also cause for rejoicing. For more than twenty years, Yahya Jammeh, who first took power in a military coup in 1994 and who ruled with an iron fist, surprisingly lost the elections in 2016. Surprisingly, given the President’s determination to hold on to power, the silencing of the media, the arrest and detention of opposition politicians, the general acute tension in the country, and the massive victory of the President and his party in the 2011 elections. Jammeh initially indicated his willingness to relinquish power and hand over to Adama Barrow who was declared the victor. Not so surprising therefore was Jammeh’s failure to do so until threat of a regional military intervention (West African troops were gathered at the Gambia’s border) agreed to step aside for the legitimate victor, ending the political deadlock.
So the first turn over of power occurred after the 2016 elections and we must await another election or two or three to make a determination as to whether democracy is consolidated in the country. However the signs in The Gambia are hopeful.
And there were other equally important democratic transitions occurring on the continent. In Somalia, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed succeeded incumbent Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. In Angola, Joao Lourenco succeeded Jose Eduardo dos Santos, who had ruled the country for 38 years. In Kenya, the bright light of East Africa (despite years of conflict, and the suppression of freedom of expression as reported in the Expression Agenda Report 2017/2018) despite the initial confusion over the results of the elections of 2017, the Supreme Court stepped in and annulled the result of elections ordering a rerun election.
Yes, it is obvious that there are still problems to iron out in that burgeoning democracy. Yet the action of the judiciary signalled a willingness to rise above the stranglehold of the political class. For sure, judicial action on this front is really without precedent on the African continent. At the end of the day, yes, incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta was re-elected in the rerun on October 26. But this was politically monumental for countries unused to challenging the political dynasty. The signs are positive.
Perhaps, one of the most far reaching elections to occur on the continent in late 2017 took place in Liberia in what was to be its first democratic transition in 70 years. And just as in Kenya the judicial system had a major role to play, asserting itself and definitively ruling that a run off between former football star George Weah (Oppong) and vice-president Joseph Boakai should take place. The end result is that the political novice, the newcomer (thought he had contested the previous elections) and former football star won with 60 percent of the popular vote.
There are in fact creeping signs that Africans have grown increasingly tired of political dynasties and persons embedded in parliaments and are turning to non-career politicians as chief executives. Whether this is indicative of a good sign or not, I am not so sure especially given events in the US. But at least on the African continent, the victory of persons like Weah and Barrow for instance, suggests that Africans are increasingly showing signs that they have grown tired of, and impatient with the abuses, the wanton disregard for the dignity of the citizens, the blatant corruption and pilfering of African resources to enrich a small circle of individuals, as well as increasing disregard and devaluing of children of African strongmen.
But Liberia is also important too for the stance taken against former War Lord Charles Taylor and the subsequent elevation to the presidency of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Equally important to the well-being of Liberia is the depolitization of the police and security forces which had been used under previous dispensations to oppress ordinary citizens.
Yes, there remains serious governance deficits on the African continent. Corruption remains rife, the judiciary and legislative branches are both in need of some strengthening, civil society in many countries is weak to non-existent, the media are still challenged and government deficits remain high, poverty is rampant and the external debt is escalating. As I was completing this article, news came that yet another investigative journalist was assassinated in Africa. This time in Ghana on January 17, 2019, for exposing corruption in football.
Yet, we are witnesses to a period of the slow but increasing de-personalization of power, and the seeming rejection of political dynasties. Of course there must be concerns that dynastic politics is by no means dead as Weah’s running mate was Jewel Howard Taylor, former wife of Charles Taylor. Much more needs to be done but change is evident and with it hopefully we will see improvement in the living conditions of the mass of the people. It is indeed a daunting task but in the context of the vast wealth of the continent, a change in the outlook of the new political leadership, slowly but surely, a new dawn is beckoning.
(Cynthia Barrow Giles is a senior lecturer in political science at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus.)