When you visit the Democratic Republic of Congo, you discover right away that Congolese people are deeply interested in politics. Along the pavements in major cities like the capital, Kinshasa, or Lubumbashi in the southeast, you will see crowds of people standing around during the day, studying newspapers spread out on the ground. The bystanders are too poor to buy, but they read with intensity. These gatherings are common enough to have earned a name: parlements debouts, or “standing parliaments.”
Over the past few weeks, that political interest has exploded. From one end of the vast Central African nation of 85 million to the other, Congolese have been flocking to giant rallies for the two leading opposition presidential candidates. The incumbent, Joseph Kabila, was supposed to leave office two years ago, but he held on to power until pressure, inside DR Congo as well as international, forced him to schedule elections for December 23. The other day, thousands of people showed up in the western town of Inongo to rally for Martin Fayulu, a former businessman who heads one strong opposition coalition. Meanwhile, across hundreds of miles of equatorial rainforest to the southeast, thousands more came out to cheer the other main opponent, Félix Tshisekedi (pronounced chee-shee-KEH-dee), whose father, Etienne, died in 2017 after courageously resisting dictatorship over many decades.
Congolese enthusiasm for the election is particularly inspiring because going to campaign rallies is dangerous and also because no one expects that the votes will be counted fairly. Kabila is supported by his presidential guard and by his National Intelligence Agency, with its nationwide informer network (the latter a disagreeable fact of life that visitors to the DR Congo soon encounter). The regime’s soldiers and police have already opened fire at several opposition marches, adding more casualties to the thousands who have died since Kabila refused to step down. The UK-based organization Freedom from Torture reports that another 2,000 people have been arrested since 2015. Dr. Denis Mukwege, the legendary Congolese physician who just received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work healing thousands of women and girls who were raped during the chronic violence in eastern DR Congo, has said the December 23 vote will be “a parody of an election.”
Despite the obstacles, the pro-democracy opposition has already succeeded. Kambale Musavuli, spokesperson for the US-based solidarity group Friends of the Congo, follows the growing nationwide resistance closely. “All Congolese know that a free and fair election is impossible,” he said. “But they collectively decided not to boycott anyway. And then they chose to use the election campaigns as a chance to mobilize and engage politically—to an extent that is surprising everybody.” The uprising includes touches of humor; one brave pro-democracy group called LUCHA is demanding “Balayer les Mediocres”—Sweep Away the Mediocrities.
So far, most mainstream US media coverage has been worse than usual. Joseph Kabila hired a well-connected Washington lobbying firm, Sanitas International, which orchestrated interviews for American reporters who parachuted into the country, and the resulting articles portrayed Kabila with some sympathy (what was his favorite movie?), and even implied that his stand-in candidate, a nonentity named Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, actually has a chance to win fairly. The Kabila interviews (in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and on National Public Radio) also treated the DR Congo election as a mildly amusing sideshow in a distant backwater. (Meanwhile, the permanent Bloomberg news correspondents in Kinshasa prove that fair, thorough coverage is indeed possible.)
In fact, DR Congo is deadly serious—and a place where the rich nations have a longstanding moral, legal, and financial responsibility. The Congolese are still living in the aftermath of the greatest humanitarian crisis anywhere after World War II, in which an estimated 5 million people have died since 1998 of hunger, disease, and violence—and the United States and Europe are partly to blame. Western nations started exploiting the DR Congo more than a century ago, back in the colonial era of Belgium’s notorious King Leopold. Today, a key figure is an Israeli billionaire, Dan Gertler, who partners with President Kabila to continue to drain the DR Congo of its cobalt, copper, and diamonds. Gertler is so brazenly corrupt that even the Trump administration had to impose targeted economic sanctions on him this past June for “corruption and misconduct.”
But Joseph Kabila and Dan Gertler are not rogue criminals, stealing on their own. A prominent New York–based hedge fund, Och-Ziff Capital Management, paid $100 million in bribes to pass on to Kabila and another Congolese official; in 2016, the United States fined the fund $412 million. Gertler is still connected to Glencore, an Anglo-Swiss giant listed on the London Stock Exchange, and Glencore in turn has relied on big banks like Citigroup and Bank of America to keep its vast commodity-trading and mining businesses humming along. If Glencore cut off mining royalty payments, Kabila could not maintain his presidential guard and his spy network, and he would have to jump on the next plane out of the country.
As the pro-democracy enthusiasm mounted, veteran Congo watchers suspected that Kabila already realized he had miscalculated, and that he could not allow the December 23 vote to take place. To that end, a mysterious fire on December 12 swept through a warehouse in Kinshasa and allegedly destroyed 8,000 voting machines. The opposition had already denounced the devices, questioning how they could work in a nation where many areas lack electricity. The fire somehow burst out in a government-secure area, near a military installation and across the street from where a leading general lives.
When Kabila tries to cancel or steal the election, the energized Congolese people will surely react, and his police and soldiers will open fire on the pro-democracy crowds across the country. But the rich world can act to restrain him. Both the United States and the European Union have already imposed targeted economic sanctions on a number of high-ranking members of the Kabila entourage, including freezing their assets overseas and banning their travel. Ida Sawyer of Human Rights Watch has called for that economic pressure to be extended further up the chain of command. It should also be time to start squeezing the multinational banks and corporations, like Citibank and Glencore, that underwrite his rule and help him loot one of the poorest nations on earth.
(As we went to press, there were reliable reports from DR Congo that the Kabila regime is indefinitely postponing the December 23 elections.)