Populist governance, totemic elections and economic growth

Tomes have been written about the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)‘s strategic position and natural resource wealth. Competition between domestic, regional and international interest groups, instability and governance failings have all combined to frustrate that potential. Righting the ship is too much to ask of any single individual. Nevertheless, elections matter. Elections can matter.  In this instance, parliamentary and long-anticipated presidential polls this Sunday featuring

  1. Emmanuel Ramazini Shadry, dauphin for President Joseph Kabila, his People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy (PPRD) and the ruling Common Front for Congo (FCC) coalition

  2. Opposition Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) leader Felix Tshisekedi and

  3. Martin Fayulu, who, for the briefest of moments, was set to be the candidate of a united opposition coalition. It was not to be.

A Tshisekedi or Fayulu victory would mark a new administrative era for the DRC. Shadry’s political godfather president Joseph Kabila has been in power since 2001 (when his father, then president Laurent-Desire Kabila, was assassinated). If Shadry wins, Joseph Kabila will likely be his advisor and party leader. Developing a new premise for engagement with the region and the international community, which is important given the weak fiscal and balance of payments position, would be difficult under the status quo. Shadry for example has been under European Union (EU) sanction. Also, Kabila has refused to rule out running for the presidency again in 2023.

Meanwhile, the process has already undermined the outcome. A fire has destroyed 7,000 of 10,000 electronic voting machines due to be used in Kinshasa (in many are claiming was a deliberate act of arson). Election commission officials insist that they will be able to replace the machines in time for the 23rd December vote. There is little confidence outside. Rallies are taking place nationwide and clashes with security forces have been commonplace. There is a risk of long-term disruption in key mining areas in the south east if the results are disputed. There is considerable concern about the regulatory environment for the sector (a) under existing circumstances introduced under by the 2018 mining code, (b) in the event of a power sharing agreement, and (c) regarding the entry of Kabila-owned businesses advantaged by new local content requirements

Political developments are dominating conversation in Nigeria too, with February general elections around the corner. For instance, President Muhammadu Buhari and his main challenger Atiku Abubakar signed a peace pact last week amid criticism aimed at the president for declining assent to an electoral reform bill that tackles rigging.

It has even overshadowed policy statements and mixed but broadly positive economic reports. Namely, GDP grew by 1.81% in Q3 compared to 1.50% the previous quarter, according to new data published by the National Bureau of Statistics. Strong growth in sectors such as telecom offset contractions in others including oil, real estate and some manufacturing. Budget minister Udoma Udoma has said the government is targeting a 3% GDP growth in 2019, but will tone down its spending plans due to revenue shortfalls. The proposed 2019 budget features plans to reduce government borrowing and cut expenditure by 5%. 

Meanwhile in Liberia, President George Weah has launched a new rice program to reduce the retail price of the local staple. 80,000 bags of rice imported by the government will be sold to retailers at subsidised rates, a move described in the local newspapers as 'pro-poor'. It's illustrative of the government's policy priorities in light of an economy hard hit by currency and price volatility. Annual inflation has gone up from 12% in 2017 to more than 20% this year, while the Liberian dollar has depreciated by a quarter for the second year running. President Weah's response has been populist. Beside the latest rice program, the president promised rural residents free housing in June and declared free university tuition in October. We anticipate that palliatives will continue to take precedence over reforms and nominally independent regulators will toe the president's line on this note e.g. in August central bank governor Nathaniel Patray told a press conference in Monrovia that the president's 'pro-poor' agenda would be prioritized over the bank's mandate.

Nana Ampofo