The Democratic Republic of Congo’s new president will have his hands full with nearly 13 million Congolese going hungry, numerous active militias in the eastern region and the world’s second deadliest Ebola outbreak.
President of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Felix Tshisekedi’s inaugural address began the same way the impoverished country’s political process has been going for the last two years – shaky and interrupted.
The political scene in the DRC has a breadth of justifications for being so jittery – the country was simply not safe enough to hold an election in 2016. An Ebola outbreak in the eastern region was one reason, but so was former president Joseph Kabila’s longtime reluctance to cede power to someone else.
But nevertheless, here we are two years later. The Democratic Republic of Congo has just completed its first peaceful transition of power since the Belgians left 60 years ago. What is next for the naturally wealthy but poverty-plagued country?
Tshisekedi faces a slew of issues beginning with the DRC’s post-electoral hangover. The disputed December 30 election was marred by allegations of vote rigging, large-scale fraud and suspicions of a backroom deal by Kabila to install Tshisekedi. This pushed aside another opposition candidate, Martin Fayulu, who according to leaked electoral data, was the real winner - reportedly securing 60 percent of the votes.
Many Congolese say Tshisekedi’s surprise victory is one the largely untested opposition leader did not earn.
In his inaugural address, Tshisekedi promised a new era of respect for human rights, addressing one of the most notorious failings of the Kabila era. He also promised to release political prisoners, adding that his presidency would guarantee fundamental freedoms and "banish all forms of discrimination".
But Tshisekedi must also diffuse the anger of Fayulu's supporters, carry out his pledge of ending the "gangrene" of corruption after the Kabila era, and forge a power-sharing arrangement with the outgoing president's bloc.
There is enough cake to go around – but it’s being hoarded
The DRC is a resource-rich country boasting a treasure trove of minerals, ranging from gold and diamonds to copper and coltan – a mineral essential for the batteries used in handheld devices.
Yet, very little of the wealth trickles down to the poor. So much for Reaganomics.
Poverty afflicts the vast majority of the country’s 80 million citizens and has placed the DRC at a mere 176 on the 189-nation Human Development Index by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
Between 2013 and 2015, more than $750 million of the revenue paid to state bodies by mining companies went missing, a 2017 report by Global Witness found.
“Much more of the money from the mining sector needs to reach the treasury and be spent on improving Congo’s education, health, transport and justice infrastructure, among other public spending priorities,” the report said.
Diseases can’t be appeased – easily, that is
And then there are the sporadic flare-ups of Ebola – with the DRC experiencing the world’s second deadliest outbreak. The virus is spreading fast in the eastern region, with 713 confirmed and probable cases and 439 deaths. This is not the first time the country has grappled with Ebola – the current outbreak is DRC’s 10th since 1976.
It was only a day before Tshisekedi was sworn in that the country reported its worst one-day increase in diagnoses since the current outbreak was declared in August.
Ebola survivors are now forced to care for patients as well as dispel rumours surrounding the disease. Suspicions over foreign intervention and political plots have led to locals attacking volunteers and refusing vaccines.
“The context for this outbreak is a perfect storm,” the WHO’s Deputy Director-General for Emergency Preparedness and Response Peter Salama told IRIN.
“There’s the combination of great insecurity that has been going on for decades – now increasing in severity and frequency – a highly mobile and also very dense population in urban areas, proximity to international borders, major logistical challenges, and of course the fact that all of this is occurring in an election period.”
In the two years since the 2016 election was supposed to take place, security has broken down across much of the vast country, particularly in its volatile eastern borderlands with Rwanda and Uganda, where dozens of militia groups are active and the Ebola epidemic is also unfolding.
Eastern Congo has been troubled by banditry and armed insurrections for more than two decades since the fall of military ruler Mobutu Sese Seko, but last year saw a surge in violence around North Kivu.
The northwestern region of the country has also felt its share of conflict – at least 890 people are believed to have been killed over three days in December 2018, according to the United Nations. The bloodshed and widespread pillaging pushed an estimated 16,000 people into neighbouring Republic of Congo.
Kabila was accused of lining his pockets, neglecting basic services and leading a repressive regime during his time in power. The December 30 vote was to change that. It was a glimmer of hope in a country that has been seeking the ballot for years. This has now faded in a welter of controversy.