Will the Congolese Opposition Unite?

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.

The highlights this week: A coup attempt in Sierra Leone, severe floods hit Ethiopia and Somalia, and Germany makes a gas deal with Nigeria.

In July, amid a tense political climate, the body of an opposition legislator was found in his car with gunshot wounds on a main highway in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s capital, Kinshasa. Cherubin Okende was a former transport minister-turned-spokesman for leading opposition party Ensemble pour la République (Together for the Republic), whose leader Moise Katumbi is set to compete in Congo’s presidential election in less than a month, on Dec. 20.

Katumbi, a former governor of the mineral-rich province of Katanga and owner of Congolese football club TP Mazembe, claimed at the time that the killing was “a political assassination” and an attempt to silence the opposition. Okende resigned from the government last year when Katumbi left the ruling coalition led by President Felix Tshisekedi.

The murder is part of a series of troubling events leading up to the election, including several arrests of opposition figures that have left critics questioning whether Congo can deliver credible elections at a time when Africans are weary of sham ballots, and when coups in West and Central Africa are on the rise. The last election in 2018, which brought Tshisekedi to power, was heavily disputed.

In total, 23 candidates are in the running against Tshisekedi, including 2018 Nobel Peace Prize winner Denis Mukwege, a renowned gynecologist known for helping victims of sexual violence, and former oil executive Martin Fayulu of the Commitment to Citizenship and Development party, whom many local and international observers consider the true winner of the last election.

The Catholic Church—seen as one of Congo’s most trusted civil society organizations—deployed around 40,000 observers to polling stations during the 2018 election and said that votes counted showed that Fayulu had won. A Financial Times data analysis also alleged that electoral fraud had occurred and that then-President Joseph Kabila may have sought to cling to power through a deal with Tshisekedi, whom the analysis showed should have been the runner-up.

In September, Jean-Marc Kabund, the former head of Tshisekedi’s Union for Democracy and Social Progress party, was sentenced to seven years in prison for “insulting the head of state.” Kabund was arrested last year about a month after creating his own party, called the Alliance for Change. He had denounced Tshisekedi’s government for “mismanagement characterized by carelessness, irresponsibility, enjoyment, and predation at the top of the State.”

As Stephen R. Weissman and Anthony Gambino wrote in Foreign Policy in September, “there is every reason to believe that the grand corruption that marked the earlier Joseph Kabila regime has continued.”

Congo’s electoral commission, known under the French acronym CENI, faces the daunting task of organizing ballots across a vast country with limited infrastructure and widespread violence in the eastern region, where more than 100 armed groups are vying for power.

CENI has always been viewed with a degree of cynicism regarding its independence. In October, CENI President Denis Kadima met with U.S. officials in Washington as part of a “rebranding” campaign to dispel what he referred to as “a very bad reputation.” But criticism persists: Opposition candidates have complained of flaws in the voter registration process during this election cycle.

Although Kadima is an election expert with decades of experience, he is viewed as being handpicked by Tshisekedi’s government to lead CENI (the head of which is meant to be chosen by consensus). The opposition and the Catholic Church did not approve of him, which led to protests in late 2021. Critics accused Kadima of being too close to the president.

“The CENI knows the challenge it faces, and that its credibility is at stake,” political analyst Jean-Luc Kong told France 24 earlier this month. “But what really scares people is the crisis in the east.”

Almost 7 million people have fled their homes in North Kivu province due to a resurgence of fighting between Congo’s army and an armed group called the March 23 Movement (M23). More than one million citizens have been left without voter cards, and some eastern towns will be excluded altogether from voting due to the security concerns.

Some opponents believe that the only realistic chance of beating Tshisekedi, whom analysts predict will secure a narrow reelection since there is only one round of voting, is to form a coalition under a single candidate. Five leading opposition groups met last week in South Africa and chose to throw their support behind Katumbi.

Those supporters include Congo’s former Prime Minister Matata Ponyo Mapon; Seth Kikuni, who was the youngest candidate in the 2018 election; and Franck Diongo, who was imprisoned under Kabila and freed by Tshisekedi’s government only to be jailed again in June for more than a month. All have withdrawn their own presidential bids. (Mukwege, however, has not yet responded to calls for a united opposition.)

“Urgency dictates a single opposition candidate,” Matata said in Pretoria, South Africa, accusing the government of preparing “massive electoral fraud.”

As part of his campaign manifesto, Katumbi has pledged to “consolidate peace, democracy, and fight corruption.” In a statement, he said that “the current cohort of corrupt leaders cannot be trusted to change their ways.” Mukwege launched his campaign from his hometown in the eastern city of Bukavu, promising to end the country’s reliance on aid and foreign troops. (U.N. peacekeepers are resented by Congolese for failing to stop armed violence). “Internationally, we are going to do everything we can to ensure that foreign armies leave Congolese soil, and that the Congolese people learn to take responsibility for their own security,” Mukwege said.

There are some Congolese voters who question whether an election would bring about any change and are intending to stay home. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church has said that it is on watch for any signs of fraud and urged Congolese citizens to vote.

Worryingly, experts suggest that given the potential for a volatile election outcome in Congo, neighboring countries within the Congo Basin could possibly be next in line for a coup.

Wednesday, Nov. 29, to Saturday, Dec. 2: The Marrakech International Film Festival, which began on Friday, continues in Morocco. It is being attended by actors Jessica Chastain and Willem Dafoe following the country’s earthquake in September. Other festivals in Egypt and Tunisia have been canceled due to the Israel-Hamas war.

Thursday, Nov. 30: A postponed OPEC+ meeting is scheduled to take place.

Zimbabwean Finance Minister Mthuli Ncube presents the 2024 national budget amid concerns over the impact of weak global economic growth.

Thursday, Nov. 30, to Tuesday, Dec. 12: The U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP28) held in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Mohamed Nasr, Egypt’s lead climate negotiator, and the U.K.’s King Charles III are expected to attend.

Sierra Leone coup attempt. Sierra Leone on Monday lifted a nationwide curfew imposed after what the government said was an attack by “renegade soldiers” who attempted to break into a military armory in the capital city of Freetown on Sunday, leading to gunfire and explosions across several neighborhoods home to military outposts and killing at least 20 people, including 13 soldiers. Information Minister Chernoh Bah said on Tuesday that “the incident was a failed attempted coup.”

The assailants also attacked a police station and released 2,000 inmates from the central prison. The political situation in Sierra Leone has been tense since President Julius Maada Bio was reelected in June with just over 56 percent of the vote, narrowly avoiding a runoff. The election result was rejected by the main opposition, the All People’s Congress party.

Global tax vote. African nations secured a historic win on international tax negotiations after developing economies overwhelmingly voted to give the United Nations more say on global tax rules and move the discussion out of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a body largely formed by richer nations. A proposal presented by the group of 54 African countries for a U.N. framework on global tax cooperation was backed by 125 countries on Nov. 22 and opposed by 48 mostly high-income countries, including the United States and EU member nations. Kenyan U.N. Ambassador Martin Kimani called the outcome the “clearest Global North vs Global South vote I have seen in recent times.”

Horn of Africa floods. Flooding across the Horn of Africa, which has killed at least 100 people and forced 700,000 from their homes, is expected to last into December. Up to 1.2 million people in Somalia have already been affected. According to the U.N., 4.3 million people—a quarter of Somalia’s population—will face “crisis-level hunger” by the end of the year. In Kenya, at least 70 people have been killed and more than 150,000 displaced from their homes. Meanwhile in northern Ethiopia, 50 people and 4,000 cattle have died in the Tigray and Amhara regions because of severe drought. In the country’s south, 370,000 people have left their homes due to flash floods.

Nigeria’s election challenges. Despite the main petitions against President Bola Tinubu’s election win being dismissed, Nigerian courts are overwhelmed by more than 1,000 cases related to this year’s presidential and regional elections, reports the Nigerian Guardian. Nigeria’s chief justice, Olukayode Ariwoola, said judges would not be intimidated by the “loud voices of the mob” over accusations that judgements have so far favored the governing All Progressives Congress party.

Mali and Russia go for gold. Mali’s military government signed a four-year deal with Russia to build a gold refinery in the capital Bamako. The refinery is expected to process 200 metric tons of gold annually. The project will allow Mali to control all gold production in the country and “correctly apply all taxes and duties,” Finance Minister Alousseni Sanou said last Tuesday on state TV. The Russian private military contractor Wagner Group has been accused of gold smuggling and human rights abuses during Mali’s fight against armed groups allied with al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

More German gas deals. Since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Germany has been on a spree to secure gas and oil contracts with several African nations. Nigeria will supply natural gas to Germany at 850,000 metric tons per year in 2026, expanding afterward to 1.2 million metric tons per year. The German firm DWS Group will invest $500 million in renewable energy projects in Nigeria. Germany has faced criticism for investing in environmentally harmful African gas supplies for export to Europe while maintaining African nations’ focus on renewables for their domestic needs.

What Was Hamas Thinking? by Tareq Baconi

America Is a Heartbeat Away From a War It Could Lose by A. Wess Mitchell

Panama’s Mining Future Is at a Tipping Point by Cristina Guevara

Rustin’s Zimbabwe. In Africa Is a Country, Brooks Marmon explores the legacy of the American civil rights icon Bayard Rustin and his involvement in African independence movements during the late 1970s following the release of Netflix movie Rustin by Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company, Higher Ground. Marmon argues that Rustin’s “controversial relationship with the final stages of Zimbabwe’s independence struggle” is largely overlooked in U.S. discourse, particularly his strong opposition toward Zimbabwe’s main independence movements in favor of groups “willing to collaborate with Rhodesia’s white settlers.”

Napoleon’s pillaged Egypt. Ridley Scott’s new movie Napoleon depicts troops led by Joaquin Phoenix as the French emperor firing cannons at the pyramids of Giza, but Napoleon never actually took “pot shots” at Egyptian pyramids, Becky Ferreira reports in the New York Times. However, France’s invasion of Egypt did lead to many of the country’s greatest treasures ending up in overseas museums and private collections. Napoleon’s troops were the original looters of the Rosetta stone (now in the British Museum after British forces defeated the French in Egypt) and unleashed an insatiable Egyptomania in the West, which gave rise to “outright criminal channels” for the country’s antiquities, Ferreira writes.

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