Baz Ratner / Reuters

Today’s Issue:

Power in the modern world often flows to those who see where the world’s resources are flowing, yet have the sleight of hand to redirect them without the world seeing. So it was when democratic leaders in the United States and elsewhere applauded last week’s peaceful transfer of power in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, from an autocratic president to an opposition leader. But things aren’t as they seem, as today’s story will attest. The lesson: Having power in today’s world doesn’t necessarily require maintaining absolute control, though that doesn’t hurt.

We begin more than a quarter century into the era of Mobutu Sese Seko, the Congolese dictator who, echoing the French kings, was fond of proclaiming, “Apres moi, le deluge,” or “After me, the flood.” If, after reading this piece, you want to learn more lessons from the Congo on absolute power, listen to the full audio interview that accompanies this article.   

An African horror story: Mobutu came to power in the 1960s with the aid of the CIA. He ruled the state then known as Zaire as a kleptocratic dictatorship for more than three decades. Berkeley writes that Mobutu relied on a strategy known as “divide and rule” both within and outside the country, playing up ethnic fears and supporting insurgencies in the region. That backfired after the Rwandan genocide in 1994, when the leaders of the massacres led refugees across the border into the Congo. Military forces from Rwanda and elsewhere followed, sparking a multisided war that played out in the Congo. Five million people were killed, mainly Congolese civilians. Mobutu’s institutions collapsed, and he died in exile in 1997. The Rwandans installed Laurent-Désiré Kabila as president of the Congo, but he was assassinated in 2001. His son Joseph Kabila took over, and has just now left office, 18 years later. The new president, Felix Tshisekedi, takes over a country that remains one of the poorest on Earth, with numerous armed groups still fighting, particularly in the east.

How to really hack an election: Congo’s constitution technically mandated that Kabila step down two years ago. But by the time Kabila finally allowed elections to proceed, this past December, signs were showing that he had prepared to hand over power to a chosen successor. Then something strange happened. Martin Fayulu, one of two major opposition candidates in the race, is believed to have won handily, far ahead of the intended heir to power, according to leaked results published by the scholar Jason Stearns and others. But the election commission mysteriously handed the victory to Tshisekedi, the other opposition candidate, who also seems to have lost by a wide margin.

"We just saw the first election rigged by the government in favour of an opposition candidate, right?” asked Nic Cheeseman, a scholar of election rigging. Cheeseman, Stearns, and other critics believe that Kabila found himself losing even in the unfair electoral fight he had orchestrated, and allege that he found a way to relinquish the presidency without actually giving up his power. As Cheeseman has said, the best fix is in place long before voting day.

How much power does a modern autocrat need? “Enough.” Kabila has run an entirely different kind of government than Mobutu, who presented himself as the archetype of a strongman leader. Mobutu exercised power flagrantly, for example, building an airstrip long enough to land the Concorde in his remote hometown. Mobutu also nationalized huge parts of the economy, including the country’s valuable mining sector, then simply took their money. “He literally would call up the governor of the central bank and say, ‘Cut me a check. Give me some money,’” Stearns said.

Kabila, by contrast, has privatized. He has “not controlled through strength, but controlled through weakness,” Stearns said. He has followed the prescriptions of international organizations such as the World Bank, which drafted the country’s 2002 mining code. “He doesn't call up the central bank to cut him a check,” Stearns said. “What he does is he privatizes these companies in such a way that he gets a very large chunk of proceeds during the privatization process.” Stearns and his colleagues have reported that Kabila’s family controls assets in every major sector of the country’s economy. (Kabila has consistently denied corruption allegations.) “It's the neoliberal nightmare in Africa,” Stearns said.

How “stability” destabilizes: After the election, Stearns and others were disappointed to see democracies, including the United States, welcome the results. Stearns attributes the reaction to the allegedly rigged election to a perverse obsession with short-term stability. “Isn't stability better than opening up these wounds and creating a chaotic process?” he asked, rhetorically. Not when 5 million people are displaced in the country, more than at the height of the war. “And in the Congo, that's how people die,” Stearns said—from starvation, disease, and other factors besides direct violence. Only the political institutions in the capital have stability of a kind: Kabila relinquished the presidency, but his party retained control of the National Assembly—a statistical feat given that it apparently lost the presidential vote—meaning the party’s power can simply be exercised through another venue.  

Looking at the country from afar and saying that a tainted election is acceptable because recent history has produced far worse is easy. But that’s not the way people in the country think. In 2016, Stearns’s group surveyed more than 7,000 adults in the Congo to ask whether “security and development should be prioritized over elections, go hand in hand, or elections are more important.” The results were surprising. The “vast majority of the people we asked either said you can’t separate those three things—you can’t separate elections, security, and development—or they said just elections,” Stearns said. Now the Congolese have had an election, with record turnout, only to find a result imposed upon them. “It’s a short-term solution for a long-term problem,” Stearns added.

The resulting power structure is more complicated than it was in the Mobutu era. Then, the entire system rested on one man. Now power is more diffuse. The addition of global capitalism to the mix has created “this entrenched, venal political elite in the capital, Kinshasa, and elsewhere that’s going to be extremely difficult to get out of power,” Stearns said. The man at the center may change, but so far, at least, it appears that the system will outlast him.

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