The Democratic Republic of Congo, the former Zaire, is one of the richest countries of the world in natural resources. But it also has a long and dismal history of colonial exploitation, dictatorial rule and war that has left its citizens among the poorest people of the world. That is not a soil in which democracy can easily take root.
Yet the elections last month offered hope. They were a long time in coming: Joseph Kabila, who succeeded his assassinated father as president in 2001 and went on to become hugely unpopular and hugely rich, managed to cling to power long after his term expired in 2016, but he was finally compelled to call elections on Dec. 30.
The Catholic Church, one of the few trusted institutions in the country, sent out 40,000 observers, the voting went reasonably peacefully and on Jan. 9, after an unexplained delay, the national electoral commission finally declared that the winner was an opposition leader, Felix Tshisekedi, and that Mr. Kabila’s handpicked candidate, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, had been handily defeated.
The election of Mr. Tshisekedi, the son of a charismatic opposition leader who died two years ago, would have seemed a cause for great pride and celebration in a nation that had never known a peaceful transfer of power.
Alas, that may have to wait.
On Jan. 4, the observers sent out by the Catholic Church had identified a third candidate — Martin Fayulu, a respected businessman and veteran member of Parliament who had held a strong lead in pre-election polls — as the probable winner. And when the results showing Mr. Tshisekedi the winner were announced, the National Episcopal Conference of Congo, a Catholic bishops’ group, declared that the numbers did not match “the data collected by our observer mission.” Mr. Fayulu was not named, but the observers left no doubt that he should have won.
The widespread suspicion is that when Mr. Kabila sensed that his man would be crushed, he cut a deal with Mr. Tshisekedi to ensure that the outgoing president, his family and his cronies would not be compelled to relinquish the fortunes and properties they reaped in the 18 years Mr. Kabila inhabited the presidential palace. Mr. Fayulu, the candidate of a broad coalition of opposition parties and figures, would not be likely to give the outgoing cabal a pass.
And so what should have been a historic moment for the long-suffering nation took a dismally familiar turn. Mr. Fayulu denounced the results as an “electoral coup” and said he would challenge them in the Constitutional Court, though even he admitted he stood little chance of satisfaction in a court stacked with Kabila appointees. France openly declared that Mr. Fayulu should have won; Belgium, the former colonial master and exploiter, said it would raise the election results at the United Nations Security Council; the African Union called for any dispute to be resolved through “political dialogue;” the United Nations secretary general called on all sides to “refrain from violence.” There were reports of clashes in the southwestern city of Kikwit, but for now Congo remained relatively calm.
And the Congolese were back to waiting. And suffering: Three-quarters of the country’s 80 million people subsist on less than two dollars a day, thousands of civilians have been killed by security forces and various militias in the past two years and 4.5 million Congolese have been displaced by violence.
Mr. Kabila is to blame for much of the misery, and however disappointed most people may be with the results of the election, the likelihood is that they are simply relieved he is on his way out. They may now prefer Mr. Tshisekedi — whose late father, Étienne Tshisekedi, was a widely admired opposition leader for decades — to a period of instability and political violence.
But having come so close to the first genuinely democratic handover of power in its blood-soaked history, Congo would be far better served by an honest tally of the votes. That should be the joint and urgent demand of Congolese politicians, the African Union, the international community, the Catholic Church and all the people who have been waiting for Congo to realize its enormous potential.