A rank outsider was declared the winner of Congo’s presidential election on Thursday, prompting opposition claims of a plot by the ruling party to prolong its hold on power.
Raising fears of violence in one of Africa’s most volatile states, the electoral commission defied the findings of local observers by naming Felix Tshisekedi the next president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
But the first peaceful transition of power since independence from Belgium in 1960 will be overshadowed by a result that was widely questioned both inside and outside the country.
Although Mr Tshisekedi is a member of the opposition - and as such as secured a stunning victory over the ruling party of Joseph Kabila, the outgoing president - he was not the opposition candidate many expected to win.
Congo’s Catholic Church, which stationed 40,000 observers at polling stations across the country, had previously told Western diplomats that it believed Martin Fayulu, Mr Tshisekedi's rival within the opposition, was the election’s real victor.
Mr Fayulu was swift to denounce the result, calling it “rigged, fabricated and invented." Amid claims that Mr Kabila and Mr Tshisekedi had reached a secret deal to share power, he claimed that he had been denied power by an "electoral coup."
“The results have nothing to do with the truth of the ballot box,” Mr Fayulu told Radio France Internationale.
Suggesting a potential showdown between the Joseph Kabila, the outgoing president, and the West, the French government was quick to cast doubt on the credibility of the count.
“We must have clarity on these results, which are the opposite to what we expected,” France’s foreign minister, Jean-Yves le Drian, said. “The Catholic Church of Congo did its tally and announced completely different results.”
In a pre-dawn announcement, the electoral commission declared that Mr Tshisekedi had won 38 per cent of the vote, securing 600,000 more ballots than Mr Fayulu, who came second.
On the face of it, Mr Tshisekedi’s victory is a remarkable one. In a country with a history of government kleptocracy and brutal civil war, none of Congo’s four previous presidents assumed power at the ballot box.
For many Congolese, the idea that an opponent of the ruling party could win a presidential election would also have seemed unimaginable.
But Mr Tshisekedi now finds himself battling suspicions as to whether he was really a member of the opposition or a last-minute recruit to President Kabila’s ruling People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy.
Mr Kabila, who came to power after his father’s assassination in 2001, has been accused of using every conceivable method to stay in power. He failed to change the constitution, which required him to stand down in 2016, but repeated delays in holding a new presidential election allowed him to cling on for two more years.
Under heavy Western pressure, he finally allowed the election to go ahead. Although he was barred from standing, he anointed his former interior minister, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, as the ruling party’s candidate.
Dropping hints that Mr Shadary would merely be a cipher, the president also suggested he would run again in 2023, a strategy his critics called “Plan Putin”.
Yet the plan misfired. The regime was accused of doing everything it could to ensure Mr Shadary's victory. Voting was banned in three pro-opposition provinces, officially because of an Ebola outbreak. Electronic balloting machines in opposition-leaning areas where voting did take place often failed to work. Some voters said they were told by armed soldiers to vote for Mr Shadary or face the consequences.
But after voting closed, it was soon whispered that Mr Shadary had fallen well short; in the end he finished an ignominious third.
But diplomats and local observers, apparently convinced that Mr Fayulu had won, grew increasingly anxious after the electoral commission missed last Sunday’s deadline to announce the result of the vote, which took place on Dec 30.
Rumours began to circulate that the ruling party, realising it faced international condemnation and domestic uproar if Mr Shadary was declared the winner, had instead approached Mr Tshisekedi, also said to have been well beaten, with a deal.
The speculation only increased after it emerged that Mr Tshisekedi and the ruling party had been having meetings, although aides on Thursday said that the talks had purely been about the logistics of transferring power.
Whatever the truth, many Congo watchers will be surprised by the verdict. Mr Fayulu was widely considered the stronger opposition candidate because he had been backed by two prominent and widely popular rivals of the president who had been barred from standing.
Other members of the opposition — including Mr Tshisekedi until he changed his mind — had also agreed to withdraw their candidacies and endorse Mr Fayulu, who now has ten working days to submit a legal challenge to the vote.
Although no violence has been reported since the result was announced, Mr Fayulu has yet to address his supporters. It is unclear if he will call for protests.
Mr Tshisekedi, meanwhile, used his first speech as president-elect to promise to serve all Congolese. He also raised eyebrows by calling President Kabila “an important political partner”.
It is possible that he could unite the country. Some opposition voters have told reporters they would accept a victory by any candidate who was not from the ruling party.