Congo: A Stalled Democratic Agenda
Africa Briefing N°73
8 Apr 2010
The consolidation of democracy in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is stalled on almost all fronts, and the Congolese regime remains fragile. When Joseph Kabila became the first democratically elected president in 2006, the international community celebrated the election as a milestone in the peace process, but today checks and balances barely exist, as the president’s office has curtailed the powers of the government, parliament and judiciary. Civil liberties are regularly threatened, and key institutional reforms – decentralisation and the security sector – have made no significant progress. Unless the Congolese political authorities give new impetus to democratic transformation and institutional consolidation in 2010, the gains made during the transition could be at risk and the international investment in the giant country’s stabilisation wasted. The Congo’s international partners must place democratisation and institutional reform at the centre of their dialogue with Kabila’s government and link the provision of development aid to their progress.
In 2006, for the first time in the Congo’s history, its people chose their national and regional leaders through credible elections. A year before, the most democratic constitution yet had been adopted by referendum, entrenching the apparent determination to radically change political and economic governance and recognise democratic aspirations that had been unfulfilled since independence. Implementation of this new constitution demanded fundamental institutional reforms, such as decentralisation and a complete overhaul of the security sector. This political project, whose origins lay in the negotiations at Sun City to end years of war, as well as the national conference of the early 1990s, clearly linked the return of lasting peace to the principle of a balance of power between central government and the provinces and the establishment of genuine checks and balances at both levels.
Kabila won a five-year term by embracing this vision during the election campaign. He promised to fix a collapsed state and fight corruption; elaborated a program to rebuild the Congo through five strategic priorities – infrastructure, health, education, housing and employment; and pledged further democratisation, notably by respecting the rule of law and holding local elections. Nearly four years on, however, the record is abysmal. His presidency is seeking to impose its power on all branches of the state and maintain parallel networks of decision-making.
The regime has undermined the independence of the judicial branch by running an anti-corruption campaign that is politically biased. It has used money and coercion to eliminate challenges to its authority and to fight against the local rebellions that have happened since 2006. Kabila is contemplating amending the constitution on the pretext of addressing difficulties in implementing decentralisation. Any constitutional amendment aiming at concentrating more power at the level of the presidency or controlling dissenting voices, however, would pose a threat to already weakened mechanisms of checks and balances. It is unlikely local elections will be held before the end of parliament’s first term, putting the prospect of general elections in 2011 at risk.
Despite this authoritarian trend, the international community which has invested so much in the Congo’s peace process has remained mostly silent. The Congolese authorities demonstrate an extreme sensitivity to any remaining indications of international tutelage. Invoking sovereignty, the Congolese government has called for the withdrawal of the UN mission (MONUC) to be completed by summer 2011 and has announced that it will take charge of organising the general elections. It is simultaneously engaged in negotiations to secure massive debt relief before the 50th anniversary of independence on 30 June 2010. Given its size and its tense internal politics, the DRC is prone to local rebellions fuelled by domestic discontent that can easily get out of control. In this context, a new international strategy is needed to support democratic consolidation and to prevent new risks of destabilisation.
Furthering the democratic agenda is vital to the Congo’s mid- and long-term stabilisation. Creating new momentum to reverse current trends will require that institutional reforms and legislative programs are not considered merely as technical processes, but as tests of the government’s political will to improve governance and as a central part of any dialogue on additional aid. The following steps are necessary to restart democratic transformation:
Beginning to prepare for the 2011 general elections now. The long-awaited National Independent Electoral Commission should be established and a proper budget should be allocated at the same time. In the meantime, the current electoral authorities should present a clear operational plan for those elections as a basis for discussion with donors.
- Institutionalising the fight against corruption. An anti-corruption strategy based on civil society’s efforts and other post-conflict countries’ experiences should be elaborated and implemented by newly-created independent agencies.
- Guaranteeing fundamental rights through law and institutions. Parliament should create the National Human Rights Commission as outlined in the constitution, review the penal code to comply with the UN Convention against Torture, limit the powers of the national intelligence agency and pass a law protecting journalists, human rights activists and victims and witnesses of human rights abuses.
- Harmonising the decentralisation process with the capacity building and budgetary allocations of the provinces and local governments. The government should set up a commission of national and international experts to establish openly when and how to hold local elections. In the event these elections cannot be held before the 2011 general elections, a new timeframe should be elaborated.
- Establishing a clear partnership between the international community and the Congolese government on security sector reform that aims to add a political dimension to the current technical approach. Benchmarks should be set to measure progress, and conditionality should be determined.
- Connecting development aid and democratic governance. Given the major role played by donors in the Congo, they should use their financial and political leverage to support the process of building democratic institutions and seek to engage the country’s new Asian partners in this strategy, who would benefit equally from a more stable and effective regime with which to cooperate and do business.
Nairobi/Brussels, 8 April 2010