Yesterday, presidential elections were finally held in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or the DRC (the country formerly known as Zaire), a huge French-speaking country of 85 million people that occupies most of the middle of Africa. I say “finally” because DRC President Jospeh Kabila’s current (supposedly final) term in office officially expired in December 2016, but he has used civil war and instability to extend his rule for the past two years. Imagine if George W. Bush in 2008 had used the financial crisis and ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to postpone that year’s election indefinitely and then said “well, you haven’t voted anyone else in, so I guess I’ll just stick around ‘til we get this all sorted out. Meanwhile, how ‘bout them Rangers.” [Is that how W talked? It feels like so long ago when folks were saying he was the worst president of their lifetime. Oh, the good old days…].
Even yesterday, large sections of the country didn’t actually vote: the excuse/reason this time is an ongoing Ebola crisis (remember Ebola, that horrible disease that kills thousands of people in gruesome bloody ways that the US cares about whenever an infected person shows up here? Oh, wait). This move, seen as another stalling tactic, led to riots, attacks on treatment centers, and thousands of people showing up and voting anyway. In other words, many Congolese citizens are so fed up with the current situation that neither deadly disease nor the government banning them from voting will prevent them from doing so.
Joseph Kabila is the latest of a small handful of men who have ruled the Democratic Republic of the Congo through less than democratic means since the country’s independence from Belgium in 1960 (rule of thumb: the more that a country’s name declares that it a democracy, the less democratic it is; see also, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea). Shortly after independence, the DRC came to be ruled by a military man named Joseph Mobutu, who led a couple of coups and seized power for good in 1965. (The American CIA, which loves loved [is that better, Director Haspel? *cough* please don’t torture me *cough*] to orchestrate a good coup, was also involved in helping overthrow the previous leader, popular politician and maybe Soviet-leaning Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba).
Mobutu ruled for over 30 years, and was in many ways the stereotypical African dictator you may have seen fictionalized on TV. He initiated an authenticité campaign that changed the names of the people (he became Mobutu Sese Seko), cities and the country itself, which became Zaire (wait, that’s not so bad). He lived a lavish lifestyle with fleets of Mercedes Benz cars and numerous palaces, while the country slipped deeper into poverty (ok, that’s not good). He locked up or bought off political rivals and held elections in which he was the only candidate (that’s pretty bad, too). And, more than anything else, to keep up all this other stuff, he stole. A lot. Like $5 billion dollars or so (political science has a word for this level of “government by theft”: kleptocracy).
Mobutu was eventually overthrown in 1997 by a militia led by Laurent-Désiré Kabila. (Interesting fact: even after the civil war was essentially over, it took a while for Laurent Kabila to actually reach the capital city, which was on the opposite side of the country from Kabila’s rebel base, because the country’s roads were so bad. Mobutu allegedly once told another dictator that he had purposely let the country’s infrastructure deteriorate so that it would be hard for an opposing army to actually reach him). President Laurent Kabila was later assassinated by a member of his Presidential guard in 2001, and his son Joseph took control and has held it ever since.
Meanwhile, the DRC has continued to suffer from a series of large “civil wars,” some of which have actually been international wars with neighboring states like Rwanda and Uganda; the conflict once drew in so many outside parties that it was dubbed “Africa’s World War.” This is because even though the country is very poor in terms of its citizens’ standard of living, DRC is extremely rich in resources – diamonds, copper, as well as cobalt and coltan, key components of many modern electronic devices – and the Congolese government, local rebels, and neighboring countries have all fought viciously to control the country’s mines. UN peacekeepers have been in the country for nearly 20 years, attempting to keep the conflicts at a minimum (when not engaging in looting and raping themselves, because the Congolese folks clearly didn’t have enough a**holes problems to deal with already.)
The younger Kabila has used this violence (and some violence of his own) and instability to justify extending his rule. Like many African dictators or dictators-to-be, he flirted with the idea of eliminating term limits in order to simply run again, but an outcry from citizens, the international community and the country’s large and influential Catholic Church nixed that idea. Instead, Kabila has simply used one pretext after another to push his presidency forward a little bit more; yesterday’s vote was supposed to happen a week earlier but was pushed back when a mysterious fire destroyed many of the country’s electronic voting machines (no, really. At this point, we can’t ruled out invasion by Thanos or attack by Lady Gaga’s giant robot spider as the stated source of the next delay).
Assuming Kabila actually sticks to the rules this time and honors this election, he will soon be leaving office after close to two decades in power. It’s a toss-up who will succeed him: Kabila’s handpicked successor, Emmanuel Shadary, is not particularly popular, but the opposition is divided between second-generation opposition leader Felix Tshisekedi and newcomer Martin Fayulu, while several popular politicians were banned from running for various reasons. The country could even plunge back into civil war if the election appears rigged or is heavily disputed, something that Congolese citizens hope to avoid. Barring a major unforeseen circumstance, which in the DRC cannot be ruled out, someone not named Kabila or Mobutu will soon be in charge for the first time in more than 50 years.