By Edward McAllister
DAKAR (Reuters) – As Democratic Republic of Congo heads to the polls in December, much will come down to President Felix Tshisekedi’s perceived performance running the giant Central African country of nearly 100 million people since 2019.
Below are the key topics on voters’ minds.
Congo’s economy grew 8.5% in 2022, one of the fastest in sub-Saharan Africa, driven by stronger mining output, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Tshisekedi successfully negotiated a $1.5 billion programme with the IMF in July 2021, the first since the IMF broke ties with Kinshasa in 2012 under Tshisekedi’s predecessor Joseph Kabila.
But despite its wealth of copper, cobalt and other resources, little is passed down to ordinary Congolese. The poverty rate sits at 62%, 178th out of 182 on the 2020 Notre Dame Global Adaptation Index.
The cost of living has increased and the country relies heavily on imports of basic food stuffs. The depreciation of the Congolese franc has pushed up inflation, which surged to over 23% year-on-year in July 2023, according to the IMF.
Over 26 million people require humanitarian assistance, in part because of rampant insecurity, data from the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration show.
“The growth figures tell a better story than the reality on the ground. There is a sense that Tshisekedi has done nothing to improve economic conditions,” said Zaynab Hoosen, political economist at Oxford Economics Africa.
Congo is the world’s top producer of cobalt, used in electric vehicle batteries, and the fifth largest copper producer.
President Tshisekedi’s government has moved to renegotiate the terms of the 2008 infrastructure-for-minerals deal with Chinese investors, known as the “deal of the century” for its favourable conditions to China. Under the agreement, China promised to pay $6 billion to build roads and other infrastructure in exchange for access to mineral rights worth $93 billion.
Tshisekedi has sought to rein in China’s 70% share of Congo’s mining sector by re-negotiating that and other contracts. Although a deal has been reached with China’s CMOC, talks are ongoing over a tentative deal regarding their Sicomines joint venture.
Risk-averse companies that had previously avoided Congo’s mining sector due to instability are taking a second look as new opportunities to tap into its minerals emerge.
Fighting between myriad rival armed groups over land and resources, and brutal attacks on civilians, have intensified in eastern Congo in recent years.
Groups such as Islamic State-affiliated Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), the Cooperative for the Development of the Congo (CODECO) group, which claims to defend the interests of Lendu farmers, and M23 rebels in North Kivu region, carry out regular assaults.
Nearly 7 million people are displaced in Congo as of June, the International Organization for Migration said, up 17% from October 2022.
Tshisekedi has called for the removal of a U.N. peacekeeping mission in the east, which has become unpopular for not better protecting civilians.
“The president’s call for a speedy withdrawal of U.N. peacekeeping troops would – if followed – likely worsen the security situation in eastern DR Congo,” said Maja Bovcon, Senior Africa Analyst at risk intelligence company Verisk Maplecroft.
Tshisekedi came to power promising to eliminate the rampant corruption of the Kabila regime, but anti-graft measures have fallen short, critics say.
Some steps have been taken, but scandals have dogged the administration. Last year, a report by the government’s public finances watchdog found that more than $400 million in tax advances and loans that state mining company Gecamines said it paid to the national treasury were missing. No one has been held to account.
“Corruption constitutes a severe challenge at every level of Congolese society and the state apparatus,” Bovcon said.
Tshisekedi’s main challengers Martin Fayulu, Moise Katumbi and Denis Mukwege have focused their campaign messages around rebuilding and strengthening Congo’s weak institutions to tackle its various problems.
FREE AND FAIR VOTE
Congo’s opposition parties and the influential Catholic Church in Congo are concerned that the election will be flawed, and have alleged irregularities during the voter registration period. Opposition parties said registrations were skewed by the national election commission to favour Tshisekedi’s ruling coalition. The commission has denied this and promised a fair vote.
(Reporting by Edward McAllister; Additional reporting by Ange Kasongo and Sonia Rolley; Editing by Bate Felix and Christina Fincher)