He had little political experience when he first became president of the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2019. It was the death of his father – the iconic opposition figure who went head to head, first with the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko and then with the long running Kabila dynasty – that thrust Felix-Antoine Tshisekedi Tshilombo into the limelight, and then, to the Palais de la Nation in Kinshasa.
Now, after a disputed five-year term that saw great economic and political upheaval, including the COVID-19 pandemic, two Ebola outbreaks, resurgent rebel groups and escalating tensions with neighbouring Rwanda, Tshisekedi is back on the ballot box. This time, he is vying for the presidency alongside a host of strong opposition figures, also campaigning with a lot more savviness than in his first go.
Back then, Tshisekedi had to deal with a heavyweight like Joseph Kabila – the predecessor his father Etienne opposed, but whom Tshisekedi chose to work with in a coalition. That agreement was such a drag that the ruling faction had no majority in parliament for several months.
“Tshisekedi was a weak president,” Albert Malukisa, dean of the politics department at the Catholic University of Congo, told Al Jazeera. “It was Kabila who controlled the situation.”
A turning point soon came when Tshisekedi dealt a surprising card, edging out the former president’s cronies from government or winning them over with political positions or financial packages, Malukisa said.
As the December 20 election draws near, the polls, which could mark the second peaceful transition of power in DRC’s 63 years of independence, will also be another test for Tshisekedi to see if he can again outsmart his rivals. Once a ballot favourite, Tshisekedi now faces stronger opposition candidates than in the 2018 election and is struggling to shore up popular support.
“[His] popularity has declined over time,” Malukisa said, adding that his re-election is not a given with the likes of Moise Katumbi, a former Katanga province governor, in the picture. “It’s probably one of them who will win,” the professor added.
Whether he successfully leverages the powers of incumbency or is forced out after one term, “Fatshi” – as the president’s supporters call him – has left a mark on the DRC. Some critics say his administration took several controversial decisions, but others say he scored significant economic wins for the Congolese.
Insecurity, repression, and state of siege
Tshikedi’s administration is still grappling with ongoing violence in eastern DRC, resulting from more than 30 years of insecurity in the region.
Communities in Ituri, North Kivu and South Kivu provinces have seen relentless attacks from a multitude of armed groups that have caused the deaths of thousands and the displacement of seven million people. Rebel group M23 – allegedly backed by Rwanda – controls swaths of territory in North Kivu, while the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) – an armed group that has been linked to ISIL (ISIS) – continues to launch brutal assaults on communities close to the Uganda border.
Campaigning in Goma, the capital of North Kivu, this week, Tshisekedi fiercely accused Rwandan President Paul Kagame of backing M23 and promised to “liberate” the DRC from the group. But the president’s push for the deployment of regional troops, following the DRC’s ascension to the East African Community (EAC) bloc in 2022, has yielded little results. That force, as well as MONUSCO, the United Nations peacekeeping operation in the country since 1999, have failed to contain the crises and are now pulling out of the country in phases.
Many criticise the state of emergency imposed on North Kivu and Ituri since May 2021. The order gives the military broad powers to mobilise against the armed group, but it has also enabled an army crackdown on civilians, rights activists say.
Steward Muhindo Kalyamughuma, an activist with the youth organisation Fight for Change (LUCHA), said the emergency decree simply marked a continuation of the conditions that the Congolese experienced under Kabila’s 18-year rule.
“It was during this state of siege that repression against LUCHA was strongest,” the activist told Al Jazeera. Three of his comrades have been shot dead by the Congolese army during peaceful demonstrations.
Dozens also died in Goma in September after the army opened fire on protesters calling for the exit of the UN peacekeeping force many believe is toothless. “This never happened to us under Joseph Kabila,” the activist added.
Poverty and corruption
Critics of the current administration also say Tshisekedi has barely reined in corruption in the country.
The DRC is one of the poorest countries on earth, despite the country’s immense mineral wealth. It is the world’s leading producer of cobalt and the third largest producer of copper – minerals used in manufacturing electronic gadgets and electric vehicles.
Yet, more than half of its 95 million people live on less than $2.15 a day. Some 80 percent of Congolese youth are unemployed. Food prices are soaring – affected by COVID-19, the Ukraine war and a weakened currency. Poor infrastructure like bad roads and lack of electricity continue to cripple the country.
Meanwhile, sky-high levels of corruption, from petty bribes extorted daily from the Congolese people to huge embezzlement scandals rocking the DRC’s state mining firms, have continued. Hopes that excesses documented under Kabila would be prosecuted have been dashed as the former leader continues to enjoy protection from the Tshisekedi administration despite their falling out.
Tshisekedi himself has been accused of parlaying with some politicians specifically for their vote-wielding power, with some pointing fingers at Deputy Prime Minister Vital Kamerhe and Jean-Pierre Bemba, both respectively implicated in fraud and war crimes.
In Goma, where M23 once conquered briefly, and where the president has managed to hold rallies, Bisimwa Bibasa Andre, a teacher, said he is not convinced.
“I don’t have a normal life,” the 44-year-old said. “Since Tshisekedi came into power life has been getting worse. I don’t have enough food to eat and there is no money at all. We have corruption, tribalism at high levels, nepotism, and lies. He lied to the Congolese people,” Andre said.
Free education and a more prosperous economy
But Tshikedi’s government has also scored major wins. The DRC now enjoys support from the World Bank for an $800m education project that has seen children attend primary schools for free, a first of its kind scheme in a country ranked 179th of 191 countries on the UN Development Programme’s Human Development Index.
Some 4.5 million children have been enrolled in the programme and at least 36,000 teachers have been employed. Tshisekedi, in his campaigns, has promised to extend the programme to secondary schools. Although challenges have arisen, including non-payment of teachers, embezzlement, and overcrowding in schools, experts like Malukisa say the project is still a positive development.
Separately, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has disbursed millions of dollars to boost state coffers as part of a 2019 $1.5bn credit facility deal meant to help cushion the harsh effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the import-dependent country.
Analysts too are pleased with the increase in the state budget experienced under Tshisekedi. Higher oil prices as well as tax reforms, including the empowerment of the Inspectorate General of Finance (IGF), which acts as an anticorruption agency and has sought to uncover financial fraud, saw the state budget go from about $10bn to $16bn in 2023.
Badly negotiated mining contracts signed before Tshisekedi took office are getting a review. In 2021, the state pushed back against a minerals-for-infrastructure deal signed with China in 2008 that many say shortchanged the DRC. Chinese firms were to build hospitals and roads worth $3bn in exchange for a 68 percent stake in Sicomines, a joint copper and cobalt venture with the DRC-owned Gecamines, that was valued at a much higher price. This year, the IGF requested $17bn more for the deal, and Congolese officials say a “50-50” agreement has now been reached, although details are scant.
Stay or go?
Despite his mixed record, some say there are benefits in seeing Tshisekedi return for a second term.
Ituku Walassa Bernard is a 38-year-old living in Goma. Although unemployed, and even with M23 fighters being only miles from taking the city of one million, Bernard says he will vote for Tshisekedi. The president’s feisty attitude towards Rwanda’s Kagame whom he recently compared with Hitler, has scored major points with Bernard.
“We have some people in the opposition who are lying during this campaign saying that ‘If I am elected I will finish this war within six months,’” Bernard said. But ending the war or seeing more economic prosperity in the DRC will take some time, he added. “We need to be patient because we have to deal with it methodically. Things are changing. I hope that he [Tshisekedi] can bring big changes if we give him a second mandate.”
Malukisa of the Catholic University of Congo is more sceptical. “Overall, the president’s record is negative,” he said. A Tshisekedi win, he added, could deepen tensions with Rwanda and breathe life into an old system of political elitism.
“The leaders on whom Tshisekedi relies to win the elections are the same ones who have contributed to the destruction of the state since the days of Mobutu and Kabila,” Malukisa said. “We cannot count on the current ruling class.”
As the vote closes in, the question of whether there will be a free and fair election hangs heavy in the air. In 2018, rival candidate Martin Fayulu disputed the elections, saying it was rigged in favour of Tshisekedi. With voters already complaining of bad-quality voter cards and shoddy registration processes ahead of the poll, opposition figures say CENI, the electoral body, plans to rig the elections in favour of the president. Just this week, Moise Katumbi’s rally in a Tshisekedi stronghold turned violent.
But a rigged vote would only mar, rather than make Tshisekedi’s legacy, experts warn. Yet, if the president loses, tensions in his home province of Kasai, and parts of Kinshasa, where he is well-loved, could be high as violence has routinely happened during Congolese elections.
“The future of the DRC is truly unpredictable,” said Malukisa.