In my course of tracking Africa’s sometimes torturous navigation of this elusive creature called democracy, I often hear a yarn told to much amusement of what happened back in 1991 in Zambia. That was the year Kenneth Kaunda after reinstating multi party democracy proceeded to witness his independence movement UNIP vanquished by a Frederick Chiluba bunch of unionists, reformists, dissidents, adventurists and wolves in wolf skins coalescing under the Movement for Multi Party Democracy. Apparently old man Ken accustomed to posting victories of 99% plus in polls where he was the sole candidate in the one party state decided to go for a relaxing round of golf as the results started streaming in. Supremely confident he was coasting home because no one ever contemplated a UNIP defeat the avowed socialist didn’t see the irony in partaking in golf, the most bourgeoisie of leisure pursuits. UNIP was the party of liberation and under its slogan of One Zambia, One Nation, the movement was destined to rule till the end of time. Or so they thought. Anyway the numbers started telling their own new narrative and it was panic stations all over as reality dawned power was gone. First of the challenges was who to carry the burden of breaking the news to the venerable freedom fighter of the white hander kerchief trademark. That dispensed with, the old man, shell shocked repaired to state house as the process for handover kicked in. Old comrades had vanished and some were seen celebrating with the soon to be rulers, and for good measure led the denunciations despite having had their bellies filled by him. Old Ken wept as he watched them dancing on his grave despite all he had done for them. But the bittereinders hovered around hoping the old man could play one last card to keep them in the gravy. All to no avail. Friendly presidents phoned their commiserations to a fallen comrade. However the leopard from across the border felt sufficiently concerned to fly over and spend time with his buddy. Then at the helm of Mouvement Populaire de la Revolution, the only political organization permitted in Zaire, Marshall Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Wa Za Banga sat a grieving Kaunda down and asked him a simple question: who was in charge of the election? Old Ken, head bowed in shame responded that his government and loyalists had been in charge of everything. The leopard was aghast and wondered loudly how Kaunda could lose an election which was conducted by his own government.
Africa has come a long way since and multi party democracy is now a matter of course and countries hanging onto to archaic non competitive politics are getting fewer. But despite political pluralism becoming standard practice, actors especially those holding the levers of power have also became more creative in terms of conjuring wily ways to remain in office. This past week I arrived from another sojourn in the country known as DRC since 1997, formerly Zaire since 1971 and before that DRC since independence. This was a return exercise after observing the historic 2006 polls. The elections in question were only the second held under a multi party dispensation since the 1960 plebiscite that delivered self rule and Patrice Lumumba as prime minister. When I arrived in Kinshasa I considered myself a veteran of election observation and it would take me only a few days to gauge the mood, assess the various protagonists and call the election long before the formality of polling day because the thing is not won on the actual day. Twelve years ago I was based in Bukavu on the border with Rwanda, overlooking Lake Kivu amid breathtaking scenery which were it in a different place would be a paradise for tourists. Joseph Kabila whose daddy Laurent had marched unchallenged by Mobutu’s fleeing troops all the way from the east and installed himself as the new leopard after years of prosecuting an anti Mobutu insurgency, was on the ballot for president. When daddy was unexpectedly shot three years after taking over from Mobutu, the new regime only held together by Kabila senior was at risk of unravelling. This possibility could result in incalculable cost, loss of power and a place at the bountiful feeding trough after the years of hunger in the forest. Swift consensus was that only a Kabila would be acceptable and so from right stage entered a sombre, intense young man at age 31 thrust into power as the youngest leader in the world of potentially the richest piece of territory on earth. Since that fateful day in 1483 when the Portuguese explorer Diago Cao dropped anchor and set foot on the Kongo Kingdom, the interlopers knew they were onto a good thing. From then onwards it was the Portuguese, followed by the Arabs, at times in collaboration both plundered and looted the territory doing a roaring trade in slaves and ivory. By the time the European powers met at Berlin Conference 1885 to carve the continent among themselves in the scramble for Africa, little Belgium, a relatively new kingdom had the singular privilege of having its monarch, King Leopold being awarded the Congo Free State as a personal possession. It was all his and this at a time when the motor car industry was taking off in Europe and America, rubber for manufacture of tires was in huge demand and its tapping assumed industrial and horrific proportions. The atrocities visited upon the people of Congo during this dark epoch has been recorded in many works. Such was the brutality of the private company and enforcers of King Leopold that in 1908 the Belgian state had to take control of the territory as a colony, which it was to be for the next fifty two years till 1960. By the time King Leopold let go it is estimated around 10 million native people had become victims of the largest recorded mass maiming and murder of people in Africa in the king’s economic exploitation ventures. After the colonialists it was the turn of the Africans themselves, often as proxies at each others throats to lay their hands on the wealth. In my month in Kinshasa I visited almost every part of the city, the most opulent and also the most deprived. I went to pubs and imbibed Skol and Tembo. I attended live sessions of amazingly good rhumba bands of hungry, old musicians who had long missed out on the luck to become superstars like Franco, Sam Mangwana, Madilu System and all the greats from a country that does music like no other on this continent. In the course of our fieldwork we interviewed various role players, including political actors, civil society, the church, influencers and all manner of Congolese across the spectrum. I witnessed the campaign activities and mobilization efforts of the political formations.
My abiding impression was that the odds were too heavily stacked in favour of the ruling coalition. They had the most billboards, campaign paraphernalia and on state media the opposition might as well not have existed. In a country sitting on stupendous natural endowments but where the struggle to eke out a daily living can hive off many years of a man’s life, politicians provide a lifeline especially during campaign season. All the desperate youth seemed to gravitate towards ruling party candidates for a morsel or two. It seemed a no contest from where I was seated. Such was the conspicuous dominance that the prettiest female candidates on the giant billboards seemed all to belong to the FCC ruling platform. As Emmanuel Shadary the handpicked successor criss -crossed the country, not too far behind him and at times splashing holy water on the family pet project was Madame Marie Olive Kabila, the first lady. Fiery and quite dynamic on the campaign stump she left no room for doubt that Shadary was their candidate. At times state tv would spend inordinate camera time on a burly young man called Zoe, the president’s younger brother who was also running for one of the 1251 national offices on offer, for which 34 000 candidates were trying their luck. Zoe was always surrounded by hangers on who resembled wolves in wolves clothing and had the stride of a man of purpose whose best days were still ahead. The outgoing president, always reticent stayed away from party rallies and instead would be shown commissioning big infrastructure projects. The bewildered young man presiding over daddy’s funeral and taking the oath back in 2001 now transcended the rough and tumble of inelegant party politics. Now wearing a signature bushy white beard, in unruly style the 46 year old resembled some kind of guru, forever deep in thought, pondering weighty national questions for which only he could provide solutions. In fact in an interview he had left open the possibility of returning to contest the presidency in 2023. Little wonder Madame Kabila was literally chaperoning the family project at every rally. Halfway to the finishing line I had no reason to believe the outcome would be anything less than continuation of the status quo with a loyal proxy holding fort . If anything this was going to be a white wash. From my observation the opposition was in disarray and outgunned in terms of resources and reach. It seemed the entire state apparatus was acting in the interest of the family pet project. Some two months before polls, realizing they had to counter the Kabila pet project, the main opposition figures met in Geneva to bargain over a single candidate and thus emerged a certain Martin Fayulu. At the time it was said he owed his position as consensus candidate to the backing of Moise Katumbi and Jean Pierre Bemba who due to infractions with the law, trumped up or otherwise, were barred from running. Fayulu it was said was their joint pet project and as men of great wealth and influence they were bankrolling his campaign for the day he took power and they would run the show as the shadow state. It sounded like a Faustian pact between a highly regarded, but relatively unknown Fayulu and his shady backers. As someone who has always found Congo an enduring fascination I have often watched the Thiery Michel documentary Mobutu The King Of Zaire tracing the rise to power of the leopard and his fall. A figure who makes numerous appearances in the movie as Mobutu’s chief nemesis is a combative politician called Etienne Tshisekedi. At various times he was thrown in jail as dissident, pardoned, made prime minister, rebelled, sacked, sent back to jail, or exile.
But in the Mobutu years it was Tshisekedi who built a reputation of dissent against the kleptocracy and when the Kabilas seized power he refused to be coopted, boycotting the 2006 polls but contesting in 2011 at the ripe old age of 79 only to reject the result when it came out in favour of Kabila junior. In early 2017 the effects of fighting successive regimes and the poor health exacted by resistance took a toll and he died in Brussels, the redoubt of all Congolese, both the elites and dissidents alike, plus anything in between. Then drama happened. The Tshisekedi family insisted the patriarch could only be buried in Kinshasa and subject to certain protocols befitting his larger than life role in Congolese politics. Kabila whose daddy had received a funeral of pomp and pageantry and now rested cozily in an elaborate mausoleum in the fashion of other great helmsmen like Lenin, Kim- II Sung and Chairman Mao, wasn’t so keen on the idea. In the ensuing stalemate old man Etienne remained chilling, literally, in a morgue in Brussels. When he died his son Felix in proper dynastic fashion took over the UPDS movement just like Joseph took over from his own daddy, but for him not as dissident but as president. Back to the polls. A few days after our arrival. we woke up to smoke billowing from a high security area in Gombe and news hounds from western agencies could barely conceal their ecstasy. This was beginning to look like the election they had come for, and as they say in youth lingo, things were getting lit in the real sense of the word. Apparently a warehouse containing electoral material was engulfed by a mysterious inferno. A seven delay was announced. The news hounds became giddy with anticipation of blood letting and raced all over the city with their local fixers looking for action. But to their dismay nothing dramatic happened. They were quickly finding out Congolese are normal people and their lives don’t revolve around elections. As the head of the electoral commission advised, a seven day delay does not justify burning down the country for a poll that has been two years in delay. Two days after postponement came xmas and Kinshasa ate festivities like every city in the world. That is not to say there was no trouble. In a poll where so much was at stake, and where the main aspirants had vested interests pulling the strings, incidents were bound to occur and in places like Lubumbashi a rally for Fayulu aborted as teargas filled the air and about two people lost their lives. The police claimed innocence.
The politicians blamed the police. But things soon settled down. Kinshasa is a city of historical sites that lie derelict and in a stable country could be turned into bustling tourist attractions. After all it was here where the legendary boxing fight The Rumble In The Jungle was hosted by President Mobutu when copper and cobalt were hot commodities and money was in endless supply. In the award winning film When We Were Kings the story is told in grainy footage of those heady days. But a visit to the Tata Raphael arena in Kasavubu commune where the fight took place reveals a forlorn little place. There are no tour guides and I have a chat with the facility manager who tells me if resources permitted they could set up a museum and get rich boxing fans to come on nostalgia tours. Up in Ngaliema Hill, Mobutu’s old palace in Kinshasa, at which he hosted banquets and grew plump on caviar and pink champagne lies in ruins and the jungle is winning the war of reclaiming its territory. Here he used to keep exotic wildlife and stroll the gardens deep in thought like a wise father of the nation. From this hilltop abode overlooking the mighty River Congo, he was monarch of all he surveyed. I enquire if any of the Mobutu kids are running for office. It seems not. Since daddy fled the country as his regime of 31 years collapsed all around him only to die a few weeks later stricken by cancer in Morocco, the family had vanished from public space. In fairness not all western agencies focused on gloomy news. The BBC ran a brilliant series on the history of the country to coincide with the polls. One of the more interesting episodes features Mobutu’s elderly daughter showing the film crew around the most famous of the family’s palaces, also lying in ruins, this time in their ancestral village of Gbadolite. Here in the middle of the rain forest, thousands of miles from Kinshasa she reminisces wistfully about the beauty of the place in the bygone years before villagers descended in a looting frenzy when they realized Papa had on the morning of 23 May 1997 fled Kabila’s advance and abandoned them. The narrator lets on how Concorde used to fly here on charters to deliver crates of chilled lobster and other goodies from Europe. Now reduced to being chief of the village, Madam Osambia Kpwata Fyfy also wears a jaunty little leopard skin hat just like her daddy used to. After fleeing the country daddy died four months later and lays buried in Morocco awaiting the day circumstances permit a befitting reburial back home. The Mobutus are not returning to power anytime soon, if ever. They have had their long ride on the gravy train, now it’s the turn of other families, albeit from a limited select circle who have for decades been dramatis personae in the battles for power in this complex country. In the midst of soaking in the rich, tragic stories of this traumatized and comatose powerhouse, election day finally came. And it did not announce its arrival with staccato of gunfire or mayhem in the streets as the newshounds and Africa cynics secretly wished. I led a team observing in four municipalities and besides the missing names on voter lists and difficulties with using the new voting technology, it was in the main an orderly election. Even on this day I was now more convinced than ever that the family pet project was on track. I checked out state tv and Madam Kabila and hubby Joseph, accompanied by the kids, prim and proper were shown voting at a polling station near our hotel. This time Joseph had discarded the green Castro like fatigues and was in a formal suit, flashing a rare smile for the cameras as he looked forward to an easy five years playing puppet master before a grand reappearance in 2023 a la Putin. Over drinks with some observers one morning we swapped stories about how handpicking successors had brought its fair share of tears to the erstwhile benefactors. Chaps from Zambia and Angola told their stories. They were eager to hear from the horses mouth about how succession handpicking was turning out in Botswana.
I assumed the posture of a seasoned raconteur and left them mouths agape with a blow by blow account of the drama back home. We all concluded if precedents in this part of the world were anything to go by, the Kabila family pet project might also get new ideas the moment it took oath. Still, none of us gave the opposition a chance in hell. But two weeks after that sit down in Kinshasa the results finally came out and they were more than we had bargained for. The Kabila family pet project was a complete wreckage. Their man Shadary had trailed in a distant third. Martin Fayulu who lived just down the road from Joseph, separated by our hotel was runner up. The most under resourced of the three big elephants in the race, the one who signed up to the coalition in support of Fayulu but was instructed by his militants to tear it up the moment he arrived from Geneva was declared winner. I had completely failed to call this election. I recalled a field visit to the UPDS office in Limete commune where we interviewed the deputy secretary general who gave us a piece of his mind about SADC and how hopeless we were. Our presence in DRC was only meant to rubberstamp a fraudulent poll he let rip. On the side of their office is a huge image of Papa Etienne, with his mortal remains in the morgue in Brussels. I now review the reel in my mind and wonder about it all. I wondered about Madame Kabila and how shattered she was by the failure of the family pet project she led with such gusto from the frontline. Wonders never cease. Finally the day was coming when also in power, Felix would preside over his daddy’s state funeral, befitting a hero and the son of the father would rule with Papa Etienne smiling glowingly from his own mausoleum. And Papa Laurent laying glum in the mausoleum would be asking his son Joseph the very question his nemesis Mobutu asked old Ken in Lusaka back in ‘91; just how can you lose an election held and conducted on your own terms?
*acknowledgment to Simon Allison for his piece Hunting for ghosts in Kinshasa