GOMA — Felix Tshisekedi, the winner of a deeply contested election process, was sworn in as Congo’s next president in the capital Kinshasa last Thursday.
The day was heralded as the DRC’s first peaceful transfer of power. After enduring months of unrest and years of questions about if and when President Joseph Kabila — who has led the country for nearly two decades, often under a cloud of corruption allegations— would ever leave office, Tshisekedi’s swearing-in is considered a victory for the country.
But many Congolese say the transition comes at the cost of democracy. The U.N. estimates over 34 people were killed and over 241 jailed in the lead-up to a vote that was marred by delays, rampant allegations of fraud, a violent crackdown on public demonstrations by government forces, and a government-ordered internet freeze that lasted nearly a month.
"Tshisekedi's swearing-in is often sold as selling out democracy in favor of stability,” said Hans Hoebeke, a senior analyst covering DRC for the International Crisis Group. “But it’s pragmatic and based on developments on the ground."
The toll was especially stark in the eastern city of Beni, where protests and violence escalated after officials cancelled elections there, citing a nearby Ebola outbreak. The city is currently battling the second-worst Ebola outbreak in history, but it is also an opposition stronghold, and voters there say they were strategically denied their right to vote. The government maintains it canceled the presidential elections in several cities due to the risk of spreading Ebola, but health officials say that the necessary measures to prevent contamination were in place.
“[The government] has their motives,” activist Esaie Liko told VICE News. “Ebola is not the real motive.”
Many — from regional analysts and teams of observers to Western diplomats in the capital — acknowledge that the election lacked transparency and was likely rigged in favor of Tshisekedi, a candidate some suspect has struck a deal with President Kabila.
“This is not the paradigm shift that some have wanted. It’s not a revolution. It’s an evolution.”
Data from independent monitors — including a team of 40,000 observers from the Catholic Church — and leaks from an electoral commission whistleblower point to a win for Martin Fayulu, the popular opposition leader, by a large margin, around 60 percent of the vote.
Fayulu took the issue to Congo’s highest court amid widespread questions about the legitimacy of the result. But the court struck down the motion, validating Tshisekedi’s victory.
Fayulu rejected that ruling too and declared himself the only legitimate president. He then called on his supporters to protest Tshisekedi’s new government.
Last week, members of his party in the eastern provincial capital Goma, staged discreet acts of civil disobedience, favoring tactics like roadblocks and planned sit-ins over street demonstrations.
The local party leader, Evangeliste Badoise Christian, tried to rally supporters, urging them to spread the word about Fayulu’s call to the street.
“We didn’t lose the war; we just lost a little battle,” he told a group gathered in the one-room party headquarters.
“The fight continues,” he said, as he sat in front of a poster with the faces of jailed party members. “It will be the same system of Kabila that will continue with Felix [Tshisekedi], his puppet.”
But across the country, outcry was largely muted, and soon after the court's decision, the EU and the U.S. issued statements recognizing Tshisekedi as the new president.
“When we demonstrate, bullets are shot. We are really tired. We do not know how to claim our rights.”
Regional analysts say the tepid international response was in part due to the absence of large-scale protests on Congo’s streets.
“Outside actors felt it was not the moment to rock the boat too much,” said Hoebeke of International Crisis Group. “This is not the paradigm shift that some have wanted. It’s not a revolution. It’s an evolution.”
After years of political anxiety and repeated quashing of protests, some say, a flawed election is better than no election.
“We are happy because we thought the one who would win will come from the president’s side, but as he is from the opposition, the population is happy. We are happy,” Vanessa Mwanangania, a college student in Goma, told VICE News.
Standing next to her, her friend Dayanah Mwana was quick to clarify that “of course” they knew the elections were “not genuine,” but they were happy with small signs of political progress and post-election peace in their country.
“The people voted for Fayulu, but they announced Tshisekedi. Yes, that’s a problem, but we are happy because the situation is calm,” said Mwana.
Others are simply tired.
“We’ve had demonstrations here for years. People died on the road, everywhere in Congo. When we demonstrate, bullets are shot. We are really tired. We do not know how to claim our rights,” Norman Kahasha, an opposition supporter, told VICE News.
Nearby, Theophile Itula insisted that the bigger picture — DRC’s first peaceful transfer of power — is a victory, regardless of electoral transparency.
“It’s a pride for us to have a new president, whatsoever the problems and difficulties. At the least, the president kept his promise and handed it over to another president. We should be proud. This is democracy.”
Cover: Protesters in the Eastern Congolese town of Beni, Friday Dec. 28, 2018, as they demonstrate against election delays. (AP Photo/Al-hadji Kudra Maliro)