In February, the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s newly elected president, Felix Tshisekedi, held a warm meeting with the U.S. envoy to the region, John Peter Pham. Only hours after the reception, the United States slapped top Congolese election, political, and judiciary officials with sanctions. Alleging corruption on the part of the five officials, the U.S. State Department imposed visa restrictions. In late March, three of those officials who worked for the election commission were hit with another round of sanctions, this time with the Treasury Department freezing their financial assets within U.S. jurisdiction and blocking American transactions with them.
The moves were incongruent, but just one chapter of the back-and-forth saga of the U.S.’s reaction to the hotly contested and now-disputed Congolese presidential election. Just a month before the meeting and announcement of subsequent sanctions, the U.S. had welcomed the results of the allegedly rigged DRC elections.
“You can’t say there was a democratic transfer of power and then sanction people.”
The apparent flip-flop exemplifies the U.S.’s ambivalent policy toward the DRC — and democracy in developing countries more broadly. It’s a tale of foreign policy machinations and D.C. lobbying that, in the DRC in particular, dates back to its colonial days.
“It’s a completely incoherent position in terms of just logic,” said Jason Stearns, director of New York University’s Congo Research Group. “You can’t say there was a democratic transfer of power and then sanction people.”
But for State Department officials, no incongruity exists. In fact, according to Tibor Nagy, U.S. assistant secretary of state for African Affairs, the elections were the “best” Congo has had, and the U.S.’s position in acknowledging Tshisekedi’s victory while sanctioning the election organizers is “very coherent.”
“If you look at elections as an isolated event, of course, you will find important flaws,” Nagy said. “But as part of a process, they are very positive.”
Regional experts like Mvemba Phezo Dizolele have characterized the U.S.’s stance as a “cynical approach, based on low expectations.”
“You cannot have peace in Congo by pushing low expectations,” Dizolele told Foreign Policy.
The recognition of the results had come after then-U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley visited Kinshasa in 2017 and pressured then-President Joseph Kabila to hold elections before the end of 2018. At the time of Haley’s visit, Kabila had exceeded his two-term limit as president by nearly a year and was using force to cling to power, critics said. In the 2018 elections, Kabila’s handpicked successor Emmanuel Shadary ran against two opposition party candidates, Martin Fayulu and Tshisekedi.
Tshisekedi won, but will serve as president without full control of the government. A scenario is unfolding in which Tshisekedi serves as a figurehead while Kabila retains tremendous power in the provincial assemblies and parliament, where it is said his party will pick the next prime minister. Kabila, who officially became the country’s only senator for life after leaving the presidency, will therefore continue to play a role overseeing the economy, including the lucrative mining sector, as well as the ministries of defense and foreign affairs.
Kabila’s apparent moves to retain huge political sway in the government while building power-sharing deals with Tshisekedi come as more questions are raised about the integrity of the election that landed Tshisekedi in office. Data leaks from the Catholic Church, which dispatched poll observers, and the Congo’s electoral commission suggested that Fayulu, the other opposition candidate, won the elections by a large margin. The leaks had been uncovered through a joint investigation by Stearns’ Congo Research Group, the Financial Times, RFI, and TV5 Monde. The Independent National Electoral Commission, for its part, only officially released aggregated results declaring Tshisekedi the winner.
The questions about the vote have led to objections from experts and analysts like Stearns to the U.S.’s full-throated recognition of the results. “What I think is a mistake and what the U.S. government definitely should not have done is then to say things like ‘this was a democratic transfer of power’. It was not a democratic transfer of power,” Stearns said. “It was an extremely suspicious election that appears to have been an illegitimate power grab.”
Even as many Congolese people live on $1 a day and the country’s per capital gross domestic product stands at $463, its leaders have poured millions into lobbying Washington. Kabila, for example, spent $5.6 million lobbying the U.S. government through firms managed by former Trump associates. Some experts say he was rehabilitating his image, transitioning from despot to statesman, and laying the groundwork for the outcome at the polls.
Even the DRC’s independent electoral body signed a $19,000-a-month contract with a D.C. lobbyist for “confidential” engagement. The contract, which ran from June to October 2018, was with Avenue Strategies Global LLC, a firm run by former Trump campaign aide, Barry Bennett. And, this January, Tshisekedi continued that pattern by also enlisting Avenue Strategies’ services in representing Tshisekedi before President Donald Trump and U.S. Congress, advancing a strategic relationship between the two governments and implementing a media and PR plan to improve understanding of Tshisekedi and his agenda for the Congolese people.
“The electoral commission over the last couple of years has sufficiently demonstrated that it has not been very independent and has in fact helped extend President Kabila’s rule and then presided over very serious electoral fraud.”
While it is common for governments and presidential candidates to lobby the U.S., it is unusual for a foreign country’s independent electoral body to spend vast sums cozying up to the West before its national elections.
“The electoral commission over the last couple of years has sufficiently demonstrated that it has not been very independent and has in fact helped extend President Kabila’s rule and then presided over very serious electoral fraud,” said Sasha Lezhnev, deputy policy director of the Enough Project, a nonprofit advocating for peace and an end to mass atrocities in Africa’s deadliest conflict zones. “It seems inappropriate that they were using public money to pay for high-powered lobbyists in Washington.”
As all this lobbying money flowed into Washington, American officials went back and forth on the results. Faced with glaring evidence pointing to electoral fraud, the U.S., thrice—on January 3, 10, and 16, 2019 —declared its commitment to the Congolese people, going as far as threatening that “those who undermine the democratic process” in the DRC or “benefit from corruption may find themselves not welcome in the United States and cut off from the U.S. financial system.”
Even on January 23, the day before Tshisekedi was sworn in, U.S. officials initially agreed to condemn the election results and hold suspicious actors accountable, but the State Department switched to a full-throated endorsement that, according to a Foreign Policy report, took some policymakers by surprise. And then came the flip-flop of the multiple rounds of sanctions.
The U.S. was certainly not the only country to recognize the elections. Other countries, most of which have a stake in the region, congratulated Tshisekedi. Chief among them was President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa, who has ties to a mining company under investigation by the U.S. for its activities in Congo.
Other neighboring nations did, however, object. Regional bodies like the African Union, then led by Rwandan President Paul Kagame, made a show of decrying Congo’s electoral process and called for “the suspension of the proclamation of the final results of the election.” Yet these bodies failed to follow through when the Congolese Constitutional Court dismissed Fayulu’s challenge in January.
For the U.S., the back and forth is consistent with the larger contradictions between the U.S.’s actions abroad and its lofty rhetoric about democracy — especially with regard to African countries. “In general, U.S. foreign policy towards Africa for a very long time has privileged stability and deference to African leaders over the principles of democracy,” Stearns said. “They talk big about democracy, but they also dealt with, legitimatized, and threw their weight behind many authoritarian governments in Africa.”
In other regions of the world, the reliance on authoritarians has come back to bite the U.S. In the Middle East, the Arab Spring uprisings unleashed instability with pro-American dictators. Among other countries whose pro-American dictators faced challenges, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak was toppled, though a military coup eventually reinstalled a pro-U.S. military dictatorship.
Some Congolese activists say that continued support for corrupt and authoritarian governments borne from disputed elections in Africa could have the same destabilizing effects.
“The inaction at the moment is a temporary delay of a far worse reality to come in the future. They just delayed the anger,” says Kambale Musavuli, a Congolese activist and founder of the advocacy group, Friends of the Congo. “When Felix [Tshisekedi], who has no legitimacy, will not be able to rise to the aspiration of the people, expect people in the streets. It is still too fresh a wound for the people to act now.”