Millions of eligible voters turned up to cast their ballot in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) on Wednesday in an election seen as a test of incumbent President Felix Tshisekedi’s commitment to steer the country towards much-needed peace and development.
Tshisekedi’s main challengers are Moise Katumbi, Martin Fayulu, and Nobel laureate Denis Mukwege. There is a lot at stake for Tshisekedi to fulfill his earlier promises if he wins a second term.
Like many Congolese, 27-year-old motorbike taxi driver Georges Bamue is disappointed with the current state of affairs in the DRC.
Five years after graduating with a diploma in computer network maintenance, Bamue still navigates the streets of DRC’s regional capital in the east, Goma, unable to find a job or raise funds to start a business using his qualification.
“I said to myself as soon as I graduated, now, at least, I can get off the bike because now, with these diplomas, if I can find something to do, they can hire me. And that was not the case,” Bamue told Reuters news agency.
With Congo’s rampant inflation, the depreciation of the local currency and multiple demands on his meager income, Bamue says he struggles to make ends meet by paying rent and making sure his family doesn’t go hungry.
Bamue, like millions of Congolese, has seen little improvement in living conditions despite Congo’s vast critical minerals wealth — and promises made by President Felix Tshisekedi when he came to power in 2019.
“I am not happy because the country is not helping us young people. Especially young people who have studied. I sacrificed myself to go to college to study. But you end up like that, there’s no work. The dream you had, everything is gone. So, it can’t go on like this,” Bamue said.
Eastern DRC in the spotlight
Fighting between a myriad of rival armed groups over land and resources — not to mention brutal attacks on civilians — have intensified in eastern Congo in recent years, a legacy of regional wars that flared during the 1990s and 2000s.
One such group, the M23 — a rebel group that DRC authorities accuse Rwanda’s government of backing — has captured swathes of territory since launching a campaign in 2021. Voters in the areas of North Kivu province occupied by M23 fighters were not able to vote on Wednesday.
Other groups such as the “Islamic State”-affiliated Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), and the Cooperative for the Development of the Congo (CODECO) group that claims to defend the interests of Lendu farmers, carry out regular assaults.
A statement released by the US embassy in the capital Kinshasa ahead of the election said the eyes of the world will be focused on the DRC this week as it marks another significant milestone in its history.
“At this important moment in Congolese history, it is incumbent on Congolese institutions to fulfill their constitutional mandates with the independence and integrity that the Congolese people expect,” the statement added.
The United States also reaffirmed its readiness to use all available tools, including visa restrictions, to promote accountability for any individual involved in subverting elections or otherwise undermining the democratic process.
“Congo is an incredibly influential state. Insecurity in the country tends to spill over borders into the wider region and much of the world has an economic interest in the natural resources that Congo produces,” Phil Clark from London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) told DW.
Congo is a test for the international community, according to Clark, who said that whether Wednesday’s election goes smoothly and fairly, is of enormous consequence far beyond Congo’s borders.
What you need to know about the Central African nation
The size of Western Europe, the Democratic Republic of Congo is the second-largest African country in terms of surface area, and the fourth most populous state on the continent, with an estimated 100 million inhabitants.
DRC is awash with minerals and precious stones, from gold, diamonds and coltan to tin, copper, and cobalt. Harboring the Congo River — the second-longest river in Africa after the Nile — the DRC also has huge hydroelectric potential, as well as 80 million hectares (197 million acres) of arable land.
“One of the reasons that the Congolese elections are so important globally is that Congo is one of the largest producers of the natural resources that are so central to the global economy,” said Clark.
“That includes enormous lithium reserves that are central to the sustainable and environmental manufacturing plans that many countries have.”
“So continued instability and insecurity in eastern Congo undoubtedly will affect the ability of global companies to extract those resources to sell them safely on, on the international market. So, many companies involved in those industries will be watching this election very closely,” Clark emphasized.
The ‘China factor’
Countries like China that have vast interests in Congo and exploit Congolese minerals are often silent about what happens in the DRC.
“I think that’s because the Chinese state and other powerful investors don’t want to be seen as too entangled in the situation in eastern Congo,” said Clark.
“They prefer to do their trade in the shadows and not to put a huge spotlight on their interests. They don’t want to be seen to be meddling in the Congolese election in any shape or form,” he added.
President Tshisekedi’s government has moved to renegotiate the terms of the 2008 infrastructure-for-minerals deal with Chinese investors, known as the “deal of the century” for its favorable conditions to China.
Under the agreement, China promised to pay $6 billion (€5.4 billion) to build roads and other infrastructure in exchange for access to mineral rights worth $93 billion, according tothe AFP news agency. Risk-averse companies that had previously avoided Congo’s mining sector due to instability are taking a second look as new opportunities to tap into its minerals emerge.
Apart from China, European countries and the US also have economic interests in the DRC.
“So, the whole world is watching these elections very closely, even if many of these powerful investor countries are not stating their interests particularly explicitly,” Clark concluded.
A history of war and violence
The DRC has a history of turbulent politics. Two of its governments have been overthrown violently in 1965 and then in 1997. In addition, two of the country’s leaders have also been assassinated:Patrice Lumumba in 1961 and Laurent-Desire Kabila in 2001.
Elections are often marked by violence. The vote that brought incumbent President Felix Tshisekedi to power in 2018 marked the first peaceful changeover in Congolese history — although the results were fiercely disputed.
Decades of war, corruption, and chronic mismanagement mean that little of the country’s enormous wealth trickles down to the population. About two-thirds of the Congolese population survive on under $2.15 a day, according to the World Bank.
DRC’s fledgling economy and rising cost of living
The cost of living has increased and the country relies heavily on imports of basic food stuffs. The depreciation of the Franc Congolais, or Congolese franc (CDF) has pushed up inflation, which surged to over 23% year-on-year in July 2023, according to the IMF.
Tshisekedi successfully negotiated a $1.5 billion program with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in July 2021, the first since the IMF broke ties with Kinshasa in 2012 under Tshisekedi’s predecessor Joseph Kabila, Reuters reported in November.
More than 26 million people require humanitarian assistance, in part because of rampant insecurity, data from the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration show.
Despite the shortfalls, Congo’s economy grew by 8.5% in 2022 — one of the fastest rates of growth in sub-Saharan Africa — driven by stronger mining output, according to the IMF, Reuters reported.
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Edited by: Keith Walker