Channel Hopping the DRC Elections

By John Nelson, November 3, 2011

Étienne Tshisekedi wa Mulumba - one of the eleven candidates

Étienne Tshisekedi wa Mulumba - one of the eleven candidates

The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Africa’s second largest country with its 71 million inhabitants will elect a new president on 28 November. Joseph Kabila is challenging ten other candidates for another term in office. John Nelson in Kinshasa is following the excitement on local TV.

The presidential television campaign in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is extremely exciting right now. Tshisekedi speaks with passion about 30 years of opposition and his Christian Democratic ideals while he takes questions from a room full of journalists in Kinshasa. Fantastic. Kabila’s apocryphal presidential videos and hero worship flood other channels, slick MTV marketing for a modern age and a super young electorate. Other less powerful candidates freely campaign on air from church halls, the gardens of villas or curtained off front rooms – in one I saw a few months ago there was a child’s tiger toy perched on the back of the stuffed chair, apparently whispering into the candidate’s ear. Across the channels there are endless debates and polemics, mixed with a weirdly American style stew of real life soaps, confessionals, and religious programming, interrupted by advertisements for beer, yoghurt and household cleaning products.

Much of this noisy torrent reminds me of late night Tennessee TV in 1984 – when Al Gore was boring us on local television with his wooden delivery of ideals he never delivered, followed by Tammy Baker’s crocodile tears streaming mascara down her cheeks on the late night evangelical show, and punctuated by car dealers in chicken outfits proclaiming “crazy deals.” What I like about the DRC is that almost all of such lowbrow hustles are combined with the best music and life-loving dancing in the world. From Franco to Tabu Ley to JB Mpiana (who is totally hot right now), the DRC is a happening place. One young pop group is using the campaign as an opportunity to launch a clothing brand, and to market sunglasses made in Dubai.

Map of the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Map of the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Contrary to popular myth, here in Congo there is a less chaos than you might think. And in most of the country during this presidential and senatorial election campaign, there is no armed fighting, just good old-fashioned stump speeches to curious crowds, and a lot of intellectual and often theoretical debate between media pundits. There is also a lot of histrionic campaigning by young people in the streets, the passionate soldiers of the political parties, armed only with mobile phones and declarations. In many ways the DRC right now is just like DC in an election year, only the people are much leaner and have much more to gain from their democracy. And the Congo police are quite a bit tougher, although so far they have used a lot more tear gas than bullets.

Some of the main candidates’ conservative, traditional views are those I would normally disagree with, but the way they are being delivered in the context of this election campaign is massively welcome. This is especially notable after such a long period of dictatorship and war that has plagued the country, and particularly amidst the tide of democratic ambiguity that litters the rest of Guinean shoreline to the north. Welcome too are the multitude of opposition views being freely broadcast nightly, until well after midnight, on about 20 TV channels available over the air or by satellite. Between them they reach up to 60 million people living in one country the size of Western Europe.

I flicked on the TV again last night and spotted that politician with a tiger in his ear. The last time I saw him the tiger was worn and tattered, but this one looked new, renewed – Congo is moving forward, obviously.


John Nelson is the Director of Africa Delivers

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