A little more than two years after President Joseph Kabila's final term in office officially ended, the Democratic Republic of the Congo finally held its presidential election just before 2018 was over. But the country's voters must continue to wait to find out who won. Whether Kabila's hand-picked successor or the opposition candidate is named victor, the vote was only the prelude to the unfolding of a tumultuous and likely violent story in the mineral-rich Central African nation. As Stratfor noted in its 2019 Annual Forecast, while Kabila's clan and its allies maneuver to retain power and protect their financial and political gains (not to mention their physical security), the likelihood of bloodshed — and the corresponding effects on the country's business community and the mining industry — is high. To add fuel to the flames, the country's rich mineral resources — including its deposits of cobalt — play a key role in the production of new energy technologies such as lithium-ion batteries, which are central to long-term Chinese economic strategies. Consequently, as the country's electoral fate unfolds, the actions of China and other foreign powers may have a crucial impact.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo's independent electoral commission has blamed logistical problems for slowing the process of gathering and counting ballots cast in the Dec. 30 presidential election, causing it to miss its Jan. 6 deadline to unveil official results. The commission has offered no new timeline for when the winner could be announced. In the meantime, representatives of the Roman Catholic Church (a well-respected institution in the country) have said that the church knows who has won the election and have called on the electoral commission to reveal the results. According to a Jan. 4 report by The New York Times, sources within the church indicated that opposition candidate Martin Fayulu won the contest. If true, that result will like set up a showdown between the political opposition and supporters of President Joseph Kabila over who will succeed him.
Two Likely Scenarios
While much remains in the air, the Democratic Republic of the Congo's postelection crisis might be headed in two distinct directions, both of which are fraught with the possibility of violence. First, it's possible that the electoral commission — under pressure from the Kabila government — will name Kabila's hand-picked successor, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, the election winner. This would set up a deadly confrontation pitting on one side the Catholic Church, civil society groups, political opposition and others against the organs of the state on the other. In that scenario, it's almost certain that street battles would break out in major urban areas between angry civilians and riot police. If that happened, it would be critical to watch for any signs of wavering loyalty from the security services for the Kabila government as it prepared to weather the storm of internal dissent and any international sanctions that would likely follow. In this scenario, any businesses still operating in the country would have to contend with the likely threats to their personnel in urban areas, who could be targeted in a volatile security situation. Additionally, if violence continued, the country could recall security forces helping protect the country's far-flung mining areas — leaving them potentially exposed to militants — while they seek to shore up the government.
In another possible outcome (but less likely given the pressure on the electoral commission to protect the Kabila system), an opposition victory could be announced. Should an opposition victory unfold, it is likely that the Kabila government would try to find some way to delegitimize the election results. It could, for example, push claims of fraud and pressure state institutions to order another vote. As with the first scenario, the government's push would set up street battles between the government and the opposition. Moreover, it also would likely draw a fierce international, regional and local backlash that would require enormous resources for the Kabila system to overcome. That could set up a situation reminiscent of the one that unfolded in Gambia in 2016 after strongman leader Yahya Jammeh lost the presidential election to a little-known opposition candidate. After Jammeh lost the election outright, he moved to annul the results. But this action was viewed as a step too far by neighboring Senegal and other members of the Economic Community of West African States, which staged a military intervention to dislodge the longtime leader.
Somewhere between these two outcomes is a wild card, depending on how China reacts to the situation. The Democratic Republic of the Congo and its cobalt are key to Beijing's strategy to dominate the lithium-ion battery market. Therefore, the rising global power could provide a lifeline for Kabila, given that his web of interests tie directly into the country's mining industry. Other outside powers could also be a source of intervention. Russia, for example, has taken an increased interest in Central Africa over the past year, including agreeing to a security deal with the government in Kinshasa to train and equip its armed forces. While it's unclear whether either power would be willing to step in to shore up Kabila's political or patronage networks in any meaningful way, the likely backlash from the United States, European Union and other Western powers would likely prompt Kabila and his allies to look east for more support.
What to Watch For Next
As democracy continues to flower in more African states, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is only the latest to face a painful power transition. The direction that its unfolding crisis takes will depend on whom the electoral commission names as victor. But Kabila and his faction will almost certainly heed the lesson from Gambia for African strongmen: A severely flawed election can be forgiven as long as your side is named the winner. Should you fail to have your name at the top, and you continue to cling to power, the broader African community may mobilize against you. The candidate named as the winner will also determine whether further sanctions may be forthcoming from United States, European Union and others.
It's likely that whether Shadary or Fayulu wins, blood may still flow on the streets of Kinshasa and elsewhere as the opposition mobilizes either to protest a ruling party victory or to protect an opposition victory from a Kabila system seeking survival. The resulting chaos could disrupt business, especially in urban areas. Electricity and basic goods could fall into short supply and employees may be forced to seek shelter away from large and potentially violent gatherings. If unrest spreads, road and rail transportation networks could also be disrupted, to the detriment the country's mining operations. Outside the immediate violence in the election's aftermath is the question of whether or not the country's security forces will hold together. Should they start to disintegrate, it is possible that security vacuums in the east — the center of an ongoing Ebola outbreak — could increase the flow of refugees headed to safer countries. This would increase the already high odds that the virus would spread to neighboring countries and prompt international action of a different kind in the months ahead.