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The DRC's Legitimacy Crisis and its Impact on Peace, Security, and Stability

Voters outside of polling stations during the Democratic Republic of the Congo's 2018 general elections

The "Sun City Inter-Congolese Dialogue"the peace process that, in 2003, ended five years of civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)identified the legitimacy crisis of the country's leaders as a key driver of the conflict.[i] Governance legitimacy, which is critical for peace and stability in the fragile DRC, is again in question following the election of December 30, 2018 that many observers saw as deeply flawed and troubling.

Holding elections in 2018 was seen as an important step toward consolidating peace in the strife-riven DRC. The election was originally scheduled for 2016, but was delayed by ongoing violence. Many analysts at the time accused then-President Joseph Kabila of seeking to change the constitution in order to compete for a third term. This suspicion brought conflicts and instability in many regions of the DRC, including Kasai Province where the Kamwina Nsapu militia group killed hundreds of people, including American Michael Sharp and Swede Zaida Catalan. The unrest generated more than 762,000 displaced persons and refugees.

The revised election date of December 30, 2018 was established as part of a peace agreement reached on December 31, 2016, following negotiations brokered by the Catholic Church, among others.

The Run-up to December 2018 Elections Plagued by Violence by State Security Forces

Despite the peace agreement, violent actions by state security forces marred the run-up to the December 2018 elections. According to Human Rights Watch's 2019 World Report:

"During three separate protests…in December 2017, and January and February 2018, security forces used excessive force, including tear gas and live ammunition, against peaceful protesters within and around Catholic churches in the capital, Kinshasa, and other cities. Security forces killed at least 18 people; including prominent pro-democracy activist Rossy Mukendi…More than 80 people were injured, including many with gunshot wounds."

The report detailed additional acts of violence and repression throughout 2018. State security forces arrested 42 protestors in Beni on April 25, and 27 more in Goma on May 1. On June 9,  pro-democracy activist leader Luc Nkulula died during a suspicious fire in his house. In early August, Congolese security forces fired on a crowd and killed two people. On September 3, Congolese police arrested nearly 90 pro-democracy activists and injured more than 20 others during peaceful protests. From December 9 to 13, security forces killed at least seven opposition supporters, wounded more than 50, and arbitrarily detained scores of others.

Controversy Follows the December 2018 Election

Violence before the 2018 election, and the controversy that followed the vote, has generated an acute political legitimacy crisis in the DRC. After Felix Tshisekedi was declared the election winner by the DRC Constitutional Court despite widespread reports of massive electoral fraud, key institutions like the Catholic Church, African Union (AU), and European Union (EU) publicly called this into question. Others, such as the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the United States government, took positions more accommodating to the declared outcome.

The Catholic Church, AU, and EU Question the Election Outcome

The Catholic Church, which on election day had deployed 40,000 observers and gathered 67 percent of the results from polling stations, grew suspicious when the Electoral Commission delayed announcing the results as reports swirled of massive rigging and fraud. Church leaders disclosed their own electoral results, announcing at a press conference that the Church knew who the winner of the election was (Martin Fayulu) and called on the electoral commission to announce the correct results.

Meanwhile, the AU called an urgent meeting of heads of states, declared serious doubts about the election's legitimacy, and called on the DRC Election Commission to suspend publication of the final results.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and the EU took a similar public stance.

SADC and the U.S.

SADC, of which the DRC is a member state, sowed confusion by releasing a statement that "welcomed" the release of the preliminary election results but stopped short of making any qualitative judgment.

Surprisingly, the U.S. broke with the EU and AU by declaring on January 23 that: "the United States welcomes the Congolese Constitutional Court's certification of Felix Tshisekedi as the next President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)." Washington's statement did not address the widespread allegations of election fraud, and reportedly was a subject of significant disagreement with the U.S. foreign policy community.

Legitimacy Question Continues to Undermine DRC's Stability

More than a year after the controversial election, the legitimacy of the DRC government remains weak. Congolese bishops, in their February 28 pastoral letter to the nation, noted that acute tensions within the ruling coalition undermine the functioning of the state. This governance legitimacy crisis negatively impacts peace in the DRC today. Instability has only worsened in the year since the 2018 elections were declared deeply flawed and troubling by a large number of respected institutions around the globe. In short, the correlation between the DRC government's legitimacy crisis and the country's ongoing instability is strong.

[i] In order to put an end to this chronic crisis of legitimacy and to give the country every chance to rebuild itself, the representatives of the political class and of civil society,… gathered in Inter-Congolese Dialogue, agreed in the Global and Inclusive Agreement signed in Pretoria, South Africa on December 17, 2002, to establish a new political order, based on a new Constitution. (in preamble of DRC constitution).

Rigobert Minani Bihuzo is a current Southern Voices Network for Peacebuilding (SVNP) scholar with the Wilson Center Africa Program during the spring 2020 term. He is a Ph.D. candidate at the Catholic University of Paris (Institut Catholique de Paris).

About the Author


Rigobert Minani Bihuzo

Former Southern Voices Network for Peacebuilding Scholar;
Head of the Research and Socio-Political Department, Centre d’Etudes pour l’Action Sociale (CEPAS), the Democratic Republic of the Congo
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