Egmont Institute logo

Election Times and Murder in Kinshasa

Post thumbnail print


On 13 July, the bullet-ridden corpse of former Minister Chérubin Okende was discovered close to the city centre of Kinshasa, in a display reminding of the 2010 murder of the renowned human rights activist Floribert Chebeya.


Election times and murder in Kinshasa

On 13 July, the bullet-ridden corpse of former Minister Chérubin Okende was discovered close to the city centre of Kinshasa, in a display reminding of the 2010 murder of the renowned human rights activist Floribert Chebeya. Mr. Okende was the Minister of Transport in the DRC government, until he quit in December last year, with colleague ministers belonging to Moise Katumbi’s political opposition movement “Ensemble”. Since the latter announced his presidential ambitions, “Ensemble” is the target of many actions of repression from the authorities. Regardless of whether the Tshisekedi regime or external forces are responsible for the murder, its effect has unambiguously deterred opposition politicians who now fear for their life. The killing has until now been the apex of a very much deteriorated electoral and political climate, which does not bode well for the upcoming elections. Moreover, this evolution may jeopardize the future of elections in the DRC as a legitimate procedure for representation, circumscribing the distribution of power and responsibilities[1]. The DRC may thus in the end continue with, and align with, fake elections as in its neighbouring countries.

In 2006, the DRC was – despite imperfections – at the forefront of free and fair elections in Central Africa, held in the final phase of a long transition from war to peace.  No neighbouring country applied the same standards of electoral democracy, admittedly with important external assistance. The quality of the electoral process went down in 2011, and in 2018, after many postponements, technically acceptable elections were held but the results were simply put aside to appoint a non-elected candidate after a political compromise which, in reality, had been concluded many months before between then President Kabila and future President Tshisekedi. This compromise was nationally accepted as a political alternative to the increasingly repressive rule of Joseph Kabila, and internationally accepted to avoid destabilisation and violent protest. Moreover, Tshisekedi symbolized the result of a decades-long struggle by the UDPS party, where many militants offered their life for the ideals of the party promising to introduce the rule of law and a “the people first” policy.

After nearly five years in power, the balance is mitigated. President Tshisekedi and his UDPS party seem to have hardened their position, from an effort to provide legitimacy to their rule after the massive 2018 fraud; to a strong determination to secure a second term in office. Politically, the President follows a classical strategy of co-optation, by integrating influential political figures such as Vital Kamerhe (former Chief of Staff of the President, South-Kivu) and Jean-Pierre Bemba (MLC party president, grand Equateur region) into his government, and by appointing clients and potential rivals in public enterprises or other government functions. This buy-off strategy is very expensive and requires parallel funding while every appointed client needs money to fund his or her own election campaign, a stimulus for embezzlement.

Tshisekedi not only uses the carrot but also the stick, targeting first the movement of Moise Katumbi, president of the opposition coalition “Ensemble”. An effort to introduce a law limiting presidential candidates to Congolese both of whose parents are “authentic” Congolese, met with persistent protest in domestic society and eventually backfired. In the run-up to the elections scheduled for December 2023, public rallies of “Ensemble” were prohibited and access of Katumbi to meeting places blocked. National deputy and former Minister Christian Mwando was prohibited to travel to his home area Moba. When he eventually arrived there and protested against the possible vote of the abovementioned law, the Constitutional Court threatened to request the lifting of his parliamentary privilege and prosecute him.  On 30 May, Salomon Kalonda, the right hand of Moise Katumbi, was arrested on contested charges[2].  On 20 June, another opposition presidential candidate, Franck Diongo, was arrested on undisclosed charges[3] . On 25 June, Président Tshisekedi during a speech in his hometown Mbuji Mayi, declared:

I will attack without hesitation, without remorse, any Congolese who endangers the security and stability of our country. No matter what people say: violation of human rights, deprivation of freedoms… I will not budge, because I am a democrat and I will remain a democrat. I have no lessons to learn from anyone in these areas. I am responsible for protecting and guaranteeing the well-being of all Congolese, whatever their political persuasion, whether religious or of other ideologies… History and God will judge me…

While some concluded too hastily that the Okende murder was an implementation of the “no compromise” attitude of President Tshisekedi by his security services, it created a huge psychological shock in the capital. An inquiry was started and reportedly the assistance of Belgian and South African experts requested. To ease tensions, Franck Diongo was released as well as other, minor opponents. Yet, the UDPS militia, who has created a parallel structure of violence, attacked and destroyed the “Ensemble” office in Kinshasa. Obviously, speeches as the one President Tshisekedi held in Mbuji Mayi must be interpreted as a free reign for these militias.

The deterioration of the political climate occurs against the background of an electoral process presenting technical flaws and deficient communication between the electoral commission CENI and political parties and civil society. The electoral commission CENI, after having presented unrealistic delays for the finalization of an electoral audit to the “Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie”, appointed an audit commission which concluded that 91 % of the electoral register was correct. On 11 July, the CENI rejected the request from the opposition to have a new and more credible audit. It is widely acknowledged that the key actors for the electoral process (RDC president, CENI president, president of the Constitutional Court, Interior and Finance Ministry) are controlled by presidential allies.

The message conveyed through this combination of co-optation, repression and control of the electoral process is clear: the incumbent coalition will continue in power, whether you like it or not. As the foreign embassies are concerned more with perceived stability than with legitimacy, Tshisekedi can continue on this perilous path. The government has an additional trump card in its cobalt reserves and production. Tshisekedi may be able to ensure a second mandate through important levels of voter abstention and preliminary horse-trading between the political elite to ensure a parliamentary majority. As the validation of the current members of parliament was partly the result of a political arrangement within the Kabila regime, partly by ignoring the electoral results, it is hard to imagine why it would be different for the upcoming elections, especially when the UDPS coalition wants to stabilize its rule. They may even go further: several sources from within the regime refer to a commission created to draft a new constitution allowing Tshisekedi further presidential mandates.

The president may be able to gain international acceptance of flawed elections, provided he can guarantee a minimum of cohesion and stability. Several voices from civil society warn against the evolution towards a confrontational and tense political situation and the possibility of chaos. On 19 July, the “Comité Laïc de Coordination” (Lay Coordination Committee) of the Catholic Church warned against an electoral process ending up in generalized disorder or an authoritarian turn of the regime jeopardizing its own legitimacy. It seems indeed that the President or the government is unleashing forces it may not be able to control: the party youth militia from the UDPS, all too zealous security forces, a possible military action against the M23 in the East that may easily explode in the government’s face, a monetary depreciation which is politically dangerous, discontent about the appointment of many natives from Kasai to compensate for long-term discrimination, price hikes for basic commodities, including food etc.

More fundamentally, we witness the far-reaching consequences of the electoral fraud of 2018. By appointing a non-elected candidate, former president Kabila put a time bomb under the 2019-2023 legislature which threatens the survival of the entire constitutional order. It legitimized further undermining of the institutions as was seen in the buying-off of the members of the national assembly, of the provincial deputies in gubernatorial elections and in the appointments of trusted allies in key institutions. Obviously, the flaws of the 2018 elections could have been compensated by good governance creating another type of legitimacy. Commendable efforts have certainly been made by the government but not pursued sufficiently for a real effect on society.

The 2023 elections will thus very probably see an electoral victory for Felix Tshisekedi. This may confirm the reduction of the status of elections to an (expensive) opinion poll, a starting point for negotiations among the political elite about who will get the perks. However, what will happen afterwards is much more difficult to predict: the delegitimization of the institutions may lead to the introduction of a new system of rule, guaranteeing an undefined extension of the current regime. This may very well lead to increased levels of protest, violence, and repression, especially as long as the current deadlock in the East continues. It could highlight further disaffection of the DRC population for western countries, perceived as not living up to the values they officially stand for.


[1] Cf. Erik KENNES, Decisive elections in the DRC, Egmont Paper 120, April 2023

[2] The charges range from alleged possession of weapons, to inciting soldiers to commit acts contrary to their duty, to undermining State Security with a view to a coup d’état.

[3] Charges leveled later against Mr. Diongo include illegal carrying of firearms and involvement in a fight between a UDPS and a rival militia.



(Photo credit: Facebook profile photo of Chérubin Okende)