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DRC: Top opposition candidates no longer in the race

Antonio Cascais
August 28, 2018

At least two political heavyweights from DRC's opposition have been excluded from the presidential race in December. Many observers believe that President Kabila will do whatever it takes to help his own candidate win.

DR Kongo Wahlkampf in Kinshasa
Supporters of Jean-Pierre Bemba celebrated his return after spending 10 years under arrest in The HagueImage: Getty Images/AFP/J.D. Kannah

In December, the people of DRC will elect a new president. A few weeks ago, Moise Katumbi— a prominent critic of the government, who is seen by some as President Kabila's strongest opponent — was barred from crossing the border into DRC and submitting his candidacy for the presidency. The former governor of Katanga had previously been accused of hiring mercenaries in a plot against the government and had spent the past two years in exile. 

On Friday, August 24, the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) also denied the candidacy of the country's former vice-president, Jean-Pierre Bemba. On Tuesday, August 28, Bemba and other potential candidates are expected to appeal the decision. 

The commission has justified its decision on the grounds that Bemba was fined €300,000 ($350,000) and sentenced to one year in prison by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague in March this year for witness tampering. The former vice president and militia leader was arrested in 2008 and sentenced to 18 years in prison by the ICC in 2016. Bemba was also charged with war crime in the neighboring Central African Republic (CAR). However, due to procedural errors, the court annulled the judgement in January and Bemba was released.

Moise Katumbi waves to his supporters in 2016 on his way to the prosecutor's office over allegations that he hired mercenaries in a plot against the government.
Moise Katumbi is seen as one of the strongest opposition figures in DRC. He has the same political stronghold as Kabila. He was denied entry into DRC when he tried to register his candidacy Image: Reuters/K. Katombe

'We will exhaust all legal means'

Prior to the denial of the candidacy, the opposition party, Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) had set up Bemba as a candidate in the presidential election. The party has announced that it will challenge the ruling of the electoral commission by taking its case to the constitutional court. "We will exhaust all legal means," says MLC General Secretary, Eve Bazaiba.

In addition to Bemba, the electoral commission has also barred five other potential candidates from entering the race, including former Prime Minister Samy Badibanga. Applicants will be able to challenge the decision as the commission prepares to publish the final list of accredited candidates on September 19.

Doubts over the electoral commission 

"With the electoral commission, Kabila clearly has the power to eliminate his key opponents," Gesine Ames, an expert on DRC from the Berlin-Based Ecumenical Network for Central Africa told DW. "Even the constitutional court is made up of Kabila-friendly staff, so it's very unlikely that they will allow Bemba to run as a candidate," she says.

Sonvil Mukendi, a spokesman for the opposition political platform, 'Ensemble pour le Changement,' told DW that the behavior of the electoral commission and its current president, Corneille Nangaa, is telling of Kabila's dominance.

"We have found that Nangaa plays the game of the ruler," he says. Those who support the president planned to exclude potential political threats from the election from the get-go. Since Kabila himself is not allowed to run for another term, everything is being done to block the path of his toughest rival, Mukendi says. Ultimately, the goal is to help Kabila's preferred successor to win the election.

Read more: Opinion: No more Kabila in Congo, but challenges remain

Presidential candidate Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary
The selection of Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary as Kabila's preferred candidate came as a surprise to many in the partyImage: REUTERS

Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary — Kabila's man of choice?

On August 8, Kabila announced that he would not seek re-election — a surprise announcement for many observers, despite the fact that he is only permitted to serve two terms according to the country's constitution. Kabila has already faced harsh criticism for remaining in power following the official end of his second term in 2016. But instead of running again in December, Kabila has decided to support his former interior minister, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary for the top job.

Unlike Kabila, Shadary is not considered a 'strongman' in Congolese politics. Although he has always remained loyal to Kabila, he has no power network of his own and no influence in military circles. Ames suspects that Kabila will likely continue pulling the political threads after his departure from office, by choosing someone who have can rely on to maintain loyalty.

"Shadary's nomination is sure to favor Kabila," Ames told DW. "So far, Shadary has not said a critical word about the president. During his term as interior minister he was not afraid of violence when it came to clashes with security forces in opposition strongholds."

DRC President Joseph Kabila
DRC's president Joseph Kabila has been in power for 17 years. Bowing to international and local pressure, he has selected a successor to run for presidential officeImage: Reuters/K. Katombe

The opposition is pooling its forces — but is it enough?

DRC activist, Abel Amundala from the non-governmental organization 'Vision Nationale,' says the opposition must work to prevent this outcome by any means necessary. Otherwise, they must prepare to treat the elections as a "national catastrophe."

"We are definitely saying that the DRC must resist," Amundala told DW. He says the election must not devolve into a "pseudo-election," as is apparently being planned by the government alongside the electoral commission.

Meanwhile, unrest in the DRC continues to grow and the situation remains tense. Even before the electoral commission's decision to bar certain candidates from running, Bemba's MLC party and other opposition groups called on the population to "mobilize." In Kinshasa, where Bemba enjoys the support of many followers, police patrolled near the headquarters of the state broadcaster on Saturday — as a precautionary measure, according to them.

Opposition politician John Kumwimba told DW that opposition parties are preparing to run a joint-candidate. "We have several political heavyweights on our side who are easily able to beat the government candidates," he says. 

Out of all the potential candidates, most observers agree that Felix Tshisekedi from the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) party or Vital Kamerhe from the Union for the Congolese Nation (UNC) have the best chance of winning the election. But Ames fears this still won't be enough to change the expected outcome.

"Neither of these candidates will have the support of the entire opposition to actually become a promising candidate — or indeed to enter the race against Shadary."

Patrick Kasonde contributed to this report.