TOPSHOT - President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Joseph Kabila sits in a garden at his personal ranch on December 10, 2018 in Kinshasa. (Photo by John WESSELS / AFP)JOHN WESSELS/AFP/Getty Images
Voters will have a chance to replace Joseph Kabila two days before Christmas © AFP

Two days before Christmas, voters in sub-Saharan Africa’s largest country by area will attempt the impossible. They will try to put the “democratic” in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

After two years of obfuscation, the government of Joseph Kabila will finally hold elections to replace him as president. These will mark the first transition via the ballot box in the central African nation’s troubled and tragic history.

Of all of Africa’s 54 countries, the Congo most fires the imagination. Immortalised by Joseph Conrad and VS Naipaul and captured in electrifying Congolese music and boisterous, defiant fashion, the country leaves few visitors unmoved. It is hard not to be struck by the gulf between the nation’s prodigious mineral wealth and the grinding poverty and insecurity of most of its more than 80m people.

Mr Kabila came to power in 2001 within weeks of the assassination of his father, Laurent, the rebel fighter who, backed by neighbouring Rwanda, had overthrown the western-sponsored kleptocrat Mobutu Sese Seko four years earlier.

Kabila Sr had presided over two ruinous wars that had killed and displaced millions. By contrast his son, 29 when he took power, started reasonably well. He struck a peace accord, invited in investors, and liberalised the economy. He held elections in 2006 and again in 2011.

Mr Kabila has wilfully allowed the country to slip into fragmentary chaos. Violence has flared in provinces such as Kasai, an opposition stronghold, and the Kivus, where as many as 140 rebel groups roam hills dotted with mines.

Katanga, the other big mining region, has flourished. Congo has become the world’s biggest producer of cobalt, a vital component of smartphones and electric car batteries, and Africa’s biggest copper exporter. Though the economy more than quintupled to $38bn between 2001 and 2015, the lot of the ordinary Congolese remains dire.

Congo is a textbook example of a predatory state in which the government extracts resources to enrich itself and pay off people who might otherwise vie for power. Mr Kabila has played the game brilliantly, though he denies being corrupt.

Yet he has not had everything his own way. His reluctant acceptance of constitutional term limits is evidence of that. He has been pressed by protesters who have taken to the streets in their tens of thousands and by a Catholic Church that, unique among Congolese institutions, enjoys legitimacy. Taking their cue from this popular discontent, the US, Europe and even regional powers such as Angola have urged Mr Kabila to go.

What happens next? Mr Kabila has nominated Emmanuel Shadary to keep his seat warm until he can run again in 2023. His courts have neutralised two of his most potent rivals by preventing them from running. Voting rolls have been massaged and electronic voting machines — with limited battery life — installed. Election day will be held against the backdrop of chaos in which Mr Kabila thrives. In North Kivu, voting will take place amid the second-worst Ebola outbreak in recorded history. Few international observers have been invited.

Yet Mr Kabila does not hold all the cards. The opposition is split, but reasonably effective. In a fair vote, either Felix Tshisekedi or Martin Fayulu might well beat Mr Kabila’s placeman. If rigging is too blatant, the urban youth that poured on to the streets demanding elections will erupt again.

The west’s role is hardly edifying. It has grown used to Congo’s simmering tragedy. So long as mining companies can work with the next regime, it will be happy enough. Still, something historic is unfolding. It will be messy. It will be manipulated. It may well be violent. But it will not be boring.

david.pilling@ft.com

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