Image:Baz Ratner, Reuters.

When I wrote about the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s then-upcoming elections at the end of November 2018, I observed that Emmanuel Shadary, the Kabila government’s Interior Minister and preferred candidate, seemed to have a clear path to the presidency, despite lacking the support of most of the country.

That prediction was a realistic, if also pessimistic, reading of the situation. It was informed by the fact that Shadary faced a sundered opposition line-up and had government resources behind him.

In a country that had not seen a democratic transfer of power since independence (and despite the name), just the mere conduct of elections was going to be an achievement..

But on the evening of 30th December, as the first results from the vast country’s polling stations trickled in, things turned utterly around. Shadary mustered such a small portion of the vote that it would have been a little too awkward for the Kabila government to engineer a win for him.

The only thing more impressive than the government's defeat was that it accepted it. But that acceptance was also Kabila’s master stroke.

He reached out to Felix Tshisekedi, an opposition candidate whom opinion polls and non-official results from observers had placed second in the polls. In talks that were acknowledged only tacitly, a deal was hammered out to give Tshisekedi the reins of the country.

Felix Antoine Tshisekedi is the son of Etienne Tshisekedi. Until his death last year, Etienne was the DRC’s most stable opposition voice. He started out decrying the excesses of Mobutu Sese Seko, after leaving the strongman’s government in 1980, and became a rallying point for the opposition.

Through the presidencies of both Laurent Kabila and his son Joseph, Etienne earned a reputation for himself as a tenacious opposition campaigner, undaunted by the powerful forces in whose face he constantly thrust himself. His death in February 2017 was a tremendous loss to the opposition in the DRC.

His son, though he shared the name and took his place as the leader of Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS), the country’s largest opposition party, was not his most obvious successor as the leading light of the opposition.

By all counts, that mantle passed to the exiled Moise Katumbi, former governor of the DRC’s richest province, Katanga. In fact, when, in November 2017, major opposition parties gathered in Geneva to select a joint candidate to field in the elections, it was under the patronage of Katumbi and Jean-Pierre Bemba, an ICC-acquitted former warlord who, like Katumbi, had been barred from running for president.

The candidate that came out of that convocation was Martin Fayulu, a soft-spoken former Exxon Mobil executive. All indications are that he actually won the December elections, in no small part due to the backing of Katumbi and Bemba, but also because he promised a clean break with the Kabila legacy.

But Tshisekedi, by pulling out of the joint candidacy soon after it was sealed, roping in Vital Kamerhe (another opposition politician) as his running mate, and softening his stance on Kabila, seems to have placed himself strategically as a pleasant alternative to Fayulu should Kabila’s preferred candidate fail in the polls.

It was a risky move. On the one hand, nothing prevented Kabila from rigging the vote in Shadary's favour, plunging the country into chaos. On the other, Fayulu was clearly headed for the win. But the move paid off. Kabila, backed into a corner by an insurgent opposition, found in Tshisekedi a graceful way out. And Tshisekedi moved into the Palaise de la Nation.

Nobody believes that Tshisekedi won the elections. The announcement of his victory failed to clear even the low bar of attracting congratulations from other African presidents.

At his inauguration, only Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta showed up, and his presence could be easily explained by the fact that Tshisekedi’s pact with Kamerhe was signed in Nairobi.

The DRC’s Catholic bishops, who deployed almost 40,000 observers to polling stations, all but declared that Martin Fayulu won, despite polls not being held in his eastern strongholds due to fears of violence and ebola. A very thorough analysis by African Arguments, an investigative media platform, found that there was no way Tshisekedi could have won.

Yet the fact remains that the duly mandated institutions of the DRC, the electoral commission (by announcing the results) and the constitutional court (by dismissing an appeal by Fayulu), stamped and approved his supposed victory. He was been sworn in and is now the president.

In quiet acquiescence, the US and France took note and the African Union has also indirectly recognised him. Even Google and Wikipedia declare he is the president.

Martin Fayulu is still crying foul, and rightly so. But his calls for peaceful demonstrations will achieve little at this stage. International support is lacking; the mere fact that Kabila is no longer president is an achievement, let alone the fact that he has been succeeded by an opposition politician.

Fayulu’s only viable path to the presidency is a win at the next elections, five years hence. Hopefully, Tshisekedi will hold them on time.

Whatever the case, Fatshi (as Tshisekedi’s supporters call him) has his work cut out for him. The country he leads has no shortage of challenges to be overcome.

Extreme poverty, an ebola epidemic that is defying control, and violence in the restive east are just the most immediate ones. At a very elemental level, he has to restore a broken country.

He might owe a lot to the long shadow of his father, but how he tackles the job at hand will depend on his own competence and abilities as a leader.

Mathew Otieno writes from Nairobi, Kenya.

Mathew Otieno

Mathew Otieno writes from Kisumu, Kenya.