DRC polls: Three factors that have shaped Tshisekedi’s bumpy first term as president

Felix Tshisekedi

From left: Leading DR Congo presidential candidates President Felix Tshisekedi, (Top row) Moise Katumbi, Martin Fayulu and Denis Mukwege. Bottom row from left)  Augustin Matata Ponyo, Delly Sesanga and Adolphe Muzito 

Photo credit: File

Africa’s second-largest country by land mass, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), is scheduled to go to the polls on December 20, 2023. President Felix Tshisekedi will be seeking re-election. However, his first tenure has been decidedly mixed.

Tshisekedi’s first term has been defined by three major factors: questions over the legitimacy of his 2019 election victory, violence in eastern DRC and the state of the country’s economy.

I have researched extensively and taught contemporary Congolese politics for 15 years. In my view, while Tshisekedi has had some successes, including the DRC’s joining of the East African Community and a modest upturn in economic growth since the pandemic, much work remains to improve the lives of Congolese citizens.

Legitimacy questions haunt the presidency

Tshisekedi has been president since January 2019 after an election that one of his then opponents, Martin Fayulu, claimed was stolen. These claims were supported by a Congo Research Group and Financial Times analysis of voting data that found Fayulu had won the election. The courts, however, upheld Tshisekedi’s win.

The upcoming election is also mired in controversy. DRC’s electoral commission has promised a rebrand in an effort to shake off the irregularities of the 2018 poll. It has registered nearly 44 million voters in the country of 102 million people.

However, Fayulu, as well as the United States, the European Union and other international election observers have raised doubts about the accuracy of voter records. Fayulu has threatened to boycott the 2023 elections if the voter lists are not redone and audited.

The electoral commission cleared 24 candidates to run for president. They include 2018 presidential contender Moïse Katumbi, Nobel Peace Prize winner Denis Mukwege and Augustin Ponyo, a former prime minister. The campaign period has officially begun and already there are plans to rally opposition support behind Katumbi.

Given the controversies involved in this election, as well as in his assumption of office in 2019, Tshisekedi will need to work hard both to win the upcoming poll and do so in a way that citizens believe to be credible.

Violence in eastern DRC

While eastern DRC was unstable before Tshisekedi came into power, the escalation of violence since 2022 has made it a defining feature of his presidency.

At least 120 armed groups are active in the region. One of the most significant of these armed groups is the M23. In March 2023, M23 violence led to the displacement of about 500,000 people. In recent weeks, it has broken a months-long truce and resumed attacks in eastern DRC.

International and regional peacekeepers have been trying to address the conflict in eastern DRC. Yet, their presence points to the failure of the Congolese government to deal with the violence on its own.

A state of siege announced by Tshisekedi in the eastern region’s provinces of North Kivu and Ituri in 2021 worsened the human rights situation there. The military took over key state posts from civilian leaders. This is despite the Congolese army being linked to violence in the region.

It was meant to last one month, but the siege was extended many times by Tshisekedi’s government. Two years on, there has been no “meaningful public debate” about it. In the run-up to the December elections, Tshisekedi announced he would “gradually ease” the siege. Such interventions have made it difficult for Congolese people to believe that Tshisekedi’s policies have resulted in a more peaceful Congo.

Economic growth and prospects

Tshisekedi has registered some success in managing the Congolese economy. The country’s GDP growth rate went down during the pandemic but has made a modest recovery. It increased to 8.92 percent in 2022 from 6.20 percent in 2021, with the mining industry being a major driver.

In 2022, the DRC joined the East African Community as its seventh member. Tshisekedi’s hope was that this move would promote trading relationships and reduce tensions with the DRC’s neighbours. Entry gives the DRC access to a market of 146 million consumers and means it can start importing more goods from its east African neighbours.

The DRC also signed a mining deal with the United Arab Emirates in July 2023. The deal is worth US$1.9 billion and involves developing at least four mines in Congo’s northeast region. Such deals are important because mining is the main driver of economic growth in the DRC.

Congolese exports

Tshisekedi also broke ground on a new road cutting through Zambia to Tanzania to speed up the movement of Congolese exports. The DRC is landlocked – the new road will cut about 240km from the journey between some of the country’s copper and cobalt mines, and a port in Tanzania.

But Tshisekedi’s economic record isn’t all positive.

The upcoming election is causing financial problems for the state. It’s expected to cost about US$1.1 billion. The World Bank predicts that the election will widen the country’s fiscal deficit in 2023 to -1.3 percent of GDP. Further, foreign exchange pressures caused by spending on security and pre-election processes have seen the Congolese franc slide 20 percent against the dollar.

Tshisekedi’s government is looking to increase revenues from a much anticipated re-negotiation of a China-DRC mining deal. The president is under pressure to get more from the deal, which is worth US$6.2 billion. Tshisekedi wants a 70 percent stake in the Chinese-Congolese firm Sicomines, up from the original 32 percent.

The Chinese deal is one way in which Tshisekedi’s economic achievements could have impacted the lives of Congolese people given the hoped-for investment in schools, roads and hospitals. However, its unclear how many of these infrastructure projects have been implemented. At the same time, the country’s mining industry has been plagued by allegations of human rights abuses.

What next

In his presidential campaign, Tshisekedi has emphasised his administration’s economic and diplomatic achievements rather than the situation in eastern DRC.

However, the pushback from opposition candidates on these achievements means Tshisekedi will need to campaign hard to win. An election that is seen as illegitimate will only further damage Tshisekedi’s credibility, especially given the amount of money the Congolese government is spending on it.

One of the best things Tshisekedi could do for his country now would be to run a free and fair election. This would go a long way towards rescuing his troubled term in office so far.