In Congo election, Catholic Church disputes surprise win by opposition candidate

Supporters of opposition leader Felix Tshisekedi celebrate Thursday in Kinshasa, Congo, after he was declared the winner of the presidential election.
Supporters of opposition leader Felix Tshisekedi celebrate Thursday in Kinshasa, Congo, after he was declared the winner of the presidential election.
(Hugh Kinsella Cunningham / EPA-EFE)

Congo appeared for the moment to be choosing stability over credibility in order to achieve its first peaceful transfer of power.

On Thursday, opposition candidate Felix Tshisekedi was declared the surprise victor in the December presidential election despite clear signs that a rival opposition leader actually won in a landslide.

With no major protests in the capital and limited violence elsewhere in the vast Central African country, the population seemed to be accepting Tshisekedi’s win and the end to President Joseph Kabila’s long and turbulent rule.


But a court challenge to the results could spin the country into chaos, observers warned.

The influential Catholic Church, which deployed 40,000 observers at polling stations, said official results did not match its findings, and diplomats briefed on them said that rival opposition candidate Martin Fayulu won easily.

Fayulu alleges that Kabila engineered a backroom deal with the largely untested Tshisekedi to protect his power base in a country with abundant mineral wealth. An outspoken campaigner against Congo’s widespread graft — it ranked 161th among 180 countries in Transparency International’s latest index — Fayulu denounced the official results as “robbery.”

He called on people to “rise as one man to protect victory.”

As night fell, scores of police with automatic rifles and tear gas launchers were positioned along a road in Kinshasa leading to the Kingabwa neighborhood, a Fayulu stronghold. One vehicle was filled with military personnel in combat gear.

Democratic Republic of Congo’s population of 80 million remained largely calm. Some protest violence was reported in Kikwit, a Fayulu stronghold, where police said three people were killed. Police also confirmed “agitations” in Congo’s third-largest city, Kisangani, but said they were quickly brought under control.

It was not immediately clear whether Fayulu would challenge the election results in court. Candidates have two days after the announcement to file challenges and the constitutional court has seven days to consider them before results are final.

Careful statements by the international community did not congratulate Tshisekedi, merely taking note of official results and urging peace and stability in a country with little of it. Observers appeared to be watching for the reactions of Fayulu’s supporters.


Two diplomats said all major election observation missions, including those of the African Union and the Southern African Development Community, showed similar results to those of the Catholic Church. The diplomats spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the news media.

The little known Tshisekedi, who was listed in official results as receiving 38% of the vote, had long been in the shadow of his father, the late opposition leader Etienne. Tshisekedi, startled Congo last year by breaking away from the opposition’s unity candidate, Fayulu, to stand on his own.

Fayulu, a former Exxon Mobil manager and Kinshasa lawmaker, received 34% of the vote in the official results. He was a vocal activist during the two-year delay in Congo’s election, insisting it was time for Kabila to go.

Even before the election announcement, some observers suggested that Kabila’s government might make a deal with Tshisekedi as hopes faded for ruling-party candidate Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, who received just 23% of the vote.

Many Congolese suspected Shadary would allow Kabila to continue to rule from behind the scenes and protect his vast assets. Several Congo analysts said it appeared Kabila made a quiet agreement with Tshisekedi.

“If Fayulu and his allies, with their own independent security and financial networks, had taken power, they would have changed the power structure of Congo and definitively ousted Kabila and his clan,” said Patrick Smith of the newsletter Africa Confidential.


By breaking away from the opposition coalition supporting Fayulu, Tshisekedi “positioned himself to bargain with the regime,” Pierre Englebert, a fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, wrote in an analysis.

Western powers appeared wary. Britain’s foreign secretary said he was “very concerned about discrepancies” in Congo’s results, adding that the United Nations Security Council would discuss the matter on Friday. France’s foreign minister bluntly cast doubt on the official results and Belgium’s foreign minister expressed concern. There was no immediate U.S. comment.

The largely peaceful election faced numerous problems as many voting machines being used for the first time malfunctioned. Dozens of polling centers opened hours late as materials went missing. Most alarming to many Congolese, some 1 million of the country’s 40 million voters were barred from participating altogether, with the electoral commission blaming a deadly Ebola virus outbreak.

Congo’s government cut internet service the day after the vote to prevent speculation about the results on social media. On Thursday it remained off in parts of the country, which was formerly known as Zaire.

Some Congolese, weary of Kabila’s 18-year rule, the two turbulent years of election delays and years of conflict that killed millions of people, said they simply wanted peace. Some said they would be happy as long as Fayulu or Tshisekedi won, recalling the violence that followed past disputed elections.

Kabila is barred from serving three consecutive terms, but until he announced last year that he would step aside, many Congolese feared he’d find a way to stay in office.


Now Congo prepares for a new leader who is little known after spending many years in Belgium and standing behind his outspoken father. Tshisekedi, 56, took over as head of Congo’s most prominent opposition party in early 2018, a year after his father’s death.