President of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Joseph Kabila, holds a press conference for the first time in five years on January 26, 2018 in Kinshasa
President of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Joseph Kabila, holds a press conference for the first time in five years on January 26, 2018 in Kinshasa. THOMAS NICOLON / AFP
Report 259 / Africa

Electoral Poker in DR Congo

Elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo have been postponed since December 2016, but now seem to be slated for the end of the year. All parties should work to ensure credible polls, the best hope for a peaceful transfer of power.

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What’s new? After repeated delays, President Joseph Kabila’s government in the Democratic Republic of Congo has made progress over the past few months toward organising elections for 23 December 2018. But there are still important concerns about the transparency and quality of the polls.

Why does it matter? While there are still numerous uncertainties, prospects for elections this year have improved – mostly due to increased pressure on the president from African leaders. This provides an opportunity for renewed regional and international engagement to help push toward a more credible vote in December and a peaceful transfer of power.

What should be done? Regional and international actors should push for the confidence-building measures in the 2016 Saint Sylvester agreement, focusing on steps to help level the playing field and improve trust in electoral preparations. The ruling majority and the opposition should participate constructively in the process and refrain from incendiary tactics and language.

Executive Summary

President Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) may be preparing to hold long-postponed elections at the end of 2018. Until recently, Kabila appeared more likely to keep delaying. But official statements, including by the president himself, and steps taken by the Congolese electoral commission (CENI), suggest his calculations may be changing. Elections present several challenges for the regime, first and foremost that of selecting a successor Kabila trusts. But overall his regime is operating from a position of relative strength: it retains firm control of the state and electoral machinery and the opposition remains split. The apparent move toward a vote requires Kabila’s opponents and international actors to quickly adapt. African, Western and other governments should push for a few critical reforms that would make for more credible polls, build confidence in key aspects of electoral preparations and level the playing field.

Signs abound that the regime is seriously contemplating elections. In November 2017, the CENI published a new electoral calendar, foreseeing a vote at the end of 2018. The following month, Kabila approved a new electoral law. In January 2018, the CENI announced the end of voter registration – a milestone in electoral preparations. Kabila’s plans remain unclear, perhaps even in his own mind. He may proceed toward a vote, which would mean choosing a dauphin to replace him and hoping that he can pull strings behind the scenes as head of the ruling party, or at least protect his family interests. But picking a successor could provoke splits – and possibly even violent contestation – among Kabila’s allies. Alternatively, he may revert to further delays; insecurity might provide a pretext. For now, however, preparations for a December vote appear to be underway.

Electoral preparations thus far exclude important elements of the Saint Sylvester deal struck between the government and its opponents.

This poses dilemmas for the Congolese opposition, civil society and international actors. Electoral preparations thus far exclude important elements of the Saint Sylvester deal struck between the government and its opponents on 31 December 2016, which set out steps for a democratic transition of power. Opposition parties are starting to prepare for the campaign, but are divided and face an uphill battle. Some of their leaders, facing legal charges, remain in exile; others struggle to gain traction among a population frustrated with the entire political class. At this point, domestic pressure for reform comes essentially from civil society organisations affiliated with the Catholic Church.

If the shift in pace of electoral preparations requires international actors to adjust quickly, it also presents an opportunity. African and Western powers agree that President Kabila should not seek a third term; indeed, the African Union (AU) and leaders of the sub-regional body, the South African Development Community (SADC), have redoubled diplomatic efforts, seemingly to convey that message to Kabila and push him toward an election which he does not contest. They and Western governments might be able to forge similar consensus on, and then push hard for, a handful of important steps that Congolese authorities could take to help level the playing field and improve prospects for a more credible vote, even if full implementation of the Saint Sylvester deal now appears unlikely. Among these steps:

  • The government should allow all candidates to run unless clear and legally justified obstacles exist; charges that do not meet those criteria should be dropped well ahead of the deadline for registering as a candidate.
  • The government, having declared it will pay for elections, should, together with the CENI, provide details of that funding, in case foreign support is required to plug deficits. Donors should prepare to engage also in the funding of the CENI if so required, and not limit their engagement to accompanying measures led by civil society.
  • The government also should refrain from violence against protesters and, as the election approaches, allow opposition parties to campaign freely. It should implement the recommendations of the 10 March report of the Joint Commission of Inquiry, composed of representatives of the human rights, justice and security ministries as well as civil society, examining bloodshed at recent protests, including by lifting the general ban on meetings and peaceful public protests and by taking measures to restrict the use of the army and Republican Guard in maintaining and restoring public order.
  • The government should ensure the security of all political actors and prevent the intimidation of opposition candidates and supporters by political party militants. Like all Congolese political actors, it should make firm commitments to avoid inflammatory or ethnically divisive rhetoric, perhaps in a code of conduct.
  • The CENI should continue to consult the opposition and civil society on key preparations, particularly an audit of the voter register and procedures for the use of new voting machines, while allowing their representatives the opportunity to verify those aspects of election preparations; its recent meetings along these lines are a positive first step.
  • The CENI also should reach swift agreement on the role of the joint international expert team with those bodies that have deployed experts on the team – the UN, African Union (AU), European Union (EU), Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the International Organisation of La Francophonie (OIF). The experts should be embedded in the CENI and continuously assess and build a shared understanding among those organisations on what progress has been made. They also should keep a close watch on the voter register audit and testing of the new voting machines.

For their part, opposition leaders, who appear to be gearing up for the election, should prepare to campaign across the country. For now, an opposition boycott appears unlikely, especially if the regime fulfils some of the measures outlined above. Even without such reform, shunning the vote would likely prove ineffective, particularly as breakaway opposition factions would participate in any case. A boycott would risk giving whatever regime is elected a freer hand.

The UN mission in the DRC, known as MONUSCO, should increase its human rights monitoring. Along with Kinshasa-based diplomats and the envoys that frequently visit, it should continue to denounce any repression of opposition and civil society groups. Those organisations likely to observe the vote – notably the SADC, AU and EU – should prepare to send exploratory missions to determine minimum conditions under which observers would deploy. The Congolese government should extend invitations to those organisations and bodies that express an intent to observe and have a meaningful role in support of the electoral process.

Western and African powers alike should signal to the government – to both President Kabila and any apparent successor – that broad international acceptance and the benefits that might flow from that depend on an open and transparent process. Regular public meetings and statements, including at the UN Security Council, will be important to demonstrate cohesion, while disagreements should be kept away from the spotlight. The Security Council, whose 27 March renewal of MONUSCO’s mandate focused on its support for the electoral process, should remain closely engaged with the AU and its Peace and Security Council as well as the SADC and other relevant regional bodies. It should also regularly assess the state of electoral preparations, using the CENI’s electoral calendar as a key reference. Regular high-level meetings or visits to the DRC at crucial moments – such as when candidates must register – would help demonstrate international resolve and interest.

Despite the obvious challenges and uncertainty, elections this year in the DRC are now a real possibility. All foreign actors involved should push for a vote that is as credible as possible, limits the further fragmentation of Congolese society and improves prospects for a peaceful transfer of power.

Nairobi/Brussels, 4 April 2018

I. Introduction

On 5 November 2017 the Congolese election commission, the CENI, published its long-awaited electoral calendar, setting 23 December 2018 as the date for presidential, legislative and provincial elections. This was broadly welcomed with just some reservations.[fn]Foreign governments welcomed the new electoral calendar while continuing to support confidence-building and opening of political space provided for in the Saint Sylvester agreement. Domestic political opposition was split; at first some opposition leaders called for Kabila to step down in favour of a transitional government, but since most have started to prepare for the elections. “RDC : l’opposition en ordre dispersée face au nouveau calendrier électoral”, RFI, 8 November 2017; and “Felix Tshisekedi dresse un bilan désastreux de la mise en œuvre de l’accord de la Saint Sylvestre”, Radio Okapi, 22 January 2018. The Catholic Church’s episcopal body, CENCO, continued to advocate for full implementation of the Saint Sylvester deal which it brokered, and deplored the calendar’s publication without the opposition’s consent. “Déclaration de la conférence épiscopale nationale du Congo”, CENCO, Kinshasa, 17 February 2018Hide Footnote Since then the CENI and the government have taken other steps that suggest genuine progress toward elections. These measures initially caught diplomats, opposition politicians and civil society off guard.[fn]In Crisis Group’s most recent report on the DRC, Africa Report N°257, Time for Concerted Action in DR Congo, 4 December 2017, we warned of the regime’s capacity to wrong-foot Congolese and international actors. But we did not at that time see elections in 2018 as a realistic scenario.Hide Footnote While all had been lobbying for elections, few expected the Congolese government to set serious preparations in motion.

Thus far, the move toward elections appears positive, but it raises new risks, related to the unfair conditions for the vote, and potential struggles among Kabila’s allies over who assumes his mantle. This report, based on fieldwork in Congolese provinces throughout 2017 and early 2018, research in the capital Kinshasa in February and March 2018, and policy discussions in Addis Ababa and New York, updates Crisis Group’s December 2017 report, Time for Concerted Action in DR Congo and lays out steps that international and Congolese actors can take to increase prospects for elections that are as credible as possible and to avoid a dangerous unravelling.

II. An Election Train Now on the Rails

Following the CENI’s announcement of the electoral calendar, further developments indicate serious preparations for elections, including new electoral legislation, the completion of the voter register, introduction of new voting technology, and talks between the CENI and opposition parties. Despite some scepticism about the process, most parties are now taking steps to keep up with the CENI calendar.

A. A New Electoral Law

The new elections law, which President Kabila signed on 24 December 2017, includes provisions that are likely to reduce the huge number of candidates who ran for office in 2011. These include electoral thresholds (minimum shares of the total vote that parties must win to qualify for seats in the national and provincial legislatures).[fn]In constituencies with more than one seat, the law provides that parties must get at least 1 per cent of votes nationwide to qualify for parliamentary seats and 3 per cent of votes in a given province to qualify for seats in that provincial assembly. The measure favours bigger parties and broad regroupings of parties; it excludes most, if not all, independent candidates from parliament.Hide Footnote The law also quadruples the non-reimbursable deposit for national assembly candidates to $1,000 and almost doubles that for presidential candidates from $54,000 to $100,000.

The law should thus address a genuine challenge that arose in the 2006 and 2011 elections, namely the proliferation of political parties (currently more than 600) and candidates, which led to a 55-page ballot in Kinshasa in 2011.[fn]The CENI has long made the case for change: its president, Corneille Nangaa, presented a comprehensive analysis of the political effects of the system during the 2016 dialogue facilitated by the African Union. “RDC : Contribution de la Commission Électorale Nationale Indépendante (CENI), Dialogue Politique National Inclusif en RDC”, Kinshasa, 6 September 2016.Hide Footnote While the previous system brought the benefit of inclusion, the profusion of candidates representing many parties resulted in a fragmented parliament and left larger parties under-represented. According to CENI estimates, the new threshold – while low compared with those of many other countries – would in effect exclude all but 23 of the 148 parties currently represented in parliament.[fn]The government had first proposed a 3 per cent threshold at the national level; during the legislative process this was reduced to 1 per cent. “Herding cats: Congo’s new electoral law”, Congo Research Group, 19 December 2017. For comparison of electoral thresholds elsewhere, see, which illustrates thresholds across Europe.Hide Footnote

These measures could begin to cure some of the Congolese political system’s structural flaws. Not only could they reduce fragmentation in the legislature but also, by decreasing the number of smaller parties, they should narrow opportunities for larger parties to bring new MPs into their parliamentary groups through financial inducements – a practice that had the effect of creating a gap between legislative political alignments and the popular vote. The reforms already are leading majority and opposition parties to form new electoral coalitions in order to cross the threshold. Only larger parties such as President Kabila’s People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy (PPRD) and the wing of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) led by Felix Tshisekedi will be able to stand on their own.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Congolese politicians, Kinshasa, February-March 2018. In 2011, the PPRD was the only party with MPs representing all of the country’s provinces (at that time there were eleven).Hide Footnote

The law has left opposition parties scrambling to establish new electoral alliances in the few months that remain for submitting candidate lists.[fn]Candidate lists for the provincial elections need to be finalised and registered at the latest on 8 July, and for the presidential and legislative elections by 8 August.Hide Footnote It will also create winners and losers within the ruling coalition known as the Alliance of the Presidential Majority (hereafter “the Majority”). Indeed, members of some parties affiliated with the Majority, such as the Unified Lumumbist Party (PALU), have criticised both the threshold and the increased deposit, as have smaller opposition parties. A group of MPs has challenged both measures in the Constitutional Court.[fn]Crisis Group interview, opposition MP, Kinshasa, March 2018. “Adolphe Muzito : ‘Caution électorale et financement des partis politiques, qui doit à qui ?’”,, 3 February 2018; “RDC : la loi électorale contestée devant la Cour Constitutionnelle”, RFI, 16 January 2018. Late March, the Constitutional Court organised a hearing with the CENI President. “Innovations de la Loi électorale, Corneille Nangaa Yobeluo a la Cour Constitutionnelle”,, 27 March 2018. “RDC: La Cour Constitutionnelle rejette les trois requêtes en inconstitutionnalité de la loi électorale”,, 30 March 2018. Hide Footnote On 30 March, the Court rejected these challenges.

Overall, though, the Majority is better equipped to cope with these challenges than its rivals.[fn]Crisis Group interview, opposition MP, Kinshasa, March 2018.Hide Footnote In the past it has fragmented the political landscape into small parties which are easier to co-opt. Some within the PPRD, the biggest party in the Majority, explicitly make the case that the new system will work in its favour, especially as the opposition is so ill prepared.[fn]Crisis Group interview, PPRD official, March 2018. “Exclusif – Réforme électorale en RDC : un enregistrement sonore révèle la stratégie du parti de Kabila”, Jeune Afrique, 25 November 2017.Hide Footnote

B. Voting Machines

The CENI’s introduction of new voting technology has stirred more controversy. The electoral body envisages using voting machines that print paper ballots in situ. This change is in principle a response to logistical challenges encountered during previous elections, particularly the lengthy ballots needed in some areas (though higher deposits for candidates should contribute to shorter ballots). However, the opposition and some foreign governments, in particular the U.S., have criticised the introduction of voting machines for political, technical and financial reasons.

To begin, the CENI is introducing the machines at a moment when confidence
in its impartiality is low. Some opposition representatives and Western diplomats at the UN have warned that the machines could contribute to fraud, and have raised concerns about voter confidentiality.[fn]Some opposition parties have introduced questions to the CENI regarding the machines, while others outright oppose their use. Crisis Group interviews, opposition party representatives, Kinshasa, February-March 2018. The U.S. and several other UN Security Council members have raised concerns. “U.S. warns Congo against electronic voting for delayed election”, Reuters, 12 February 2018; “UN Security Council should act on Congo”, Human Rights Watch, 12 February 2018.Hide Footnote The African Union (AU) and African countries have been more forgiving, with some African diplomats stating that, while they would not use such a system in their own countries, they believe this to be an issue where the CENI and Congolese political parties should find common ground.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, African diplomats, Kinshasa, February-March 2018, Addis Ababa, March 2018.Hide Footnote The Catholic Church has called for national and international certification of the machines.

Although the CENI is testing prototypes that are reportedly more reliable, using novel technology potentially poses a risk given poor infrastructure and a lack of reliable electricity.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, civil society representatives and Kinshasa-based diplomats, March 2018.Hide Footnote Nor is it clear that all machines can be delivered on time. There are also major concerns about the financial transparency of the procurement contract, which could further undermine confidence in the process.[fn]Congolese civil society and Western observers are also worried about the lack of financial transparency in the large contract involved in the purchase of the machines. The contract for purchasing the 105,149 machines is valued at $157.7 million, a third of the budget foreseen for this year.Hide Footnote The controversy over voting machines comes late, and preparation time is short. Identifying and contracting suppliers for ballot papers and boxes, were those needed, would take time; a rapid decision on the exact use of the machines is therefore vital. As the CENI leadership seems intent on proceeding with their use, a conceivable compromise could be to deploy machines in a limited number of constituencies that enjoy more developed infrastructure – preferably based on criteria agreed between the electoral stakeholders and national and international observers.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, CENI president, MONUSCO official and Kinshasa-based diplomats, Kinshasa, February-March 2018.Hide Footnote

C. The Voter List

On 31 January, CENI president Corneille Nangaa declared voter registration finalised after a seventeen-month operation. Electoral authorities report that more than 46 million potential voters registered (well above the 41 million expected).[fn]Compared to 25 million in 2006 and 32 million in 2011. Congolese living abroad will be enrolled between 1 July and 28 September 2018.Hide Footnote Between now and mid-April, the CENI is due to clean up the register by removing duplicates and ineligible voters. Next, parliament must consider a law allocating seats to constituencies, based on registration figures. The completion of a complex and expensive voter registration exercise is a significant step toward holding elections. The exercise was almost entirely funded by the government, with considerable logistical support from the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO).

Only the Catholic Church has conducted a nationwide, on-the-ground examination of registration. It found some irregularities such as the registration of minors and areas where voters paid officials or policemen to be enrolled.[fn]“Révision du fichier électoral : la CENCO note des irrégularités”, Radio Okapi, 21 November 2017. Crisis Group interviews, clergy engaged in voter registration observation, Kinshasa, Lubumbashi, Kisangani and Goma, various months 2017.Hide Footnote The opposition did not systematically observe the process, despite a general lack of trust in the impartiality of the CENI. Indeed, some have raised questions, citing high enrolment in Majority strongholds.[fn]“Enrôlement des électeurs en RDC : le Rassemblement doute des chiffres de la CENI”, RFI, 31 August 2017.Hide Footnote Overall, despite these problems, the voting registration was reasonably successful. Still, an external audit of the register, which the CENI plans for May, will be vital to bolster confidence.

D. Lack of Clarity on the Budget

While the voter registration was apparently adequately resourced, it remains unclear exactly how much and which parts of the elections budget the government will be able to fund. In December, the CENI estimated the costs of provincial, parliamentary and presidential elections at $432 million.[fn]The budget is confidential. “Exclusif – Machines à voter, parapluies, véhicules … Les détails du budget électoral en RDC”, Jeune Afrique, 21 December 2017.Hide Footnote The biggest-ticket item is the $157.7 million planned purchase of the 105,149 voting machines.[fn]Voter machines, with the relevant lists of candidates uploaded, are supposed to be rolled out to all 90,000 polling stations (one each). The machine will record and print each vote on a paper ballot for a manual count (hence it will be a semi-electronic vote).Hide Footnote Elections are earmarked as a priority in the government’s 2018 budget, passed on 24 December 2017, amounting to nearly 10 per cent of its projected overall spending.[fn]“Annexe explicative d’analyse des prévisions des dépenses du projet de loi des finances 2018”, Document N°5, Ministère du Budget, November 2017. A total of 966 billion Congolese francs (including 72 billion Congolese francs in logistical support from MONUSCO) figures in the budget. Government spending and the budget are opaque.Hide Footnote

Despite statements by officials, and even Kabila himself, declaring that the government will fund the entire process (while relying on important logistical support from MONUSCO), there are serious concerns, chiefly among Western donors, about the government’s ability to do so.[fn]“Que faire pour financer les élections en RDC”, Radio Okapi, 20 November 2017. On 30 November 2017 (respecting the date in the electoral calendar), MONUSCO presented its logistics support plan to the CENI. “RDC : élections, l’État a débloque 30 millions USD en Janvier 2018 !”,, 21 February 2018; “Élections 2018 : La RDC est-elle capable de financer seule le processus électoral ?”, La Transparence, Observatoire de la Dépense Publique (ODEP), January-February 2018.Hide Footnote  Thus far, the CENI asserts there are no funding shortfalls.[fn]Crisis Group interview, CENI president, Kinshasa, March 2018Hide Footnote  In private meetings between Congolese officials and international diplomats, the former have indicated that the government would accept financial support, provided no strings were attached. Talks between the CENI and the UN Development Programme on a basket fund,  “Le Projet d'Appui au Cycle Electoral au Congo” (PACEC), through which donors would support civic education, electoral monitors and other parts of the support to the process, have been difficult as the CENI thus far has refused to sign the funding document. The CENI reportedly sees donor demands regarding financial transparency as overly onerous given the low amount of funding they are liable to contribute. The CENI also does not wish to agree on funding earmarked for civil society organisations.[fn]Crisis Group interview, CENI president, Kinshasa, March 2018.Hide Footnote While there seems little chance of fully resolving the fractious debate between CENI and Western donors, the latter should be prepared to fill gaps as much as they can to enhance the polls’ credibility.

E. Confidence-building Measures

Congolese authorities have initiated small confidence-building measures, some of which were called for in the Saint Sylvester agreement. Nangaa, the CENI president, has called for an inclusive election and noted that “no one should be left at the side of the road”.[fn]“Point de presse de son excellence monsieur le président de la commission électorale indépendante”, CENI, Kinshasa, 31 January 2018.Hide Footnote On 20 January, the CENI launched its national voter education campaign, and has held sessions to inform political parties of its work, reinforcing the impression of progress.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, political party representatives, CENI president, Kinshasa, February-March 2018.Hide Footnote Throughout February and March, opposition parties attended electoral commission briefings on cleaning up the voter register and on the new voting machines. Encouragingly the UDPS/Tshisekedi, which had not yet confirmed its willingness to participate in elections, sent a delegation.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, CENI president and political party representatives, Kinshasa, February-March 2018.Hide Footnote

The 10 March publication by the Congolese human rights minister of a Joint Commission of Inquiry report on human rights violations, perpetrated during the 31 December and 21 January protests organised by the lay association affiliated to the Catholic Church, was an important initiative.[fn]As the opposition was unable to organise protest, a movement led by a newly established lay organisation, the Lay Coordination Committee (CLC) associated with the Catholic Church, managed to capture national and international imagination with three protests (31 December, 21 January and 25 February), all violently repressed by the security forces.Hide Footnote The report has numerous positive recommendations, including lifting the ban on meetings and public protest as elections approach, and insists on strict guidelines regarding the deployment of security forces in situations other than war and riots. Alongside the Congolese government and civil society, the commission included a representative of the AU liaison office to the DRC.[fn]“Rapport Synthèse de la Commission d’enquête mixte 3121 : Enquête sur les violations et atteintes relatives aux droits de l’homme en lien avec les manifestations du 31 décembre 2017 et 21 janvier 2018”, Ministère des Droits Humains, RDC, Kinshasa, 10 March 2018.Hide Footnote

While the [Saint Sylvester] agreement calls for release of political prisoners, 90 remain in detention.

Significantly, in early March, the speaker of parliament, Aubin Minaku, announced that parliament would soon discuss the replacement of the CENI rapporteur, Jean-Pierre Kalamba, who nominally represents the UPDS in the commission, but whom Tshisekedi’s party does not consider a legitimate representative. Kalamba’s replacement could be an important concession to the UDPS/Tshisekedi, fulfilling a step outlined in the Saint Sylvester deal toward reforming the CENI.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior UDPS official, Kinshasa, March 2018. “CENI : le remplacement de Jean-Pierre Kalamba sera discutée lors de la prochaine session parlementaire”, Radio Okapi, 2 March 2018. The opposition nominates four of the thirteen members of the CENI, two of whom have seats in the six-person bureau. The UDPS has the rapporteur’s slot and the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) the deputy quaestor’s. In June 2017, the MLC invoked the Saint Sylvester agreement and replaced its representative. A similar request from the UDPS/Tshisekedi had previously failed due to disputes over recognition of various wings of the party. The other two opposition representatives in the CENI, representing the Union for the Congolese Nation (UNC) and the Parliamentary Group of the Liberals, Democrats, Christians and Socialists (GPLDS), have not been challenged by their parties. Crisis Group interviews, political party representatives, Kinshasa, March 2018.Hide Footnote This is particularly important as a more extensive restructuring of the electoral authority, including replacing its president as some opposition leaders want, would take time given the complexity of the nomination process, and bring uncertain gains.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, opposition party representatives, diplomats and Catholic Church officials, Kinshasa, February-March 2018.Hide Footnote

Overall, however, the implementation of Saint Sylvester remains slow and incomplete. While the agreement calls for release of political prisoners, 90 remain in detention, including the highest-profile figures, such as Jean-Claude Muyambo, an ally of the prominent opposition leader and former governor of Katanga province Moïse Katumbi. Of the recent releases, only Huit Mulongo, Katumbi’s former head of cabinet, is an active politician – the others are militia members. Katumbi himself, who was sentenced in absentia on charges of illegal sale of a property and is still facing an investigation for alleged recruitment of mercenaries, remains in exile in Belgium. He has said the accusations are politically motivated. It is unclear whether he will be allowed to contest the election.

In short, the balance sheet remains mixed. Congolese authorities have overcome important hurdles in election preparations. But key technical questions – notably concerning funding for the polls and how the voting machines will work in practice – remain unanswered. More importantly, the playing field is still skewed and space for the opposition limited. These problems raise the prospect of a vote that might be reasonably well organised but would be neither fair nor credible.

III. The Regime Maintains the Initiative

The regime in DRC has over recent years been able to dictate the pace of events and take advantage of a weak opposition and an incoherent international response.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Time for Concerted Action in DR Congo, op. cit.Hide Footnote But the growing humanitarian crisis and repression in Kinshasa have contributed to renewed international and, in particular, regional pressure to hold elections on the CENI calendar, which has most likely influenced recent moves toward a vote.[fn]Crisis Group interview, diplomat, Kinshasa, March 2018.Hide Footnote That said, the regime remains largely in control. While maintaining a strong sovereignty-focused discourse, including by lashing out against some in the international community (in particular Belgium) it has moved forward on election preparations, likely hoping to press home its remaining advantages.[fn]“Crise dans les relations entre la Belgique et la RDC”, Radio Okapi, 12 February 2018.Hide Footnote

Particularly revealing was a rare press conference by President Kabila at the end of January 2018, on the 17th anniversary of his presidency.[fn]“Le processus électoral est irréversible en RDC : Voici le texte complet du point de presse du Chef de l’État Joseph Kabila”, Digitalcongo, 31 January 2018. Kabila is an introvert. He speaks in public at most a few times per year, in addresses to parliament.Hide Footnote After defending his legacy in familiar terms, namely claiming credit for stability and constitutional rule, Kabila insisted the elections would be Congolese-led and funded. He noted that “the process is too costly” and “may have to be revised”, but that any major reform would have to wait for subsequent elections. When asked if he would contest the forthcoming vote, he again referred to the constitution, which limits the president to two terms.[fn]The quote, “the constitution had never been violated and would be respected in all its provisions”, from an earlier speech in 2016, remains prominently displayed on the presidency’s website. Crisis Group translation from the French, “n’ayant jamais été violée, la Constitution sera respectée dans toutes ses dispositions”, Presidency ( Footnote While Kabila did not rule out seeking a third term, his answer was the closest he has come to acknowledging that his failed attempts to change the constitution in 2015 appear, at least for now, to have blocked that route for him to stay in power.

Overall, [Kabila's] message to foreign powers was clear: elections are solely a matter for the Congolese.

Kabila also detailed election preparations, including work remaining. He chastised the opposition and the Catholic Church for offering no ideas, stating he “remained open to suggestions to speed it all up”. Overall, his message to foreign powers was clear: elections are solely a matter for the Congolese. He also criticised MONUSCO. Much as he had done shortly ahead of the contested 2011 elections, he called for “clarity on the [UN’s] exit”, and “strict respect of the Status of Forces Agreement”.[fn]“Le processus électoral est irréversible en RDC”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Reinforcing the message that Kabila will not stand in elections, a few days later, Alain Atundu, the Majority’s spokesperson, declared that its candidate would be made known at “the strategic” moment.[fn]For more on the Katangese dimension of Congolese politics, see Crisis Group Africa Report N°239, Katanga: Tensions in DRC’s Mineral Heartland, 3 August 2016.Hide Footnote

More concrete developments suggest the Majority is preparing for the campaign. As early as January 2017, it created an electoral coordination cell, and subsequently set up several new provincial coordination structures. More recently, its secretary-general, Aubin Minaku, stepped up meetings with several parties in the ruling coalition, apparently to plan its campaign. In March 2018, during a gathering in Kinshasa, Minaku rolled out the slogan, “the MP, we win or we win”. The plan is to divide the Majority into sixteen to twenty electoral groups, all designed so that each would likely meet the new electoral thresholds.[fn]“A l’approche des élections : Minaku mobilise les partis membres de la MP”,, 5 March 2018. Crisis Group interviews, Majority members, Kinshasa, February-March 2018.Hide Footnote

Kabila’s PPRD, by far the largest party in the Majority and in parliament, has embarked on an internal restructuring. On 22 January, it adopted new statutes conferring on Kabila a formal role as the party’s “originator” and allowing him to directly appoint the party’s vice-president. He will become the PPRD president once he leaves office.[fn]“RDC : en pleine crise politique, Joseph Kabila refonde son parti”, Jeune Afrique, 26 January 2018. Crisis Group interview, senior PPRD official, Kinshasa, March 2018.Hide Footnote Late in February 2018, in preparation for elections, the party’s leaders also changed its day-to-day management. Outgoing executive secretary Mova Sakanyi switched places with Ramazani Shadari, previously deputy prime minister and interior minister.[fn]On 29 May 2017, Shadari was sanctioned by the EU for planning, directing or committing serious human rights violations.Hide Footnote Shadari had been head of the PPRD parliamentary bloc, and is considered a better campaigner than his predecessor. In addition, the new party leadership has indicated that it will reorganise its youth wing, which is seen as out of its control, factionalised and often too aggressive.[fn]The youth wing had gained notoriety intimidating protesters on 25 February. Crisis Group interview, PPRD official, Kinshasa, March 2018.Hide Footnote

The Majority-led revisions to the electoral law and a PPRD machine that appears well funded and organised at the national, provincial and local levels give the sense of a party prepared for the campaign. The regime enjoys other advantages. Its war chest dwarfs those of most opponents. It has near total control of the security forces, and a strong footing in the CENI and the Constitutional Court, which arbitrates electoral disputes for the presidential and legislative elections. It also controls most provincial governments. In January and February, Kabila appointed new territorial administrators and mayors, mainly from the PPRD, with a wide remit in public security over areas that double as electoral constituencies.[fn]“Entités territoriales décentralisées. RDC : Kabila nomme les AT et ATA !”, La Prospérité, 23 January 2018, “Le président de la République signe trois ordonnances”, Agence Congolaise de Presse, 4 February 2018. Crisis Group interviews, Congolese politicians, Kinshasa, February- March 2018. These appointments left some in the Majority frustrated. Crisis Group interviews, Congolese politicians, Kinshasa, February-March 2018.Hide Footnote Through all of these levers, the regime can dictate the timing of the electoral process and calibrate how much political space it allows the opposition in different parts of the country.

Identifying and forging consensus on [Kabila's] successor remains an enormous challenge

Despite its advantages, the ruling alliance still faces major obstacles. The largest is to anoint a successor to President Kabila, which increasingly seems to be the plan. Given the stakes involved, any move in this regard – even speculation or jostling related to it – could cause infighting within the Majority or Kabila’s circle. Reorganisation within the PPRD is already creating pressure related to positioning for new posts. Unless Kabila and his allies can maintain stability in the informal networks (or “parallel state”) permeating the government and economic spheres that he and his family already control, including the security forces, competition related to the succession could unleash centrifugal forces and even violent contestation. Identifying and forging consensus on a successor remains an enormous challenge. Beyond those names that are frequently cited by Congolese observers or the media, a surprise candidate cannot be ruled out.[fn]The two individuals most often cited as dauphin are former Prime Minister Matata Ponyo (Maniema Province, East) and Speaker of Parliament Aubin Minaku (Kwilu Province, West). Both are PPRD members and have detractors as well as supporters. For a broader overview of potential names, see “RDC : en quête du dauphin ideal”, Jeune Afrique, 18 March 2018.Hide Footnote

The reforms and political preparations offer a glimpse into a regime strategy that would see Joseph Kabila step down but exercise a degree of control behind the scenes as PPRD president – in the Majority’s realistic expectation of remaining the biggest bloc in parliament. This manoeuvre, a variant of the “Putin-Medvedev scenario” (so named after the arrangement Russian President Vladimir Putin used to circumvent term limits between 2008 and 2012), would see a more stable ruling party/coalition with Kabila at the helm.[fn]The extended Kabila family retains strong networks in the country’s economic and security sectors. Their investments indicate they want to stay in the country.Hide Footnote Constitutionally, Kabila is guaranteed a seat in the Senate. His balancing of interests in the “parallel state”, which includes numerous figures from his home province of Katanga, could hold things together sufficiently that he feels his interests are secure. But no guarantee will be watertight, and the possibility of the ruling party or Kabila’s immediate circle fracturing before or after the election remains.[fn]For more on the Katangese dimension of Congolese politics, see Crisis Group Africa Report N°239, Katanga: Tensions in DRC’s Mineral Heartland, 3 August 2016.Hide Footnote

Despite misgivings, the president’s camp seems to have determined that, for now, elections appear the least risky option. The most likely alternative would be further delay, which could be facilitated by co-opting some members of the fractured opposition.[fn]Mistrust is rife among the wheeling and dealing politicians of Kinshasa.Hide Footnote But this could lead to an irreversible decline in the Majority’s electoral prospects, due to international isolation, popular anger and its own internal fissures. A continued stalemate could also present the risk of a coup or violent unrest that slips out of regime control.

Were polls significantly delayed, the regime might be tempted to try a further option, that of changing the constitution to allow Kabila to seek a third term. Yet this approach would be risky; it has met stiff domestic opposition in the past. It would be particularly controversial among foreign powers, including African leaders, and would leave the regime further isolated.[fn]

IV. The Opposition: A Scramble to Reorganise

The possibility of elections this year has shaken opposition parties. Since mid-2017, the main opposition coalition, the Rassemblement, had promoted the ill-defined idea of a transition without Kabila. But the opposition now appears to be preparing to campaign despite the deficiencies in implementing the Saint Sylvester agreement. Since late February there has been a flurry of activity, with smaller parties rushing to form larger groups to ensure they can garner sufficient votes to meet new electoral thresholds and qualify for seats in the future national and provincial assemblies.

This repositioning is fragmenting the Rassemblement. The Group of Seven (G7), the Alternative for the Republic (Alternance pour la République), and several other small parties are backing Moïse Katumbi, while the UDPS/Tshisekedi is going its own way.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Congolese opposition leaders, Kinshasa, February-March 2018.Hide Footnote Katumbi’s supporters met in South Africa from 9 to 12 March 2018 and formed a new coalition, Together for Change (Ensemble pour le Changement).

Other major parties such as the Union for the Congolese Nation (Union pour la nation congolaise, UNC) of Vital Kamerhe and the Movement for the Liberation of the Congo (Mouvement de Libération du Congo, MLC) led by Ève Bazaiba have announced that they will work together during the campaign, though details of what that entails are not yet clear.[fn]“MLC et UNC vont aborder les élections au sein d’une même plateforme électorale”,, 9 March 2018.Hide Footnote More broadly, at the time of writing it is uncertain where opposition consultations and reconfiguration will lead. That said, the creation of coalitions of around ten parties is likely to be the norm. Some new alliances could even transcend the divide between the opposition and the Majority.[fn]For example, representatives of the PALU (affiliated to the majority) had also been included in talks between the MLC and the UNC, although it quickly led to their exclusion from the party. Crisis Group social media conversation, Congolese politician, March 2018.Hide Footnote

Four questions are likely to shape opposition dynamics. The first relates to the future of the UDPS as a political force. The DRC’s historically largest opposition party was weakened by the death of its founding father Étienne Tshisekedi in January 2017, and has had its reputation damaged by discrete talks with the government over power sharing in 2017. A party conference on 31 March elected Felix Tshisekedi as party leader and the party’s candidate for the forthcoming presidential election. The  organisation of the conference was challenged by the UDPS/Tshibala, one of the party’s dissident wings.[fn]

“RDC : un an après le décès d’Etienne Tshisekedi, que devient l’UDPS”, RFI, 1 February 2018.

Hide Footnote In 2017, the regime had encouraged this split, especially by nominating UPDS dissident Bruno Tshibala as prime minister. The unexpected reports that the UDPS/Tshisekedi – the original party, not Tshibala’s splinter – will be allowed to name a new CENI representative and its contacts with the CENI are signs of a possible thaw in relations with the government. In this context, the UDPS’s participation in a new government, were one formed, cannot be excluded.[fn]“RDC : le directeur de cabinet du Premier ministre démissionne”, RFI, 9 March 2018.Hide Footnote

The second question is whether Moïse Katumbi will be allowed to return to the DRC free from threat of prosecution and entitled to contest the election.[fn]For more on the case, see Crisis Group Report, Katanga: Tensions in DRC’s Mineral Heartland, op. cit., pp. 24-25.Hide Footnote He currently is revitalising his political base and enjoys grassroots support, including among youth networks and backers of his football club Tout-Puissant Mazembe. He has confirmed his intention to run for the presidency, and his wealth and political ambition help draw in backers. But he remains in exile, and his prolonged absence from the country may erode his support base.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Congolese opposition politicians, Kinshasa, February-March 2018.Hide Footnote The most recent challenge to his political future has come in revelations concerning his alleged acquisition of another nationality, which the justice minister has reportedly said would mean him having to reapply for Congolese nationality in order to contest elections.[fn]“RDC: Moïse Katumbi a bel et bien eu la nationalité italienne pendant 17 ans”, Jeune Afrique, 22 March 2018. In response to these reports, the Congolese public prosecutor has launched a further investigation into Katumbi, now for the use of false documents. This procedure is denounced by his supporters – it also has not been used against other politicians who have exercised positions of responsibility while having another nationality. “RDC : une information judiciaire ouverte contre Katumbi, son entourage dénonce une « réaction excessive » ”, Jeune Afrique, 28 March 2018Hide Footnote Several major traditional chiefs of his home province Haut-Katanga recently denounced government manoeuvres and argued that Katumbi is Congolese. This points to the potentially inflammatory nature of the nationality issue.[fn]“Déclaration des chefs coutumiers des chefferies et des groupements du Haut-Katanga”, Lubumbashi, 17 March 2018 (document in Crisis Group’s possession). If not resolved by the authorities, this opposition between the “traditional” recognition of Katumbi and the “legal” status could become explosive. Crisis Group email correspondence, Lubumbashi- and Kinshasa-based analysts, March 2018Hide Footnote

Without a united ticket, the opposition likely will struggle against a candidate that enjoys the ruling party’s and Kabila’s backing.

A third question is whether realignments among opposition parties can counter divisions within the opposition overall. Thus far, they have not. Some opposition politicians are calling for a single presidential candidate to challenge Kabila’s likely dauphin. But, short of Katumbi being blocked from running, little suggests that either he or Felix Tshisekedi – the two top opposition leaders – will make way for the other. Without a united ticket, the opposition likely will struggle against a candidate that enjoys the ruling party’s and Kabila’s backing.[fn]

“Présidentielle en RDC : l’UDPS ne soutiendra pas la candidature de Moise Katumbi”, RFI, 14 March 2018.

Hide Footnote

The last question is whether the government will continue to encourage breakaway factions of opposition parties. This so-called doubling of political parties reduces the time and resources parties have to engage with the population and confuses the choices available to voters. On 26 March, as stipulated by the electoral calendar, the government transferred the list of legally recognised political parties and party coalitions to the CENI, which will use it to register candidates. The Saint Sylvester agreement’s follow-up committee recently advised the government to acknowledge the opposition leadership of most parties concerned, as opposed to their regime-affiliated wing.[fn]“Partis politiques : Gabriel Kyungu salue « un grand pas vers une véritable décrispation » ”, Radio Okapi, 22 March 2018.Hide Footnote While the government reportedly followed this advice for some parties, it did not adjudicate on the UDPS or the Social Movement for Renewal (MSR) – leaving the question to the CENI and the courts.[fn]Crisis Group social media correspondence, Kinshasa-based civil society members, March 2018. “Inclusivité de la liste de partis et regroupements politiques : Mova s’acquitte”,, 26 March 2018.Hide Footnote

Some insurgent opposition leaders, notably former rebel and government minister Mbusa Nyamwisi and former militia leader and army officer John Tshibangu, are encouraging the opposition to take up arms as the only means of removing the regime. Thus far their efforts have gone nowhere, due to their limited support base, scant appetite in opposition ranks for such a strategy and lack of international support. Shortly after giving Kabila a 45-day deadline to leave power, Tshibangu was arrested in Tanzania and quickly extradited to Kinshasa in February 2018.

V. Mounting Regional Pressure

The acceleration of election preparations has been generally welcomed by foreign powers. Some Western governments, in particular the U.S. and Belgium, remain critical of Kinshasa’s tactics and push for more transparency. Others are less outspoken. However, differences aside, there is broad recognition that concrete and regular follow-up of progress is needed. On 12 January, the U.S. chaired an informal UN Security Council meeting on the DRC electoral process, which also heard a briefing by the CENI.[fn]The meeting was held according to the “Arria formula”, by which a member or members of the Security Council informally convene the Council to hear the views of individuals, organisations or institutions on matters within its competenceHide Footnote Following this meeting, the Council intends to hold regular meetings on the DRC between now and the vote.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, diplomats, New York, Addis Ababa, March 2018.Hide Footnote In its resolution 2409 (2018), adopted on 27 March, the Security Council requested written updates on political and technical progress toward 23 December elections every 30 days. The DRC crisis likewise features increasingly prominently in talks between African leaders and Western powers, including during a February visit by the French foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, to Angola.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Kinshasa-based diplomat, March 2018.Hide Footnote

DRC’s neighbours and regional organisations have been most active. The AU, Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) have stepped up engagement, as have a number of regional capitals. On 14 February, Kinshasa hosted a tripartite meeting with Angolan president João Laurenço and President Sassou Nguesso of Congo-Brazzaville, representing, respectively, the SADC and ICGLR.[fn]Angola is the current chair of the SADC Organ on Politics and Security. Zambia is the incoming chair and will take over later in 2018. The February meeting was a follow-up to a tripartite meeting organised in Brazzaville on 9 December 2017. The next meeting will be held in Luanda, Angola in the course of April. Crisis Group interview, regional diplomat, Kinshasa, February 2018Hide Footnote On 17 February, President Kabila visited Zambia for talks with President Edgar Lungu. Upon return to Kinshasa he met another Angolan emissary, foreign minister Manuel Augusto Domingos. On 22 February, Gabonese president Ali Bongo visited Kinshasa, and was followed by new Zimbabwean president Emmerson Mnangagwa on 27 February. It is likely that the new South African president, Cyril Ramaphosa, will visit, while the AU and the UN are planning a joint visit from AU Commission chairperson Moussa Faki and UN Secretary-General António Guterres. The UN Security Council is also planning to visit.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, UN diplomats, New York, March 2018.Hide Footnote

The clearest signal that southern African leaders’ patience with Kabila is wearing thin was the silence that followed a strongly worded 26 February 2018 statement from Botswana’s foreign ministry.

While this succession of meetings between Kabila and regional leaders have been private, and public statements kept to a minimum, all indications point toward strong regional pressure on the DRC’s president to respect the CENI’s electoral calendar and stand down. Angola, arguably the African state with the most leverage in the DRC, has been privately critical of electoral delays for some time and halted its military cooperation in 2017. Tensions with Luanda are rattling nerves in Congolese security circles, as Angolans have long been well embedded in the DRC security system, and are seen as highly influential.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Kinshasa-based diplomats, Congolese politician, February-March 2018.Hide Footnote

The clearest signal that southern African leaders’ patience with Kabila is wearing thin was the silence that followed a strongly worded 26 February 2018 statement from Botswana’s foreign ministry. The statement admonished Kabila for attempting to stay in power and called for stronger international pressure to persuade him to step down. While Botswana is not a major player, this pronouncement, on the eve of Botswanan president Ian Khama’s departure from office in late March 2018, may have said out loud what others in the region are thinking or saying behind closed doors.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Kinshasa-based diplomat, March 2018. “Press Release: Refusal by Some Leaders to Hand over Power”, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation, Republic of Botswana, 26 February 2018.Hide Footnote

Southern African governments also are frustrated with Kabila’s failure to cooperate with their recent elections-related initiatives. The DRC government has ignored South African and SADC offers of technical support that followed upon the December 2017 visit of SADC officials and elections experts. It has been slow to engage with the SADC’s plan to open a liaison office. Thus far Kabila has refused to meet the newly nominated SADC envoy to the DRC, former Namibian president Hifikepunye Pohamba.[fn]Southern African and in particular South African support was critical in respecting the electoral deadline in 2011. “SADC Electoral Advisory and Electoral Commissions Forum of SADC Countries Conduct a Joint Electoral Assessment Mission to the Democratic Republic of the Congo”, SADC, press release, 7 December 2017. The 2011 mission followed several earlier SADC trips. On 3 February, the SADC’s executive secretary, Stergomena Lawrence Tax, visited Kinshasa to discuss these issues. “Namibia: DRC govt snubs SADC peace envoy”, Agence de Presse Africaine (Windhoek),15 November 2017; Crisis Group interviews, regional diplomats, Kinshasa, February-March 2018. For more on the regional involvement, see Crisis Group Report, Time for Concerted Action in DR Congo, op. citHide Footnote In order to demonstrate their continued involvement, despite Kabila’s reluctance to engage, SADC ambassadors met with the CENI in early March. During its latest ministerial meeting in South Africa, the SADC said it was waiting for Kinshasa’s invitation to send an electoral observation mission.[fn]“SADC prepares for Zimbabwe, DRC elections”,, 27 March 2018.Hide Footnote

As SADC leaders appear to have nudged President Kabila toward elections, the presidents of countries to the DRC’s east – Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi – seem less directly involved. All three have manipulated their own constitutions to stay in power, and so have little incentive or credibility to encourage respect for term limits, despite their security concerns vis-à-vis borders with the DRC, which have been aggravated by the uncertainty about Kabila’s departure.[fn]See Crisis Group Report, Time for Concerted Action in DR Congo, op. citHide Footnote In December 2017, a deadly attack on the UN attributed to the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), an armed group originating in Uganda, heightened regional security concerns. Uganda has since bolstered its forces in the border area and launched attacks on ADF camps on the Congolese side.[fn]“UPDF attacks ADF rebel hideouts in Congo”, New Vision, 22 December 2017. The ADF insurgency in Beni had already prompted an outflow of Congolese refugees to Uganda. More recently, separate fighting in Ituri province led tens of thousands of additional Congolese refugees to cross into Uganda. “What’s happening in Ituri?”, Congo Research Group, guest blog by Thijs van Laer,, 5 March 2018.Hide Footnote

The AU has established an effective but currently under-resourced liaison office in Kinshasa and is engaged in discrete diplomacy with the Congolese political actors and regional leaders. In its latest statement on the DRC, the AU Peace and Security Council stressed its support for the implementation of the Saint Sylvester agreement and called for the region and the wider international community to provide technical, logistical and financial support for elections.[fn]PSC/PR/BR.(DCCLVIII), AU Peace and Security Council, 758th meeting, press statement, 14 March 2018. Crisis Group interviews, AU officials, diplomats, Kinshasa, Addis Ababa and New York, February-March 2018.Hide Footnote

VI. Priorities for Government and International Actors

The technical progress toward elections confronts foreign powers with hard choices. If they back elections they risk supporting an unsatisfactory process, while refusal to engage would risk further delays for which they might shoulder the blame. Likewise, if they try to leverage their support for the electoral process, the regime could revert to its previous delaying tactics. Having weakened the opposition, the regime is calling everyone’s bluff in a game of “heads we win, tails you lose”.

Nonetheless, the recent progress is the result of considerable international and especially African pressure, and the wisest course of action is to continue to push for a vote in full respect of the calendar. There is now a broad international consensus that the current electoral calendar must be respected and Kabila barred from seeking a third term. Congolese political parties on both sides are clearly in preparation mode. This should provide a renewed basis for more active and coherent international engagement in the immediate future.

All international actors should cautiously welcome recent signs of progress toward elections.

Conditions for an open, transparent election, in which all parties can freely campaign, do not yet exist and continued international engagement will be needed to improve prospects. As a first requirement, international actors should overcome, or at least reduce, any differences among them on what would constitute minimum standards for free and fair elections in the DRC. Strong pressure on the regime to allow all prominent opposition candidates to run should be an important agreed element. But at present, different approaches from those most lenient to the government to those most critical, embolden both the regime and opposition to take maximalist positions and to avoid compromise.[fn]See Crisis Group Report, Time for Concerted Action in DR Congo, op. cit., pp. 24-27.Hide Footnote

Whether African lobbying of Kabila can translate into unified pressure for reform remains uncertain. What is clear is that a sham vote would leave any ensuing government without the requisite legitimacy to tackle the DRC’s multiple challenges, and would thus serve the region ill. All international actors should cautiously welcome recent signs of progress toward elections. Influential African and Western powers ought to lead a robust diplomatic push in favour of a handful of key reforms that would build confidence in the process itself, while moving toward a more level playing field. Such pressure should be accompanied by offers of broad recognition and potentially additional support for a government elected in a reasonably open vote.

A. Critical Steps to Prepare for Elections

Several key measures could improve prospects for a cleaner vote. First, the CENI should make critical aspects of its election preparations more transparent – notably the upcoming audit of the voter register. That inspection should take place in consultation with opposition and civil society representatives, as well as international experts.

CENI transparency ought to extend to plans for the voting machines, which likely will require a swift compromise among the electoral authority, the opposition and, if funding is required, donors. Simply pressing the CENI to abandon the use of the voting machines is unlikely to work and last-minute changes could prove destabilising. Given that conditions in parts of the country could complicate the functioning of voting machines, one possible compromise would be to use them exclusively in some urban areas, where in any case longer candidate lists make them more useful. The new system must be tested rigorously and transparently – with opposition and civil society representatives and international experts present – to build trust in its use. Together with the Congolese government, the CENI also needs to be more transparent about its budgeting for the elections, so that donors can prepare to fill any gaps.

The government and CENI also urgently need to agree on the role of the joint team of election experts from the UN, AU, SADC, Organisation Internationale de La Francophonie (OIF) and EU.[fn]This team was deployed based on an agreement during the 2017 UN General Assembly.Hide Footnote Optimally, this group would be embedded in the CENI not only to provide technical support but also to assess preparations and build a shared understanding of progress among the organisations represented. It should also help to reboot the dialogue between the CENI and the donors in more constructive terms.

Initiatives to evaluate progress toward elections in regular meetings in the UN Security Council, supported by monthly reporting from MONUSCO, should continue. This will help keep the Security Council focused and at a minimum can contribute to a common understanding of the issues. As MONUSCO is of crucial importance to the logistics of the elections and will have an important budget to that end, the meetings will also allow the Council to apply pressure in case of severe slippage. Meanwhile, the SADC, AU, EU and any other bodies planning to observe the elections should open negotiations now with the government to establish the conditions under which teams would deploy; any missions that do so should include long-term observers. The government should start by extending invitations to those bodies.

B. Levelling the Playing Field

International actors also should focus on measures to help level the playing field and improve relations between the government and opposition. There are some grounds for cautious optimism, namely the Joint Commission of Inquiry that investigated the violence around protests in December and January.

In this context, the government should:

  • Release political prisoners, in line with its commitment in the Saint Sylvester deal.
  • Clarify the lawfulness and validity of legal proceedings against opposition politicians, or simply drop charges, most of which are politically motivated. As those facing charges cannot contest elections, their cases should be resolved well ahead of the deadline for candidates to register. The main opposition candidates should be allowed to run[fn]The exclusion of leading candidates has been a major contributing factor of destabilisation in countries such as Côte d’Ivoire.Hide Footnote
  • Implement the recommendations of the recent joint investigation into the December and January violence. This should include lifting the general ban on meetings and peaceful public protests as well as measures that restrict the use of the army and Republican Guard in maintaining and restoring public order.

In sending a list of political parties to the CENI without resolving all outstanding issues concerning doubling of parties, the government has respected the deadline but transferred the responsibility for issues still confronting several major parties, in particular the UDPS and MSR, to the CENI and the courts. The political parties concerned, the CNSA and the CENI, should convene to resolve the issues as soon as possible. Prime Minister Tshibala and his UDPS should not interfere in the internal organisation of the UDPS/Tshisekedi.

For their part, opposition parties ought to engage with the CENI on outstanding issues of concern and prepare their constituents for a campaign that engages the population at all levels. There are, of course, serious qualms about the electoral environment. But, overall, participating in the elections – as most opposition parties appear to be preparing to do – appears a wiser course than boycotting them, all the more so if the regime offers some compromises. A boycott would not halt the elections but would risk producing a government enjoying fewer checks on its authority.

International actors should encourage talks between the Majority and opposition parties with a view to devising an electoral code of conduct. This code should entail pledges by political leaders on all sides to condemn violence, avoid inflammatory rhetoric and refrain from politicising ethnicity. The recent protest by Katangese traditional chiefs concerning Moïse Katumbi’s citizenship provides further proof of the importance of these identity issues. Many Congolese in rural areas affected by years or decades of conflict fear the use of hate speech or outbreaks of ethnically oriented violence, often orchestrated by politicians; many urban residents associate political parties most closely with their violent youth wings. This climate makes measures to ease tensions in advance of the polling particularly important. Based on the current situation, but also the electoral cartography and experiences from 2006 and 2011, MONUSCO will need to work continuously on a comprehensive conflict assessment and contingency planning.

Talks between President Kabila’s camp and opposition leaders might also aim for some wider understanding on the transition, and how to protect some of the interests of losing parties. This could include the future of the president, his close allies and his family.

Congolese and international actors can take other steps to build on the apparent momentum toward elections. The Protestant Church and Congolese Islamic Committee, which until recently appeared more sympathetic to the government, have supported recent protests, potentially aligning both bodies more closely with the Catholic Church. A joint statement by heads of the different denominations in support of the elections, and pledging that their respective hierarchies will follow the campaign and elections preparations closely, would help build confidence.[fn]The country’s inter-church Integrity and Electoral Mediation Committee remains hung up on past disagreements, so joint statements would have to be hammered out directly. Crisis Group interviews, representatives of Catholic and Protestant Churches, Kinshasa, March 2018.Hide Footnote

In addition, regional governments, the SADC and AU should follow up their diplomatic engagement with joint messages as well as regular high-level visits and meetings. As candidate registration begins in June/July, a planned joint visit by the UN Secretary-General and the chairperson of the AU Commission would be useful in maintaining pressure and showing support to Congolese actors working towards elections.

VII. Conclusion

Elections this year in the DRC are now a real possibility. While scepticism as to the government’s intentions is certainly warranted, a critical but constructive approach by international actors stands the greatest chance of nudging President Kabila and the DRC toward an orderly transfer of power. Recent diplomatic efforts by regional leaders, which may have partly motivated Kabila’s apparent move toward elections, could provide a base for renewed African and Western pressure to hold Congolese authorities to the timeline and take steps to make the vote more credible. Further delays, a botched vote or balloting widely viewed as unfair would risk entrenching a regime with too narrow a base and too little popular legitimacy to tackle the enormous challenges the DRC faces. This outcome would fuel further instability in the country and region. There is still a long way to go, and there are many questions surrounding the polling. But Congolese authorities have taken some positive steps over the past few months. International and regional actors should seize this opportunity to push hard for a peaceful transition.

Nairobi/Brussels, 4 April 2018

Appendix A: Map of DR Congo

Map of DR Congo International Crisis Group/KO/October 2016. Based on UN map No. 4007 Rev.11 (May 2016)

Appendix B: Acronyms

ADF: Allied Democratic Forces

CENI: Independent National Electoral Commission

CNSA: National Council for Monitoring the Agreement and the Electoral Process

GPLDS: Parliamentary Group of Liberals, Democrats, Christians and Socialists

MLC: Movement for the Liberation of the Congo

MSR: Social Movement for Renewal

MONUSCO: UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the DRC

OIF: Organisation internationale de la Francophonie

PALU: Unified Lumumbist Party

PPRD: People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy

SADC: Southern African Development Community

UDPS: Union for Democracy and Social Progress

UNC: Union for the Congolese Nation

Residents chant slogans against Congolese President Joseph Kabila as MONUSCO peacekeepers patrol during demonstrations in the streets of Kinshasa, DRC, on 20 December 2016. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya
Report 257 / Africa

Time for Concerted Action in DR Congo

President Kabila’s delaying tactics are holding hostage DR Congo’s political transition, while internal strife and government repression are weakening the opposition. Western and African actors need to coordinate their approach to the deepening crisis, support the advancement of democratic elections and encourage the opening of political space.

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  • What’s the issue? President Joseph Kabila’s apparent determination to remain in power threatens to prolong the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) political stalemate. Having subverted the December 2016 Saint Sylvester agreement that set out a path toward elections, the regime is increasingly confident while the opposition grows weaker and more divided.
  • Why does it matter? The DRC is already among the world’s worst humanitarian crises. Violence has been intensifying across several provinces and the risk of further escalation is high. A rapid implosion would have dire consequences for stability in the DRC and its neighbours.
  • What should be done? Western and regional powers need to redouble efforts to encourage a peaceful transition. The recently-announced electoral calendar provides an opening for reinvigorated international engagement, ideally behind the Saint Sylvester principles. The Congolese opposition and civil society should engage in, not boycott, the political process.

Executive Summary

The political impasse in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) continues, and violence has been rising in several provinces throughout 2017. Yet the regime of President Joseph Kabila appears determined to stay in power by postponing elections. It has outmanoeuvred the opposition and international actors alike. The blockage carries grave dangers for Congolese and regional stability; the longer the crisis drags on, the harder it will be to pick up the pieces. To minimise these risks, Western and African powers need to overcome their inertia and forge consensus on how to pressure President Kabila. Revising international coordination mechanisms for the DRC could help. A joint Western and African approach should focus on advancing election preparations based on the recently published electoral calendar while actively pushing to open political space and eventually establish the confidence necessary to carry out a credible and peaceful vote and to maintain stability in its aftermath.

Since the signing of the 31 December 2016 Saint Sylvester agreement, which stipulated that elections should occur in 2017 and that President Kabila should leave power, the regime has dug in, weakening the opposition through attrition. In contravention of the agreement, it now controls the government and the agreement’s national oversight committee, as well as the electoral commission. It has no grand strategy for staying in power, nor does it need one. The Kabila regime’s control of state finances and key institutions, the opposition’s weakness following the death of its historic leader, Etienne Tshisekedi, and dwindling international attention have allowed it to subvert the agreement’s implementation.

Although the opposition coalition platform, the Rassemblement, has remained relatively coherent, it is weak and has been losing traction with a restless population. It is now calling for the establishment of a transitional government without Kabila at the end of 2017, an outcome that has no chance of occurring. The opposition’s weakness along with the regime’s repressive tactics has opened space for armed groups. Insurgencies, massive prison breaks, and vicious or clumsy security force reactions have all grown throughout 2017. There are tentative signs that armed groups are attempting to coordinate their positions, which could become a serious threat to the region’s stability. At least ten provinces now are in the grip of armed conflict, resulting in one of the world’s most complex and challenging humanitarian crises. Neighbours, particularly Angola and the Republic of Congo, are worried by renewed or potential refugee surges into their territory. It is a vicious cycle: as the government’s grip on power loosens, it increasingly uses heavy-handed tactics and disregards the rule of law while invoking the unrest to justify election delays, all of which only further fuels discontent.

As the government’s grip on power loosens, it increasingly uses heavy-handed tactics and disregards the rule of law while invoking the unrest to justify election delays, all of which only further fuels discontent.

The electoral commission, after months of delay, finally has produced its electoral calendar, with presidential polls now scheduled for 23 December 2018 – a full year beyond the Saint Sylvester deadline. Left on its own, the government is likely to drag out electoral preparations even longer. International actors have been unwilling to engage more actively, partly out of frustration at the parties’ intransigence, partly due to their own differences over how to pressure the government. Many Western powers have become more critical of the regime, with the European Union (EU) and U.S. sanctioning nearly two dozen officials. In contrast, African heads of state generally have acquiesced as the government violates the spirit and terms of the Saint Sylvester agreement and tend to dismiss Western sanctions as ineffectual. Although neither Western nor African powers hold homogenous views, these broad divides allow the government to forum shop and portray pressure as a form of neo-colonialism. The sheer number of actors involved, including a multitude of regional organisations, adds to the problem.

The starting point is for both Western and African powers to recognise that the direction in which President Kabila is driving the country poses the gravest threat to its stability, notwithstanding the uncertainty that a transition would bring. Even if many believe the current regime is highly unlikely to willingly leave power, working toward elections and a more open political environment remains vital. International actors share an interest in holding President Kabila to the Saint Sylvester deal’s main principles – notably the effective organisation of elections, no constitutional amendment to allow President Kabila to remain in office and an opening of political space and respect for human rights – which still offer the best route out of the crisis.

Behind closed doors, African leaders recognise the dangers, but the forces of inertia are more complex to overcome. The result: continued public support for Kabila on the continent provides his regime breathing space. Western powers should redouble efforts to overcome differences with their African counterparts, listening to their concerns and, for now, refraining from further sanctions. Even united, it would not be easy for Western and regional powers to nudge Kabila toward a transition and the DRC out of its current predicament; divided, the prospects are close to zero.

One option to reinvigorate and sustain regional and international diplomacy around the DRC would be to set up a smaller group of envoys, composed of the institutions that have initiated the group of experts for electoral support – the African Union (AU), UN, la Francophonie, EU and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) – preferably along with the U.S. Ideally, then, a consensus position would involve active African and Western diplomacy to promote the following:

  • Adherence to the electoral timeline and a transparent elections budget. The recent publication of a feasible timeline – one that gives the opposition time to organise ahead of polls – is an opportunity for active engagement. International actors involved in electoral preparations, including the UN as well as regional groups and the EU, should monitor adherence to the calendar and warn against unjustified slippage. The government and electoral commission (CENI) should make it a priority to clarify and detail the funding of the process. The CENI should also rapidly clarify the financial and operational impact of its proposed semi-digital vote. Any option proposed should include a thorough and open assessment of its impact on the timing of elections. Parliament urgently needs to adopt relevant electoral legislation. Electoral legislation as well as other legal initiatives should avoid restricting political space.
  • Implementation of previously agreed confidence-building measures. The government should establish a credible process to assess the legality and validity of the prosecution of several opposition leaders. It also should allow peaceful political protest, party activity and free media reporting. International actors, including regional ones, should pressure the government to this end. Recent initiatives, such as a restrictive law on civil society, run counter to the spirit of the Saint Sylvester and will hamper the transparency of the electoral process.
  • Opposition parties’ intensified engagement in the process. Rather than boycotting talks or refusing to engage on key issues such as the electoral calendar, opposition figures should intensify their engagement in the process, including by actively challenging the regime’s manipulation of the judiciary. The opposition should transform its narrative and address key social and economic questions, proving their relevance to a restive citizenry. They also should start preparing their party structures and base for upcoming elections.

Last, international actors, including the UN, have to be prepared for a potential short-term deterioration of the situation. The UN Security Council should give careful consideration to the recommendations of the September 2017 strategic review of the UN Mission, especially regarding greater flexibility in force deployment and human rights monitoring. The risk of violence escalating over the coming months is high and international actors, including the UN, should be prepared to manage the consequences as best possible.

Nairobi/Brussels, 4 December 2017

Political Blockage and Rising Violence in DR Congo

Richard Moncrieff, Crisis Group’s Central Africa Project Director, describes DR Congo's political blockage that is fuelling popular frustration with politicians, the spread of violence, and a sense that the vast country is fraying at the edges.

I. Introduction

On 31 December 2016, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) ruling political party coalition known as the Alliance of the Presidential Majority (hereinafter “the Majority”) and the opposition signed the “Comprehensive and Inclusive Political Agreement”, commonly known as the Saint Sylvester agreement. Mediated by the Congolese Catholic Church, it came about under pressure both from the street and international actors. By clearly stating that elections should be held in 2017 and that the constitutional provision on presidential term limits should not be changed, it appeared to answer the question dominating Congolese political life: how to organise a democratic transition of power with an unwilling incumbent.[fn]See Crisis Group Africa Report N°225, Congo: Is Democratic Change Possible?, 5 May 2015; “Congo: Une bataille électorale périlleuse”, Congo Research Group, August 2016.Hide Footnote

Over the next eleven months, the Majority controlled implementation to suit its agenda of further elections delay (glissement). It has exploited its opponents’ weakness and divisions and profited from a largely passive international community. The 5 November electoral calendar has now officially confirmed additional delay with polls planned for 23 December 2018 and the presidential inauguration scheduled in January 2019.[fn]“Décision N°065/CENI/BUR/17 du 5 Novembre 2017 portant publication du calendrier des élections présidentielle, législatives, provinciales, urbaines, municipales et locales”, CENI, 5 November 2017.Hide Footnote While tension is rising throughout the country, there are few signs that either opposition or international actors have the capacity to shift the status-quo.

While tension is rising throughout the country, there are few signs that either opposition or international actors have the capacity to shift the status-quo.

The talks that led to the Saint Sylvester agreement were the most recent in a series of dialogues following the defeat of the M23 insurgency in 2013.[fn]The M23 was an insurgency backed by Rwanda and Uganda that took over parts of North Kivu in 2013 and constituted the biggest security crisis of Kabila’s 2011-2016 mandate.Hide Footnote The Majority sought to use these earlier rounds to stay in power beyond the end of President Joseph Kabila’s second and, according to the constitution, final term in office in 2016. However, it was far from plain sailing: talks did not produce an adequate consensus to amend the constitution and in January 2015, surprisingly large popular protests, sparked by government plans to implement an expensive and time-consuming census before it would hold elections, ended any illusion within the Majority that it could quickly engineer an outcome allowing the president to run for a third term. Shortly thereafter, fractures emerged within the Majority: then-Katanga Governor Moïse Katumbi left it in 2015, followed by parties that would form the “Group of Seven” (G7) opposition coalition.[fn]

Moïse Katumbi resigned as governor of Katanga in September 2015 and declared his candidacy for president on 4 May 2016. He left the country a few weeks later for medical reasons, after the government launched legal proceedings against him, and remains in exile.

Hide Footnote The regime’s crack-down on Katumbi and the G7 provided them with some credibility and sympathy among a public desperate for change.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Congolese citizens, civil society members, politicians, Bukavu, 2016; Goma, 2016-2017; Kananga, 2017; Kinshasa, 2016-2017; Lubumbashi, 2016-2017. See also Crisis Group Africa Report N°239, Katanga: Tensions in DRC's Mineral Heartland, 3 August 2016.Hide Footnote

Initial attempts to bring together these break-away elements and more established opposition and civil society groups faltered. This changed in June 2016 at a meeting in Genval, Belgium, when newcomers, including Katumbi, and established opponents, including Etienne Tshisekedi and his Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS), joined forces, creating the Rassemblement.[fn]In full: “Le Rassemblement des Forces politiques et sociales de la RDC acquises au changement”. Known as Rassop, or more commonly, “le Rassemblement”, this platform already includes two declared presidential candidates: Moïse Katumbi and Martin Fayulu. It bridges the gap between Katangese (heavily represented in the G7-Katumbi alliance) and Kasaian (UDPS) interests. The regime is strongly focused on disrupting this alliance.Hide Footnote It demonstrated strength by mobilising massive crowds on 29 July 2016 when Etienne Tshisekedi returned to Kinshasa after a long absence in Belgium. Although it does not include the entire opposition, the Rassemblement became its centre of gravity.[fn]The main opposition parties not part of the Rassemblement remain open to working with the Majority. They include the Union for the Congolese Nation (UNC), led by Vital Kamerhe, and the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), led by Jean-Pierre Bemba (currently being prosecuted in by the International Criminal Court in The Hague) and Eve Bazaiba, who is in the DRC. For example, the UNC participated in the 2016 AU dialogue and the subsequent national union government led by then-Prime Minister Samy Badibanga (19 December 2016-6 April 2017).Hide Footnote

International actors strongly supported President Kabila following the 2006 elections, but the chaos of the 2011 polls fed doubts as to the country’s direction. The DRC government regained some sympathy in 2012 and 2013 when it fought the M23 insurgency, which was backed by neighbouring countries. This led to the Peace and Security Cooperation Framework Agreement (PSCF) signed in Addis in February 2013 and based on the following trade-off:[fn]Peace and Security Cooperation Framework for the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the region”.Hide Footnote DRC’s neighbours promised not to interfere in the country’s affairs, while Kinshasa committed itself to democratic reforms. Backed by international actors, the PSCF remains the most recent high-profile international commitment to peace in the DRC and the region.[fn]International witnesses signing the PSCF were: the UN, the African Union (AU), the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR).Hide Footnote Since then oversight and support for its implementation has lost momentum as the DRC has become bogged down in a seemingly interminable political and constitutional crisis.

Through an analysis of the contentious implementation of the Saint Sylvester agreement this report looks at the intertwined sources of political tension and violence in the DRC throughout 2017. It analyses the international and regional response and argues that, the election delay notwithstanding, there is an urgent need for renewed national and international engagement around some core principles – notably the effective organisation of elections, no constitutional amendment to allow President Kabila to remain in office and an opening of political space and respect for human rights – to prevent the crisis from growing and potentially engulfing the region. It is based on fieldwork throughout 2016 and 2017 in Addis Ababa, Brussels, Goma, Kananga, Kinshasa, Kisangani, Lubumbashi, New York and Pretoria. It builds upon a series of commentaries and op-eds published since December 2016 and is part of a series of publications on the DRC’s broader electoral process.[fn]See Crisis Group Commentaries, “Open Letter to the UN Secretary-General on Peacekeeping in DRC”, 27 July 2017; “DR Congo: What Next for the Political Process?”, 6 April 2017; “Kamuina Nsapu Insurgency Adds to Dangers in DR Congo”, 21 March 2017; “Kabila’s Strengths and Vulnerabilities as DRC Deadline Nears”, 11 December 2016.Hide Footnote

II. Boxing in the Shadow of Saint Sylvester

As the political temperature rose in early 2016, the African Union (AU) Commission launched an initiative in support of a national political dialogue led by a member of the AU Panel of the Wise, former Togolese Prime Minister Edem Kodjo. From the start, it was deeply distrusted by the opposition and civil society.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, UDPS officials, members of civil society and youth organisations, Kinshasa, September 2016. See also “The African Union Supports Inclusive National Political Dialogue in the DRC”, press release, African Union, 14 January 2016; “The Chairperson of the Commission appoints Mr. Edem Kodjo as facilitator for the national dialogue in the Democratic Republic of Congo”, press release, African Union, 6 April 2016.Hide Footnote Although boycotted by the Rassemblement, the talks took place under Kodjo’s leadership between 1 September and 18 October. The disconnect between these talks and mounting tension on the ground became obvious when security forces violently repressed protests in Kinshasa and the influential Episcopal Conference of the Congolese Catholic Church (CENCO) walked out of the discussions.[fn]“Violences en RDC: les évêques suspendent leur participation au dialogue national”, Radio France internationale (RFI), 20 September 2016.Hide Footnote An agreement eventually was signed on 18 October but it lacked comprehensive opposition and international support.[fn]The agreement was signed by the Majority, the so-called “Republican opposition” (parties affiliated to Senate President Kengo Wa Dondo, and close to the Majority), Vital Kamerhe’s UNC and several smaller political parties, as well as civil society representatives. Its main points were a new voter register by July 2017 as well as joint presidential, legislative and provincial elections by April 2018.Hide Footnote During a 26 October 2016 meeting of the PSCF international follow-up mechanism in Luanda, Kabila came under pressure from several regional leaders, notably Angola’s (now former) President José Eduardo dos Santos, to negotiate a more inclusive agreement. On 29 October, the presidency entrusted the CENCO with a good offices mission.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, diplomats, Kinshasa, November 2017.Hide Footnote

While the bishops brought their moral weight to the table, this eleventh hour attempt was driven mainly by increasing pressure from international actors – including the imposition of sanctions – and from the population, particularly in the form of street protests on 19 and 20 December.[fn]19 December marked the official end of President Kabila’s second five-year mandate. The U.S. adopted targeted sanctions in June, September and December 2016, and in June 2017. “Treasury sanctions senior Congolese official for leading Republican Guard in undermining democratic processes”, press release, U.S. Department of the Treasury, 6 January 2017; and “Treasury sanctions two Congolese governments officials”, press release, U.S. Department of the Treasury, 12 December 2016. The EU adopted sanctions in December 2016 and May 2017. “Democratic Republic of the Congo: EU adopts sanctions against a further 9 people”, press release, The Council of the European Union, 29 May 2017; and “Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC): EU adopts sanctions against 7 individuals responsible for violence”, press release, The Council of the European Union, 12 December 2016.Hide Footnote All opposition parties participated in the talks, but Etienne Tshisekedi kept a safe distance, as did President Kabila. The Rassemblement insisted on power sharing (in particular allowing the opposition to choose a prime minister), elections in 2017, guarantees that the constitution be respected, more political space (including ending the prosecution of Moïse Katumbi and other political leaders), greater media freedom and reform of the Independent Electoral Commission (CENI). On 31 December 2016, nearly two weeks after the legal end of Kabila’s second and last term, the parties signed the agreement.[fn]President Kabila and Etienne Tshisekedi, the only two individuals whose roles were defined in the text, did not sign. The Majority signed with reservations, citing its non-inclusiveness as the MLC in particular had not signed. The reservations were lifted on 27 January 2017. The MLC signed the agreement on 14 January, and at the same time announced it would refuse to join a unity government. It had concerns about the two main actors (Majority and Rassemblement) co-managing the transition without third-party oversight.Hide Footnote

A. The Agreement

The Saint Sylvester “Global and Inclusive” Agreement comprises four main pillars that:

  1. Confirm the integrity of the 2006 constitution, which prohibits the incumbent president from seeking a third term, while acknowledging that Kabila would remain in power until his elected successor is installed;
  2. Introduce a concrete, albeit adjustable, deadline for elections to be held by the end of 2017;
  3. Include the opposition in a power-sharing agreement for the transitional period while remaining vague on how it would be established; and,
  4. Introduce an inclusive oversight mechanism and platform for talks among all political actors, dubbed the National Council for Monitoring the Agreement and the Electoral Process (CNSA), to be chaired by the president of the Rassemblement, Etienne Tshisekedi.[fn]“Accord Politique Global et Inclusif du Centre Interdiocesain de Kinshasa”, 31 December 2016.Hide Footnote

The agreement also foresees the “revitalisation” of the electoral commission and the lifting of restrictions on political activity, including ending the judicial prosecution of opposition leaders, particularly Moïse Katumbi. Moreover, it calls for a completely new voter roll and for presidential, legislative and provincial elections to be held simultaneously.[fn]These were already agreed-upon in the AU-led dialogue.Hide Footnote Finally, the deal envisages further talks to agree on “special arrangements” for its effective implementation, including questions regarding the composition of the government, the procedure for the appointment of the prime minister and a timetable.

Although power-sharing is not new in DRC, the creation of a domestic mechanism to monitor election preparation alongside an opposition-led government in principle amounted to a fundamental power rebalancing. Implemented in full, it would have meant shared control over, and oversight of, the electoral process by placing Kabila’s nemesis, Etienne Tshisekedi, in a powerful position as head of the monitoring council (CNSA), and appointing an opposition prime minister who, among other things, would be responsible for budgetary processes. In other words, it would have forced the president and his political allies into an uneasy cohabitation with their rivals.

Conversely, however, it would also have made the opposition complicit in any eventual extension of the agreements’ 31 December 2017 deadline. Importantly, a splintered opposition with low levels of domestic support, many of whose leaders were in exile, was far from ready to confront the Majority. At different stages several key opposition parties privately acknowledged that they would need two years to prepare politically for elections.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, opposition leaders, Kinshasa, September 2016; diplomats, Kinshasa, September 2017.Hide Footnote

The agreement was widely and rightly welcomed. Still, it contained several inherent deficiencies: it allowed the president to retain full control of the security forces; the Majority, determined to extend its time in power, retained multiple means of generating delays; and the electoral timetable was highly ambitious – to the point of being unrealistic – particularly given the absence of clarity on how to reform the electoral commission, the difficulties in finalising the electoral roll and the question of finance. A generalised institutional inertia – exacerbated by the fact that most potential candidates are complicit in and benefit from the prolonged glissement – compounded these problems. Finally, with the signing of the agreement, domestic and international pressure on the regime noticeably diminished.[fn]The actively engaged U.S. Special Envoy Tom Perriello has not been replaced. The Kabila government and the opposition also heavily lobbied the incoming Trump administration.Hide Footnote This allowed it to undermine implementation while the opposition, plagued by internal dissent, lost its focus.

B. Non-consensual Implementation

On 1 February 2017, Etienne Tshisekedi, the only opposition leader with the charisma to bring massive crowds onto the streets, passed away. His death fundamentally changed power dynamics in favour of the regime and left the Rassemblement in disarray.[fn]Hans Hoebeke and Richard Moncrieff, “What does opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi’s death mean for DR Congo’s road to elections”, African Arguments, 3 February 2017. After a period of disarray, the Rassemblement settled on Felix Tshisekedi as president and Pierre Lumbi as the president of its “committee of the wise”.Hide Footnote Several members joined a dissident group (dissident Rassemblement), led by Joseph Olenghankoy.[fn]Olenghankoy was one of the Rassemblement’s founders. The dissident group, also includes Moïse Katumbi’s brother, Raphael Katebe Katoto, previously a close ally of Etienne Tshisekedi, and one of the architects of the Rassemblement. The dissidents are also called the Rassemblement Kasa-Vubu (seat of Olenghankoys’ party the Innovative forces for Union and Solidarity, FONUS).Hide Footnote Tshisekedi’s own party, the UDPS, proved particularly ill-prepared for his demise. It split into several factions, some of which rejected the transfer of leadership to Etienne’s son Felix. A formal party conference has yet to be held.[fn]“RDC: six mois après la mort d’Etienne Tshisekedi ses disciples se déchirent toujours”, Jeune Afrique, 3 August 2017. Crisis Group interviews, UDPS official, Kinshasa, June 2017; opposition politician, Kinshasa, September 2017. A Belgium-based diplomat with knowledge of the situation said: “The [regime’s] National Intelligence Agency (ANR) has reportedly been used to approach and convince members of the Rassemblement to join the dissidents”. Crisis Group email correspondence, October 2017.Hide Footnote

Implementation suffered another blow when the Catholic Church – under increasing pressure from the Majority – abruptly stopped its mediation and gave the political initiative back to President Kabila.[fn]“Discours de clôture des travaux de l’arrangement particulier portant mesures de mise en œuvre de l’accord politique global et inclusif du centre interdiocésain de Kinshasa”, CENCO, Kinshasa, 27 March 2017.Hide Footnote Exploiting both opposition disarray and international inattention and passivity, the Majority quickly moved to interpret the agreement in its favour.

Exploiting both opposition disarray and international inattention and passivity, the Majority quickly moved to interpret the [Saint Sylvester] agreement in its favour.

On 7 April, following a few days of consultations boycotted by the Rassemblement, President Kabila appointed Bruno Tshibala as prime minister of a new, extended government. Tshibala had been evicted from the UDPS the previous month after joining the dissident Rassemblement. By choosing Tshibala, Kabila avoided flagrantly appointing a supporter while clearly violating the agreement’s principles, which required that the Rassemblement itself nominate the prime minister.[fn]“Discours de son excellence monsieur le Président de la République sur l’Etat de la Nation”, Cabinet du Président de la République, 5 April 2017. The Saint Silvester agreement stated that the prime minister be proposed by the Rassemblement. Bruno Tshibala had been UDPS deputy secretary general and spokesperson of the Rassemblement, as well as a close collaborator with Etienne Tshisekedi. He was imprisoned from 9 October to 29 November 2016 for his role in the September 2016 protest and was expelled from the UDPS for joining the Rassemblement Kasa-Vubu early March 2017.Hide Footnote Three weeks later, in talks overseen by the speakers of both houses of parliament, the Majority and several smaller opposition parties (including the Union for the Congolese Nation (UNC) agreed on the special arrangements for the agreement’s implementation.[fn] On 22 July, parliament approved the installation of the national monitoring council (CNSA) bureau and the appointment of Joseph Olenghankoy, leader of the dissident Rassemblement, as its chair.[fn] By continuing to work with parliament – even though it had reached the end of its legal term on 17 February 2017 – the Majority aimed to give the impression that state institutions continued to function under constitutional authority.[fn]

The Rassemblement and the church denounced the Majority’s unilateralism.[fn]“L’appel de Marrakech au peuple congolais – Debout Congolais! Résistons”, statement, Moïse Katumbi, Marrakech, 9 April 2017; “La CENCO critique la nomination du nouveau Premier ministre”, Radio Okapi , 24 April 2017.Hide Footnote On 9 April, Felix Tshisekedi called for protests, but inexplicably then left for Addis Ababa. Clumsy communication about his absence, contributed to confusion. Security forces were deployed to deter protesters in several cities as a result, the marches failed to mobilise significant crowds.[fn]“RDC: la marche de l’opposition dispersée dans plusieurs villes”, Radio Okapi, 10 April 2017.Hide Footnote

The inclusion of dissident Rassemblement members in government left others out in the cold. Vital Kamerhe, who had risked his credibility as an opposition leader by participating in the AU dialogue, got only a single post in the new government to the dissatisfaction of many in his party.[fn]Crisis Group interview, opposition politician, Kinshasa, June 2016. He had three members in the Badibanga government. More importantly, Kamerhe was thought to be a prime contender to become prime minister or chair of the CNSA.Hide Footnote In July, he declined the post of CNSA vice president but, having made excessive overtures to the Majority, subsequently found other major opposition platforms, including the Rassemblement, initially hesitant to accept him back in their midst.[fn]“Une alliance entre le Rassemblement et l’UNC est contre-nature”, Actualité.cd (, 30 June 2017. The inclusion of newcomers also affected the Majority. The Union for the Development of Congo (UDCO), one of the few remaining parties in the Majority with a strong position in Katanga, lost its sole senior government position. Consequently, the influential Jean-Claude Masangu resigned as party president.[fn]Crisis Group email correspondence, Congolese analyst, Lubumbashi, September 2017. For background on Katanga, see Crisis Group Report, Katanga: Tensions in DRC’s Mineral Heartland, op. cit. Masangu and the UDCO are well represented in Katanga’s Haut-Lomami province.Hide Footnote

None of these expressions of protest had much of an impact. The Saint Sylvester agreement had been hollowed out, with no semblance of power-sharing and no platform for continued talks. The signatories have not implemented provisions to revitalise the electoral commission and undertake confidence building measures. Nor have they adopted legislation to formally establish the monitoring council.[fn]The CENCO established an ad-hoc commission to look into legal proceedings against several opposition members, including Moïse Katumbi and Jean-Claude Muyambo. Its 29 March 2017 report to President Kabila described both cases as a “masquerade”. “Rapport de la Commission ad-hoc sur la décrispation politique”, CENCO, 29 March 2017.Hide Footnote

The conversation among the government, electoral commission and monitoring council (CNSA) – all of which are dominated by the regime – has come to resemble a monologue. By the end of August 2017, the electoral commission, the government and CNSA launched the evaluation of the electoral process in Kananga.[fn]“Rencontre CNSA–Gouvernement–CENI pour l’évaluation du processus électoral”, Communiqué final, Kananga, 31 August 2017.Hide Footnote This has allowed the electoral commission to publish its long-awaited electoral calendar, with presidential polls scheduled for 23 December 2018. However, the current trio has little legitimacy.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, youth activists, Kinshasa, September 2017.Hide Footnote

C. The Regime Digs In

Over the course of 2017, the Majority has outmanoeuvred both the domestic opposition and international actors. It controls the budget and state institutions, including the electoral commission, and dominates both the narrative and the pace of the political process. Despite a clearly one-sided implementation of the agreement, it has managed to project the appearance of reason and constructive engagement. This resonates with some international actors eager for any semblance of progress and seeking entry points for engagement, notwithstanding widespread scepticism that the regime intends to leave power or organise credible elections.[fn]Crisis Group interview, regional diplomat, Nairobi, October 2017.Hide Footnote Paradoxically, the opposition, which has the most to gain from the agreement’s full implementation, has seemingly ditched it in favour of pushing for a transitional government without Kabila by the end of 2017, to be followed by elections.

Despite the DRC’s violent instability and fractious politics, the regime appears to be well entrenched.

Despite the DRC’s violent instability and fractious politics, the regime appears to be well entrenched. It is far stronger than the divided opposition, has suffered no major defection since 2015 and is more focused. Its internal coherence seemingly is based on a mix of fear, money and opportunism.[fn]A number of reports have been published on the links between politics and business in DRC and the lack of transparency around them. For example, see “With his family’s fortune at stake, President Kabila digs in”, Bloomberg, 15 December 2016; “All the Presidents’ Wealth – The Kabila Family Business”, Congo Research Group, July 2017; and, for statements issued in response to this report, “Updates to ‘All the President’s Wealth’”, Congo Research Group, 15 September 2017. See also, “A State Affair: Privatizing Congo’s Copper Sector”, The Carter Center, November 2017.Hide Footnote However, occasionally this coherence faces a test. Upheaval in the Peoples’ Party for Reconstruction and Democracy (PPRD) and the wider Majority alliance on the draft electoral law, introduced by the government in November 2017, and in particular the electoral thresholds it introduces, demonstrates the regime’s unease when confronted with electoral uncertainties. The PPRD leadership sees the thresholds as essential for its electoral strategy – getting rid of the small parties.[fn]“Exclusif – Réforme électorale en RDC: un enregistrement sonore révèle la stratégie du partie de Kabila”, Jeune Afrique, 25 November 2017. The recordings of the meeting at the PPRD also provide a damning insight into the majorities’ electoral tactics – including the setting up of “pseudo” political parties “without militants”. The proposed law introduces a threshold of 3 per cent of the national vote for a party to get any seats in the national assembly and 5 per cent for the provincial assemblies. Hide Footnote

The presidential family is central but so are others in the political system and the security forces. Some recently installed officials at both national and provincial levels, lacking legitimacy and sensing their tenure in power might be short-lived, have incentives to exploit their positions for personal gain. In Katanga’s mining sector, for example, systematic underreporting of production and opaque management are said to divert millions of dollars in annual revenue from the state treasury.[fn]Crisis Group email correspondence, Congolese analyst, October 2017. “Regime Cash Machine”, Global Witness, 21 July 2017. For the state-owned mining company’s response, see “Gécamines déplore le rapport biaisé de Global Witness et répond aux allégations”, communiqué de presse, La Générale des Carrières et des Mines, 27 July 2017.Hide Footnote

Self-assured, the regime has proved particularly inflexible regarding the fates of Moïse Katumbi and the G7, refusing to halt legal proceedings against them. Katumbi is a particular irritant; his conflict with the regime is both personal and strategic as he potentially could emerge as a serious threat. Accordingly, the Majority is determined to stop their former ally from building momentum and wants to make an example of him to stop others from decamping. So far, despite announcing several times that he would return to the DRC, Katumbi remains in exile in Europe, where the threat he presents to the regime is much reduced.

Because the Saint Sylvester is a Congolese agreement, international actors have no formal framework allowing them to push for its implementation and have failed to engage politically in a coherent manner since its signing. This is regrettable as there is evidence – notably the very achievement of the agreement – that the regime can give ground when under concerted pressure. Instead, it shows no sign of compromise.

In short, the Majority’s advantage derives less from its inherent strength than from its opponents’ and the international community’s weakness. It has no grand strategy to stay in power, but each additional month in power represents a small gain.[fn]Crisis Group interview, diplomat, New York, September 2017. One analyst likened the Majority’s approach to a race where it has several horses on the track. When one fails, another steps in. Crisis Group interview, Congolese academic, Brussels, March 2015.Hide Footnote When its initial attempt in 2015 to amend the presidential term-limits provision in the constitution was blocked by popular protest and dissent within its ranks, it turned to a glissement. Delaying tactics such as calls in September for a new political dialogue,[fn]“Allocution de son excellence Monsieur Joseph Kabila Kabange, Président de la République Démocratique du Congo à la 72eme session de l’Assemblée Générale des Nations Unies”, speech, New York, 23 September 2017.Hide Footnote were immediately dismissed as pointless by the church and the opposition.[fn]Crisis Group interview, CENCO official, Kinshasa, September 2017; “Mise au point”, Le Rassemblement, Kinshasa, 14 September 2017.Hide Footnote

The Majority’s advantage derives less from its inherent strength than from its opponents’ and the international community’s weakness.

The issue of the electoral timeline has proved vexing for international actors and the opposition alike. Genuine technical, budgetary and security reasons for delay are compounded by regime manoeuvres to further postpone a vote. The electoral commission, led by Corneille Nangaa, has steadily continued its activities, some constructive, others designed to delay and distract. In 2016 and 2017, it worked on the necessary update to the voter roll but took far longer than in previous elections; by September 2017, it had registered some 42 million voters.[fn]The government chiefly has justified delay by pointing to the conflict in the Kasai provinces. Voter registration in these remaining provinces started early September 2017 and is to last at least until 31 January 2018. Voter registration began on 31 July 2016 – before the start of the AU dialogue – and proceeded in different phases covering the entire country. The expected total number of voters is 45 million. At a later stage, diaspora voters will also be registered. In comparison, registering 25.7 million in the 2006 voter roll took eight months, and the 32 million in the 2011 roll took fifteen (with some interruptions). Crisis Group interview, CENI official, Kinshasa, September 2017. On 5 November 2017, after months of dithering, the electoral commission announced that elections would be held on 23 December 2018 and the newly elected president inaugurated on 12 January 2019. The CENI immediately warned that respecting the calendar would require meeting several budgetary and legal conditions and also depends on the external support to the process.[fn]“RDC: la CENI rappelle les conditions pour le respect du calendrier électoral”, RFI, 10 November 2017.Hide Footnote

Since 2015, the DRC has slipped into a deep economic and budg[fn]Presentation by CENI President Corneille Nangaa, The Atlantic Council, Washington, DC, 5 October 2017. “La RDC financera seule le processus électoral, affirme Thambwe Mwamba”, Radio Okapi, 15 September 2016.Hide Footnote etary crisis, which is likely to become the next pretext for delays. President Kabila and the government repeatedly and cynically express “concern” about the elections’ cost as compared to other necessary investments. The election budget comes to $1.3 billion, of which the first major step, voter registration, represents $400 million. To organise the three combined polls in 2018, the electoral commission would need approximately $550 million. Despite promising in 2016 that it would fund the entire process, the government has yet to clarify what it has actually disbursed. In the 2018 national budget, adopted on 14 November, 912.5 million Congolese franc, or 8.8 per cent of the total budget of 10.333 billion, is allocated to the polls.[fn]Depending on the exchange rate this is between $471 and $570 million USDHide Footnote It is not yet clear whether it will effectively disburse this in time.Should it fail to do so, this will increase pressure on unenthusiastic donors, none of whom wants to be associated with what could turn out to be an unfair and non-credible process.[fn]The new UNDP-managed basket-fund in support of the elections (PACEC 2017-2018) foresees a total support package of $35 million. This amount is rather low, compared to the general cost of the election and seems more oriented toward the support of the CENI. Thus far international support has mostly benefited civil society rather than the electoral process. “Mission d’évaluation et d’assistance électorale en RDC, 30 Avril – 14 Mai 2017”, Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (OIF), 30 May 2017.Hide Footnote

The longer the delay, the more space the regime will have to exhaust a disorganised opposition.

The longer the delay, the more space the regime will have to exhaust a disorganised opposition. Besides, were a successor to Kabila acceptable to the regime to emerge, he or she inevitably would assume, ahead of the election campaign, a position of considerable financial strength in relation to an opposition with dwindling resources. Delaying the vote also gradually undermines the credibility and relevance of the current institutional and constitutional framework, which could lead regime supporters to declare it void as a pretext for holding a referendum to change it and allow Kabila to extend his tenure in office. For the immediate future such a scenario remains unlikely and could provoke a split between Majority hardliners and a smaller faction that hopes to nominate a successor to Joseph Kabila.[fn]Crisis Group interview, international analyst, Kinshasa, June 2017.Hide Footnote But Kabila allies, occasionally float it as an option.[fn]“There is no point in seeking to establish democracy with the present constitution. We must move on to the Fourth Republic. It’s the way”. Tweet by @JPKambila (Kabila’s Deputy Chief of Staff), 14 October 2017 (Crisis Group translation). Previously this need was voiced by PPRD politicians Evariste Boshab and Richard Muyej – both former interior ministers.Hide Footnote

D. Opposition Calls for Transition and Popular Mobilisation

Faced with regime intransigence, the Rassemblement is trying to regain the initiative. In July, it announced that it would renew efforts at popular mobilisation starting in October. Following its conclave in Kinshasa on 21 and 22 July,[fn]“Rapport final des travaux du deuxième conclave du rassemblement des forces politiques et sociales acquises au changement tenu à Kinshasa les 21 et 22 juillet 2017”, Rassemblement, 22 July 2017.Hide Footnote  it organised a modestly successful two-day national strike on 8 and 9 August as poverty levels make it difficult for people to forgo two days of wages.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, youth activists and civil society representatives, Kinshasa, September 2017.Hide Footnote The conclave included a call for citizens to stop recognising Kabila as president. It also announced sit-ins at the electoral commission’s offices and other acts of civil disobedience.

Civil society organisations have taken their own initiatives since mid-2017. The most visible is “les Congolais Debout”, initiated by Sindika Dokolo, son-in-law of former Angolan President dos Santos.[fn]The manifesto was adopted on 18 August in a civil society meeting in Chantilly near Paris. “RDC: adoption d’un manifeste de la société civile pour une ‘transition citoyenne’”, La Libre Belgique, 18 August 2017. On 18 September, Felix Tshisekedi and Moïse Katumbi also signed the manifesto. Sindika’s family ties to the Angolan political and economic elite contribute to his aura and to the impression that the Angolan leadership at least acquiesces to his increasingly vocal opposition to Kabila.[fn]Since the inauguration of President João Laurenço, the interests of the dos Santos family have come under pressure. The impact on Angola’s DRC policy remains unclear. “En Angola, la chute de la ‘princesse’ Isabel”, Le Monde, 16 November 2017.Hide Footnote Sindika also has a close personal relationship with Moïse Katumbi. In August, Dokolo and older civil society networks, including Lucha and Filimbi, the two most established social movements, issued a “Manifeste du Citoyen Congolais”, which Rassemblement leaders subsequently signed. Drawing on Article 64 of the constitution, which calls on the people to oppose those who seek to violate it,[fn]“All Congolese have the duty to oppose any individual or group of individuals who seize power by force or who exercise it in violation of the provisions of this Constitution. Any attempt to overthrow the constitutional regime imprescriptibly constitutes an infraction against the Nation and the State. It is punished in accordance with the law”. Article 64 of the 2006 constitution (translation by Footnote  its declared aim is to force out the regime and establish a transitional government without Kabila for at least six months, with the objective of quickly organising elections.[fn]A transition could realistically require two years to complete necessary administrative preparations. Crisis Group interviews, diplomats, Brussels, July 2017.Hide Footnote Several civil society activists have proposed Dr Denis Mukwege, a respected campaigner against sexual violence, as a potential president for this period.[fn]“Transition en RDC: l’option Mukwege se met en place”,, 15 September 2017.Hide Footnote

At this stage, focus has shifted anew to forging greater opposition unity. On 23 October, Vital Kamerhe and the UNC decided to pull out of the Tshibala government (although the minister concerned, Pierre Kangudia Mbayi refused to obey his party and remains as minister for the budget). From his cell in The Hague, Jean-Pierre Bemba, leader of another opposition party, the Movement for the Liberation of the Congo (MLC), also called for opposition unity.[fn]Letter by Jean-Pierre Bemba, national president of the MLC, The Hague, 30 October 2017.Hide Footnote  The Rassemblement, UNC and MLC all met together with Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, during her October 2017 visit to DRC. Finally, the main opposition parties all reject the new electoral calendar, but failed to adopt a joint communiqué.[fn]“RDC: Kabila reste au pouvoir jusqu’au début 2019, l’opposition exige son départ fin 2017”, Agence France-Presse (AFP), 6 November 2017.Hide Footnote

Civil society and youth movements have been increasingly frustrated by the opposition’s failure to mobilise the population.

Civil society and youth movements have been increasingly frustrated by the opposition’s failure to mobilise the population, including for street protests.[fn]“RDC: Quel bilan pour le collectif d’action de la société civile”, RFI, 2 November 2017; “RDC: l’opposition appelée à des ‘actions fortes’ contre Kabila”, AFP, 6 November 2017.Hide Footnote In October, the opposition’s lone attempt was Felix Tshisekedi’s visit to Lubumbashi, which security forces heavily repressed. In the same month, youth activist platforms, including Lucha, organised protests in a number of cities; several activists were arrested and, during 30 October protests in Goma, five people were killed, including a policeman.[fn]“RDC: des dizaines de militants de la Lucha arrêtés”, RFI, 1 October 2017; “RDC: Violences à Goma: au moins 5 morts dont un policier”, La Libre Belgique (online), 30 October 2017.Hide Footnote Dynamics between the opposition and civil society platforms changed somewhat when on 15 November the Rassemblement joined a call initiated by social movements for countrywide protests against the electoral calendar. As was the case with previous attempts, the initiative failed to gather momentum.[fn]

“RDC: timide mobilisation contre le calendrier électoral”,, 15 November 2017.

Hide Footnote Authorities prohibit protests almost systematically, often accompanied by stark warnings by police officials. In response, on 16 November, the EU delegation joined by the U.S., the Swiss and the Canadian embassies published a statement calling for the respect of public freedoms.[fn]“Respect des libertés d’expression et de réunion”, Statement by the EU delegation to the DR Congo, Kinshasa, 16 November 2017.Hide Footnote

Although the church has stepped away from direct mediation and is unlikely to reengage soon, it remains important. As mediator, it gave the agreement credibility, but being so closely involved sullied its reputation. In June, it published a strong declaration highly critical of the government, “Congolese rise”.[fn]“Le Pays va très mal. Debout Congolais! Décembre 2017 approche”, Message de l’Assemblée Plénière ordinaire des évêques membre de la CENCO, Kinshasa, 23 June 2017. Crisis Group interview, senior cleric, Kinshasa, September 2017.Hide Footnote The document, which the opposition often refers to, assesses the political impasse and faults the political class. It warns of, but does not directly call for, massive street protests.[fn]“RD Congo: le plaidoyer des évêques congolais”,, 29 September 2017. From early 2016, the Church, targeted by violence in Kasai but also in Kinshasa, has stopped short of calling for popular mobilisation. It was the only organisation involved in a serious assessment of the voter registration process and has a large-scale civic education project.Hide Footnote CENCO representatives were present on the margins of the Paris meeting that adopted the Manifeste du Citoyen Congolais. In November, the church published partial results of its observation of voter registration, citing several irregularities, in particular during the registration of minors. The Church also denounced the security forces’ repression of protests, stating that at least 56 persons have been killed since April 2017.[fn]“RDC: la CENCO déplore l’usage disproportionné de la force par la police”, RFI, 21 November 2017. The government disputed the information about police repression.Hide Footnote

III. The Smouldering Republic

Since 2016, the deepening political impasse in Kinshasa has been accompanied by rising tensions throughout the country. Insurgents in North and South Kivu, Kongo Central and the Kasai region all have exploited the national deadlock to justify their actions. For now, these dynamics appear isolated, but they are increasing in frequency and point to the risks of prolonged unrest.[fn]“Mayhem among the militias”, Africa Confidential, 6 October 2017.Hide Footnote Humanitarian consequences have been considerable, as reflected in the large number of new internally displaced persons and refugees. In October, the UN Inter-Agency Standing Committee activated a level 3 (L3) system-wide emergency response – reserved for the most complex and challenging humanitarian emergencies – for the DRC.[fn]Crisis Group email correspondence, UN humanitarian official, Brussels, October 2017. The L3 response focuses on the Kasai region, Tanganyika and South Kivu provinces. The other countries for which such a response is currently activated are Iraq, Syria and Yemen.Hide Footnote

This situation presents a significant threat to stability in countries to the east, south and west of DRC. The depth and breadth of the political crisis makes the current situation far more perilous than the M23 crisis from 2012 to 2013. The emergence of multiple insurgencies also further strains an already dangerously stretched army (FARDC) and police (PNC). Security forces also are a major source of violence and remain the most frequent perpetrators of human rights violations. Their response often is vastly disproportionate.[fn]In September 2017 for example, they killed 36 Burundian protesting refugees in Kamanyola, South Kivu. Christoph Vogel, “Putting the Kamanyola killings into perspective”, Congo Research Group, 3 October 2017. See also reports by the UN Joint Human Rights Office (UNJHRO) for the DRC.Hide Footnote When combined with the ongoing political crisis, this could precipitate a breakdown – whether gradual or abrupt – presenting a major challenge for the UN mission (the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or MONUSCO).

A. Catastrophe in the Kasais

The violent conflict in Kasai region, which began early 2016 with an apparent local dispute pitting a traditional chief, Jean-Pierre Pandi – known by his tribal name, the Kamuina Nsapu – against state authorities.[fn]Crisis Group Commentary, “Kamuina Nsapu Insurgency Adds to Dangers in DR Congo”, 21 March 2017. In 2015, the government split the two Kasai provinces into five: Kasai, Kasai Central, Kasai Oriental, Sankuru and Lomami.Hide Footnote Pandi’s reported refusal to pledge support for the regime led the state to deny him official status as a traditional chief. His vocal criticism of the security forces’ predatory practices resonated with the impoverished local population.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, local researchers, humanitarian workers, Kananga, January 2017.Hide Footnote Tensions escalated and Pandi was killed in an incident with the security forces. As a result, militia groups started to operate under his banner, setting-up roadblocks and attacking state buildings and officials, including the electoral commission.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, local humanitarian workers and CENI officials, Kananga, January 2017.Hide Footnote

As violence escalated, it became clear that complex and poorly understood local dynamics were becoming intertwined with the national crisis. Indeed, the incident came in the context of regime efforts to pressure traditional chiefs for support and thus broaden its reach. This politicisation of chieftainships proved particularly contentious in opposition-dominated Kasai region, where many resent the state’s attempts to control local chiefs.

By mid-2017, there appeared to be over 60 militia groups operating in the Kasai, some related to the Kamuina Nsapu, others allied with the government and still others who have emerged from the chaos.[fn] The government responded by reinforcing its military and police presence. Both government forces and militia have used extreme violence, including against civilians.[fn] The UN documented 87 mass graves;[fn] and in June, a hard-hitting report by the Catholic Church estimated that 3,383 people had been killed.[fn] As of April, another militia, the Bana Mura became particularly active south of Tshikapa. Several sources claim the Bana Mura are closely linked to local security officials.[fn]

Intense violence spread rapidly; at its height (March to July), the conflict covered parts of five provinces and affected wider areas.[fn]“Congo’s Cinderella crisis: horrific suffering overlooked in largest displacement crisis of 2017”, press release, Oxfam, 1 September 2017.Hide Footnote To date, the crisis has displaced roughly 1.4 million people (out of a total of 4.1 million displaced in the DRC).[fn]There also are approximately 620,000 Congolese refugees, mostly in neighbouring countries. The largest population is in Uganda (225,000), followed by Rwanda, Tanzania and Burundi. The DRC also hosts nearly 500,000 refugees, mostly from Burundi, Central African Republic and South Sudan. “DRC Regional Refugee Response”,; and “Great Lakes: Displacement Crises Affecting the Region”, U.S. State Department Humanitarian Information Unit, 11 September 2017.Hide Footnote Approximately 35,000 Congolese fled to Angola as a result of the Kasai violence; in response, Luanda bolstered its military presence at the border.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, diplomats, Kinshasa, June 2017; “RDC: L’Angola déploie son armée sur la frontière congolaise”, La Libre Belgique, 21 May 2017.Hide Footnote The government has come under considerable regional and international pressure due to this violence and associated human rights abuses. The regime scrambled to regain control, dispatching Foreign Minister Léonard She Okitundu to Angola in May.[fn] Kabila personally visited the Kasai region three times between May and September, in the latest instance to launch a government-organised Kasai peace conference.[fn] While reports of violence diminished in the second half of 2017, the humanitarian situation in the area remains dire.

B. Sparks in Other Provinces

Instability has spread to other provinces, severely stretching the security services. Provincial conflicts have been a permanent feature of DRC since the end of the civil war in 2002, as armed groups fight over territory and resources and use local and national grievances to draw support from individuals and communities.

The regime has largely adapted to the situation, and several regional states have profited from it. The current conflicts are driven by historical grievances, but also by the current national political impasse, which allows some armed groups to claim legitimacy and weakens the state’s capacity to mediate. In addition, regime figures have fanned the flames of violence, possibly as part of a deliberate strategy, but also to opportunistically reinforce their local base.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, citizens and civil society members, Kinshasa, Goma, Lubumbashi, Kananga, 2016 and 2017.Hide Footnote Today, there are signs (including their own declarations) that some of the currently disparate insurgencies intend to join up.[fn]Tellingly, the National People’s Coalition for the Sovereignty of Congo (CNPSC) has taken aim at the national political impasse, reaching out to other insurgent groups, by using the name “Alliance for Article 64” (AA64) – a reference to the article on protecting the constitution. It asserts that armed struggle is the only way to remove President Kabila and organise elections.Hide Footnote  There is no concrete evidence of this occurring at a meaningful scale, but it cannot be ruled out in the future. This could seriously escalate the crisis, potentially triggering ever more brutal government crackdowns.

The current [provincial] conflicts are driven by historical grievances, but also by the current national political impasse, which allows some armed groups to claim legitimacy and weakens the state’s capacity to mediate.

In addition to the Kasai region, the provinces affected by these dynamics are mostly concentrated in the east: Ituri, North and South Kivu and Tanganyika provinces, with spillover in Haut-Katanga, Haut-Lomami and Maniema provinces. Some armed groups active in North and South Kivu have links to Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi. At the Northern borders, the provinces of Nord-Ubangui, Bas-Uele and Haut-Uele are all affected by conflicts in neighbouring Central African Republic and South Sudan.[fn]“Rencontre tripartite entre la RDC, la RCA et le Soudan du Sud à Kinshasa”, RFI, 5 September 2017.Hide Footnote Lastly, the strategic Kongo Central province, west of Kinshasa, has also seen tensions rise throughout 2017. Kinshasa has also been affected and an incursion in August 2017, linked to the tension in Kongo Central province, caused at least 23 casualties in August.[fn]“RDC: Ne Muanda Nsemi, le chef de la secte Bundu Dia Congo, s’évade de la prison de Makala”, Jeune Afrique, 17 May 2017. His whereabouts are unknown since.Hide Footnote

Ethnic identity is an important underlying factor in local and provincial conflict dynamics and is the main way armed group leaders mobilise members. From the part-political party, part-religious sect Bundu dia Kongo (BDK) / Bundu dia Mayala (BDM)[fn]Created in 1969, the BDK refers to the reunification of the people of the Kongo kingdom, which includes areas of Angola and the Republic of Congo. The group finds fertile ground in an identity discourse that traces its roots to the historic Kongo kingdom, as well as in widespread socio-economic frustrations. Crisis Group interview, politician from Kongo Central, Kinshasa, June 2017.Hide Footnote in Kongo Central, to the Perci and Elements militia in Tanganyika and Nyatura as well as the Mai Mai Mazembe armed groups in North Kivu, ethnic mobilisation forms the main common thread.[fn]The Perci militia is composed of Twa (or Pygmy), the Elements of Bantu (or Luba), the Nyatura are a Hutu militia, while the Mai Mai Mazembe are composed of Nande. Crisis Group email correspondence, Congolese analysts, Lubumbashi, Goma, September 2017.Hide Footnote A recurring refrain in the discourse of several militia and radical opposition groups is to denounce Rwanda’s alleged influence over the Kabila regime.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Congolese analyst, Kinshasa, September 2017.Hide Footnote

Ethnic identity is an important underlying factor in local and provincial conflict dynamics and is the main way armed group leaders mobilise members.

The most prominent coalition of armed groups, whose discourse refers to the illegitimacy of national institutions, is the National People’s Coalition for the Sovereignty of Congo (CNPSC) a heterogeneous coalition that includes the Mai Mai Yakutumba and the Mai Mai Malaika militia. Its area of operations covers South Kivu, Maniema and Tanganyika, affecting several mining areas, including the gold-mining operations of the Banro corporation in Maniema province. In late September 2017, the alliance advanced on Uvira, the second largest city in South Kivu. Without the intervention of UN Organization Stabilization Mission (MONUSCO) troops, Uvira might well have fallen.[fn]The CNPSC has called upon the people to protest peacefully against MONUSCO, which it claims is supporting an illegitimate government. “Mise en garde de la CNPSC à la MONUSCO”, video, YouTube, 29 September 2017. Judith Verweijen, “Taking Uvira? The remarkable tenacity of the CNPSC coalition”,, 28 September 2017.Hide Footnote This would have been the first time a major town had fallen to rebels since 2012 and would have given the coalition added aura. A special case is Beni territory (North Kivu), which since October 2014, has suffered a string of particularly vicious attacks – generally attributed to the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF).[fn]A recent report by the Congo Research Group analyses the complex interaction between local, national and regional dynamics. “Mass Killings in Beni Territory”, Congo Research Group, September 2017.Hide Footnote

This recurrent violence – particularly the Beni massacres – illustrates the impunity and general disregard for human suffering that has taken hold of the country’s political class. The humanitarian situation has deteriorated dramatically over the past year. The UN estimates the number of displaced at 4.1 million; the provinces most affected are Tanganyika, South Kivu and the Kasai. Fighting has forced refugees into neighbouring Zambia and Angola.[fn]“DRC conflict rises as refugees flock to Zambia”, The Southern Times, 6 October 2017; “Displaced Congolese find unlikely refuge in Angola”, Mail & Guardian, 4 May 2017.Hide Footnote

C. Overstretched Security Services

The proliferation of security crises has stretched the capacity of the army and police, a challenge compounded by the drop in real salaries. In a whack-a-mole-like dynamic, when the army sent reinforcements to the Kasai region from the Kivus, armed group activity increased in the Kivus.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, humanitarian workers, Goma, June 2017.Hide Footnote Pressure from various armed groups has compelled the army to focus on protecting major cities, leaving much of the countryside – including lucrative mining areas – to militias.

Urban insecurity also increased considerably following several major prison breaks in 2017. The biggest occurred in Kinshasa’s Makala prison from which approximately 4,600 prisoners escaped on 17 May. Then on 11 June, 930 prisoners escaped in Beni, North Kivu. In both cases the prisons were attacked by armed groups presumably attempting to free their comrades.[fn]“RDC: évasion spectaculaire de la prison de Beni”, RFI, 11 June 2017; Crisis Group interviews, provincial politicians, Goma, June 2017.Hide Footnote The generalised frustration of the pauperised population could result in further urban violence and even insurgency.

Thus far, however, police and army have maintained their internal cohesion.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, police officials, Kinshasa diplomats and defence attaché staff, Kinshasa, June and September 2017.Hide Footnote Troops and policemen have been rotated successfully to different theatres and lines of command have held. Although nearly all international training of security forces has been halted, new recruits for both the army and police have been trained and deployed.[fn]The latest foreign-trained unit was the 32 Brigade, which benefited from Chinese support in Kamina. Angola ended its training in late 2016 while South African trainers have not been replaced and Belgian support to the FARDC was ended by the DRC in April 2017. “RDC-Belgique: rupture de la coopération militaire”, La Tempête des Tropiques, 15 April 2017. “Coopération militaire: la RDC se tourne vers la Chine”,, 15 August 2017. Crisis Group interview, regional diplomat, Kinshasa, September 2017. In 2017, the police recruited approximately 500 new policemen for each of the 26 provinces. Crisis Group telephone interview, Congolese police officer, Nairobi, October 2016.Hide Footnote Another important factor is the further militarisation of the police force, which is now headed by General Amuli Bahigwa, previously in charge of army operations and intelligence.

D. Toward a State of Emergency?

To a large degree, DRC is already in a de facto state of emergency. Rule of law has been deeply eroded through the political use of the justice system. Legal permission to stage political protests is nearly impossible to obtain. International journalists and researchers find it increasingly difficult to operate in the country and many have been expelled or had their visa requests denied. In the evening, Republican Guard troops man roadblocks in Gombe, the capital’s political and business centre, while the police and military patrol other parts of the city.[fn] Officials, including the president, have labelled groups such as the Kamuina Nsapu militia in the Kasai “terrorists”, thereby excluding them from political negotiations and justifying ever harsher crackdowns.[fn]

If violence continues to spread or if elements of the security forces mutiny or join the opposition, Kabila might decide to declare a formal state of emergency, further postponing the elections.[fn]“RDC: Pour lutter contre les violences, la Ligue des jeunes du PPRD préconise notamment l’instauration de l’Etat d’urgence”,, 15 July 2017.Hide Footnote This would be a risky gambit, however. Security forces are already stretched thin. Banking on them to maintain control while excluding a political track could deprive the regime of options to deal with spreading insurgencies.[fn]RDC : Joseph Kabila et ses faucons militaires”, Jeune Afrique, 16 October 2017.Hide Footnote Such a scenario would also make it increasingly difficult for peacekeepers to operate.

IV. International Actors: Hesitant and Divided

With the stalemate deepening, both opposition and regime have turned to outside actors for support. The former pins its hopes essentially on the UN and traditional Western donors. The government has chiefly reached out to African leaders while maintaining good relations with Russia and China. International apprehension over deepening authoritarianism dates back to the 2011 election and was reflected in the 2013 Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework (PSCF) and successive UN mandates granting the special representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) a political mandate, though these have yet to prompt concerted action. The government also has successfully limited the UN’s political role. Likewise, African governments and regional organisations have been concerned during periods of violence and engaged in mediation, but the government has been effective at playing the nationalist card to oppose foreign interference. Although neither “the West” nor “Africa” are monolithic blocs, disagreements between the two have been real and opportunities for coordination are almost non-existent.[fn]For example, the International Contact Group on the Great Lakes remains a largely Western body, despite some attempts to include African representatives.Hide Footnote

A. Western Frustrations

Opposition leaders have devoted considerable time lobbying Western powers.[fn]The two largest recent opposition and civil society gatherings, including the creation of the Rassemblement and the adoption of the “Manifeste du Citoyen Congolais”, occurred in Europe.Hide Footnote These in turn – including major donors such as the European Union (EU) – generally have adopted a critical stance toward the DRC. In 2016 and 2017, both the EU and the U.S. imposed targeted sanctions on security officials and politicians. The 2016 sanctions arguably helped pressure the Majority to make political concessions during the CENCO-led talks. In 2017, both the EU and the U.S. have been rumoured to be considering additional sanctions focused on regime financial and economic networks; these are strongly supported by the opposition and a number of Western non-governmental organisations.[fn]“Strategic Pressure – A blueprint for Addressing New Threats and Supporting Democratic Change in the DRC”, The Enough Project, September 2017.Hide Footnote

As regime confidence has grown in 2017, Western powers have taken a more reserved approach, leading to much reduced pressure. In May, the EU sanctioned several more individuals, most for their involvement in the violence in the Kasai. The timing of this initiative was not helpful, however, because it coincided with a regional diplomatic mission, and African diplomats felt it detracted from their message.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, diplomat, Kinshasa, June 2017; AU official, Addis Ababa, June 2017. “Répression en RDC: neuf hauts responsables officiellement sanctionnés par l’UE”, RFI, May 2017.Hide Footnote Feeling exposed by a lack of leadership from Washington, the EU and its member states have since become more discreet.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, diplomats, Kinshasa, September 2017.Hide Footnote This has also provided new space for differences among EU member states, some of whom are inclined to be highly critical of the DRC government, others less so. A June 2017 meeting in Lubumbashi between emissaries of the French President Emmanuel Macron and Joseph Kabila spurred concerns that France was preparing a less critical stance. Belgium, a vocal critic over the last year, toned down its public rhetoric to some extent following regime pressure, but remains critical of the DRC government in the EU and other fora.[fn]The Congolese government has increased pressure in numerous ways, slowing down the inauguration of a new embassy building, abruptly ending military cooperation and complicating the return of related equipment. “Coopération militaire RDC – Belgique: les raisons de la rupture”, Jeune Afrique, 14 April 2017; “Crise politique en RDC: Kinshasa s’en prend à Didier Reynders”, Belga, 11 April 2017.Hide Footnote

The DRC government does not seem overly concerned by Western criticism.

In any case, the DRC government does not seem overly concerned by Western criticism. For example, it promoted the former Kinshasa police chief, General Kanyama, who had been sanctioned by both the EU and the U.S., appointing him head of the police academies, a position whose holder traditionally meets regularly with international donors.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, diplomats and police officials, Kinshasa, September 2017. “RDC: le dialogue se poursuit entre Macron et Kabila”, Jeune Afrique, 27 June 2017. Crisis Group interviews, diplomats, Kinshasa, September 2017.Hide Footnote

The political transition in the U.S. administration likely gave the regime hope that Washington’s posture had changed. Throughout most of 2017, the Trump administration principally has focused on MONUSCO and on making the force more efficient and cost-effective. While there are clear signs that the new administration is no fan of the Kabila regime,[fn]The administration for example protested strongly at the DRC’s election to the UN Human Rights Council in October. No DRC representative was in Washington at the Ministerial on Trade Security and Governance in Africa, while the DRC situation was reportedly discussed during this meeting. “Réunion Etats-Unis-Afrique à Washington… sans la RDC”, Jeune Afrique, 18 November 2017.Hide Footnote it has neither replaced President Obama’s Special Envoy for the Great Lakes nor appointed an ambassador to Kinshasa, providing the regime with further manoeuvring room. On a late October 2017 visit to Kinshasa, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, pressed for elections to be held in 2018. While her tone was forthright, this was presented by the Majority as a victory because it provided diplomatic cover for a further twelve months electoral delay.[fn]“RDC: la visite décevante de Nikki Haley à Kinshasa”,, 28 October 2017.Hide Footnote

The publication ten days after the visit of a calendar with elections scheduled for December 2018 has been disingenuously presented by the CENI as a concession to domestic and international pressure, because shortly before it had informally suggested pushing the timeframe back to mid-2019. The CENI and the government are already preparing to blame further delays on donors’ unwillingness to support the process.

Should the political stalemate persist, Western fatigue could increase to the point where Kabila’s calculations could prove successful.

Should the political stalemate persist, Western fatigue could increase to the point where Kabila’s calculations could prove successful. Under those circumstances, despite recognising that the status quo represents a longer-term threat to regional security, Western capitals might well begin to put less energy into coordinating their diplomatic positions and concentrate on advancing more parochial (including commercial) interests. Continued tension between the regime and international actors could push the latter to react quickly to events – including future obstacles affecting implementation of the electoral calendar – with little or no coordinated strategy. More broadly, Western policy could suffer from a lack of knowledge about events on the ground due to restrictions on international researchers and correspondents. This knowledge gap could encourage disconnected “Heart of Darkness” type narratives in the Western media that portray DRC as a place of inchoate and barbaric violence.

B. Congolese and Regional Diplomacy

African powers have been engaged in managing the DRC crisis for several years, most prominently through the AU dialogue led by Edem Kodjo in 2016. Despite this engagement, they remain hesitant and to some degree divided in their approach. Western powers have usually been more critical of the DRC government, opening a strategic disconnect that has become a key impediment to concerted international action. Both sides have engaged in competing rhetoric on issues such as the adoption of sanctions by the EU and the U.S. An exception occurred at the October 2016 Luanda regional summit, where presidents of both Angola and Republic of Congo exerted strong pressure on Kabila, paving the way for the Saint Sylvester agreement.[fn]“L’Angola retire ses troupes militaires de RDC”, RFI, 24 December 2016.Hide Footnote This represented a rare moment of convergence among international, regional and domestic dynamics that contributed to meaningful progress. During 2016 and 2017, the Francophonie, the African Union (AU), EU and UN also adopted a number of joint statements on DRC.[fn]This includes: a joint statement on 24 September 2016 on the repression during protests in Kinshasa; 16 February 2017 on the impasse in the implementation of the Saint Sylvester agreement and 28 March 2017 on the escalating violence in the Kasai region.Hide Footnote

The regime has sought to exploit this division and drive a wedge between Western and African positions.

The regime has sought to exploit this division and drive a wedge between Western and African positions. In 2017, the new DRC foreign minister, Leonard She Okitundu, and Kabila’s diplomatic advisor Kikaya Bin Karubi, have been remarkably active on the continent.[fn]Leonard She Okitundu was President Kabila’s chief of staff from 2005 to 2007.Hide Footnote Even the usually more sedentary president visited several African capitals and attended the July AU Summit and September UN General Assembly. These efforts have symbolic value, demonstrating institutional legitimacy at a time of domestic challenge by showcasing the president and ministers meeting foreign leaders; they also generate diplomatic gains.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, diplomats, Kinshasa, September 2017. Many African diplomats warn their political leadership that meeting with only one side can create an impression of bias, but that concern often is overtaken by political considerations. Crisis Group interviews, regional diplomat, Kinshasa, September 2017; diplomats, Pretoria, September 2017.Hide Footnote Opposition leaders sought legitimacy as well by meeting African leaders but were less successful in 2017 than in previous years. They are struggling to engage with African leaders or even participate on the margins of regional summits.[fn]

The government’s diplomatic achievements have been made manifest as of late. African organisations supported Kabila’s implementation of the Saint Sylvester agreement, as illustrated by the June 2017 communiqué of the DRC-South Africa Bi-National Commission.[fn]The communiqué “expressed their satisfaction with the successful conclusion of the political dialogue initiated by HE Joseph Kabila Kabange, having resulted in the appointment of a Prime Minister, the establishment of a Government of National Unity and the strengthening of democracy, which would pave the way for the holding of elections in the DRC”. See “Joint Communiqué on the 10th Bi-National Commission between South Africa and Democratic Republic of Congo, 21-25 June 2017”, press release, Pretoria, 25 June, 2017.Hide Footnote One month later, Prime Minister Tshibala, whose appointment was highly controversial, attended the SADC summit in Pretoria. The resulting communiqué commended Kabila for progress in implementing the agreement.

Not surprisingly, the 23 August meeting of the AU Peace and Security Council (PSC) on the DRC took a similar line, stating that the appointments of Tshibala and Olenghankoy “complete the establishment of the institutional framework for the political transition as provided for in the Agreement of 31 December 2016”. Both the AU and SADC echoed the international stance that the electoral commission should publish a new electoral calendar promptly, but SADC went further by stating that “a number of challenges … have made it unrealistic for the DRC to hold elections in December 2017”.[fn]The SADC declaration likely was based on the assessment made by its Electoral Advisory Council (SEAC) mission to Kinshasa on 4-12 March 2017. In its report, the SEAC mentioned the possibility of an April 2018 vote. It stressed the need for rapid publication of the electoral calendar, the importance of early communication to sensitise the population, and the need for the government to properly fund the electoral commission.Hide Footnote These three statements took similarly strong positions against sanctions adopted by “non-African organisations and countries”, clearly illustrating the gulf separating Western and regional actors.[fn]“Joint Communiqué on the 10th Bi-National Commission between South Africa and Democratic Republic of Congo, 21-25 June 2017”, press release, Pretoria, 25 June 2017. “Communiqué of the 37th Summit SADC Heads of State and Government”, Pretoria, 19-20 August 2017. “AU PSC Communiqué”, Addis, 23 August 2017.Hide Footnote

The three above-mentioned communiqués also announced continued engagement in the Congolese electoral process: for South Africa, that means collaboration between each country’s electoral commission; for SADC, nomination of a special envoy (Hifikepunye Pohamba, former president of Namibia) and dispatch of several missions to the DRC in 2017;[fn]During 2017, SADC sent several technical missions, including the SADC secretariat in February, SEAC in March and the SADC Organ Ministerial Troika in April 2017.Hide Footnote and for the AU PSC, a reminder of “the need to strengthen the political role of the AU in the search for a solution of the crisis in the DRC”.[fn]South Africa and Swaziland are managing this process for SADC and already have made some suggestions to Kinshasa but as yet have been unable to forge an acceptable compromise solution. Crisis Group interview, diplomats, Pretoria, September 2017.Hide Footnote

From 28 September to 1 October, Moussa Faki, chairperson of the AU Commission, visited Kinshasa for consultations with all stakeholders, including the opposition.[fn]“Working visit of the AU Commission Chairperson to DR Congo”, press release, African Union, 28 September 2017; “Communiqué du Rassemblement”, communiqué, Kinshasa, 30 September 2017.Hide Footnote He was followed on 14 October by South African President and SADC chair Jacob Zuma. On 19 October, regional summits of the guarantors of the PSCF and the ICGLR were held in Brazzaville. The summit conclusions were in line with previous African positions. From 22 to 26 October, the AU PSC visited Kinshasa and on 1 November Moussa Faki received the CENI president in Addis. The AU and sub-region are thus active, but this has not yet been translated into effective political engagement.

When on 5 November the electoral commission published its calendar, the AU reacted positively, with a balanced statement that called for Congolese parties to scrupulously adhere to the calendar, for political actors to refrain from statements or acts that could heighten tensions and for the restoration of confidence between the actors “within the spirit of the political agreement of 31 December 2016”.[fn]“Statement of the Chairperson of the Commission of the African Union on the publication of the Electoral Calendar in the Democratic Republic of Congo”, press release, African Union, 7 November 2017. This potentially could form a new basis for the organisation’s sustained engagement, but more than good intentions are required. For instance, it remains unclear how the AU might contribute to the opening of the DRC’s domestic politics – a key condition for a meaningful electoral process. A first and encouraging step is the reinforcement of the AU liaison office to the DRC.[fn]The reinforced AU office is also set to provide support, together with the UN, to the SADC Secretariat and the SADC special envoy, former President Pohamba, who is also a member of the AU Panel of the Wise. Crisis Group interview, AU official, Addis Ababa, November 2017.Hide Footnote

So far African powers have consistently supported the electoral process in their statements, and are under no illusion that further electoral delays risk more unrest.

So far African powers have consistently supported the electoral process in their statements, and are under no illusion that further electoral delays risk more unrest.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, diplomats of SADC and other regional states, Kinshasa and Pretoria, September 2017.Hide Footnote However, they remain reluctant to take stronger action or condemn the regime’s delaying tactics for several reasons: they do not wish to encourage a popular uprising that could unseat an incumbent; they share an ideological framework that promotes national sovereignty in the face of real or supposed external interference; and they all fear that a badly managed transition could generate more unrest than would further delays.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior African official, New York, September 2017. For an illustration of these considerations, see “Report of the workshop of secretaries general of governing former liberation movements of Southern Africa on the current common political, economic and security challenges they face”, Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, 4-8 May 2016.Hide Footnote Angola and the Republic of Congo in particular have reason to fear any unrest: Brazzaville sits across the Congo river from Kinshasa while Angola, facing its own economic difficulties and delicate political transition, shares a porous 2,500km border with Congo. The Kasai conflict already has spilled over into Angolan territory.[fn]

Paula Cristina Roque, “Angola’s Africa Policy”, Egmont Paper 98, October 2017.

Hide Footnote

Furthermore, African leaders do not feel empowered to shift the dynamics of the crisis, partly because their own coordination tools (summits, diplomatic services) are weak and poorly coordinated.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior African official, New York, September 2017.Hide Footnote None of the regional organisations to which DRC belongs – SADC, the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) – possesses established intervention mechanisms or a strong political consensus against incumbents prolonging their tenure in office. This stands in contrast to West Africa’s ECOWAS, for example.

While they fear instability, the country’s nine neighbours and other regional powers [...] have also developed a delicate balance of interests.

Finally, while they fear instability, the country’s nine neighbours and other regional powers such as South Africa have also developed a delicate balance of interests. Many have learned to navigate and even profit from the DRC’s ambient chaos during and since the wars of 1996-2003. A strong DRC could run counter to some of those interests. And competition among these countries over economic opportunities and access can further stymie joint political action. Areas of competition include major projects such as the Grand Inga dam, the exploration of hydrocarbons in eastern DRC and regional logistical corridors toward South Africa, Tanzania, Angola and Kenya. And there are also the well-documented cases of Congolese resources transiting through neighbouring countries such as Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Briefing N°107, Congo: Ending the Status Quo, 17 December 2014.Hide Footnote

African powers therefore have reasons, some justifiable some less so, to refrain from stronger and more coordinated action. Along with differences of approach between them and the Europeans, and in the absence of major regional conflagration, this favours the status quo and a passive approach. But as many working level African diplomats, and even ministers, acknowledge in private, there is a great risk of instability in further electoral delays and in the erosion of constitutional rule in the DRC.

V. Dealing with the Blockage Through Revitalised Engagement

The situation in DRC is fundamentally blocked, with a regime determined to stay in power holding a stronger hand than its opposition and with outside actors appearing both discouraged and divided. The most likely scenario is a prolonged glissement with instability rising although not necessarily threatening the regime elite. Still, government control is weak and weakening. It eventually could face a more coherent challenge, expressed through political mechanisms, street protests, insurgency or a combination of the three. As the UN’s September Strategic Review put it: “the DRC is likely to remain in the current scenario for the foreseeable future, although the possibility of a rapid deterioration of the situation cannot be ruled out”.[fn]“Special report of the Secretary-General on the strategic review of the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo”, UNSC, S/2017/826, 29 September 2017.Hide Footnote

No foreign actor wishes to take the lead given the parties’ intransigence.

International frustration and reluctance to engage more fully is comprehensible. No foreign actor wishes to take the lead given the parties’ intransigence. Such international engagement would be vital to signal that help is available to those seeking progress. Support should be directed at the Congolese people – not just at the humanitarian level, but also on behalf of their political aspirations. The 5 November electoral calendar presents a new, concrete opportunity for international actors to engage on this basis.

Efforts should be based on the key principles of the Saint Sylvester agreement. All relevant international and regional actors, as well as the DRC government, have signed up to it; it remains the governing roadmap; and all conceivable alternatives, including the opposition’s idea of a transitional government without Kabila, are either unfeasible or could play into the regime’s hands. Moreover, its core principle – respect for the integrity of the constitution and thus also the need to organise elections for an orderly transfer of power – represents a sound outcome and an answer to regime attempts to pursue its own dilatory tactics and interests.

What has been lacking since the signing of the agreement is international political engagement and an effective strategy, leaving the initiative totally with the regime. Reversing this dynamic requires focusing on several building blocks:

Active international engagement and overcoming divisions. This is the starting point; effective international pressure on President Kabila to genuinely move toward elections and relinquish power will necessitate both sustained high-level engagement and greater unity among outside actors; otherwise, Kinshasa will continue to engage in forum shopping to find the most sympathetic interlocutor. To achieve this goal, Western powers and African leaders, should attempt to iron out differences in their assessment of the situation and their political strategy to achieve change and avoid further disintegration of the country. Disagreement essentially has revolved around how best to push Kinshasa toward elections in a reasonably expeditious timeframe.

The question of sanctions is among the most divisive. In 2016, they likely helped forge the December agreement. But their value has diminished over time as the regime exploited them to portray foreign pressure as a form of Western imperialism; meanwhile, targeted individuals learned how to circumvent punitive measures. New sanctions should not be imposed while efforts are made to align international views and forge a more united front. However, they remain a potential tool to be used to either discourage human rights abuses or as part of a strategy to help shift political calculations at critical moments. Ideally, they should not be imposed unless coordinated with African partners. If it becomes obvious that the regime is not acting in line with its commitments, the AU and regional organisations should consider bringing more pressure to bear. This could include preparing an honourable exit for President Kabila. The AU, including its Peace and Security Council, and the SADC are already seized and both organisations have the influence and legitimacy to press the Kabila-regime.

Setting up an international envoy group to help forge consensus and advance the DRC’s political process. This group should bring together Western and African nations in the form of a small group of key international envoys. Without the need for unwieldy new structures, this would aim to revitalise coordinated international engagement. The current International Contact Group, which includes Western powers and donors, paradoxically is both overly crowded and unrepresentative. It benefits from only occasional participation from low level African representatives and as such does not serve to bridge international divides, nor does it have the agility to respond to events. The Contact Group, which also covers Burundi and wider regional issues, can be revitalised, expanded with African representatives, and act in support of the envoy group – providing regular buy-in from committed donors and partner countries.

The envoy group should strike the right balance, including a variety of views, especially Western and African. It could comprise representatives of institutions (or countries) that initiated the team of experts in support of the electoral commission that was created at September’s high-level meeting in New York – namely the UN, AU, EU, Francophonie and SADC, ideally with the addition of the U.S.[fn]The team of experts that is still preparing its terms of reference, and is thus not yet in place, may  also include the UK and the U.S. Crisis Group interviews, MONUSCO officials, Addis Ababa, November 2017; email correspondence, diplomat, New York, November 2017. Secretary of State Tillerson’s efforts to winnow special envoys from the State Department’s ranks should not inhibit the appointment of a senior diplomat at the ambassadorial level to manage the day-to-day work that is required for purposes of this process.Hide Footnote

This envoy group should meet regularly and work closely with the SRSG and the UN special envoy to the Great Lakes, whose office could serve as its permanent secretariat. Among its goals would be to prepare and follow-up benchmarks for the electoral process, connect initiatives at the national, regional and international levels, exchange analysis and channel support for elections.

Sticking to the electoral timetable. The electoral commission has now published its long-awaited calendar. Its main merit is to provide a new opportunity for national and international convergence and engagement, while its main flaw is that it has not been agreed to by the major opposition and civil society platforms. The new timetable is technically feasible and provides a realistic political timeframe for the opposition to organise itself and fully participate in the polls. The main risk is that the regime will see this calendar as just one more opportunity to start the process of delays all over again. The budget, security, legal or technical impediments all potentially offer an opportunity for the CENI, CNSA and government to block further progress. The new electoral law, that was to be adopted by parliament by 30 November, is a potentially time-consuming issue that could also seriously affect the political dynamics.[fn]“RDC: Que prévoit la nouvelle loi électorale déposée à l’Assemblée nationale?”, RFI, 18 November 2017.Hide Footnote Both the opposition and international actors should focus on closely supervising the processes within the CENI and other developments to avoid such a dynamic taking hold.

As a matter of urgency, international actors involved in the electoral process should supervise adherence to the calendar actively, warning against unjustified slippage. They also should guard against any government call for snap elections which would catch the opposition unprepared and unable to compete – an unlikely albeit not implausible scenario. The recently proposed team of electoral experts – comprising representatives from the UN, AU, EU, SADC and Francophonie – should quickly be operationalised. There is a possibility that the U.S. and UK will join the experts to support the preparation of the elections. Its working relationship with and independence from the electoral commission has to be clear in its terms of reference. It should work in concert with a dedicated senior UN advisor (as suggested in paragraph 49 of the UN strategic review).

This technical group should continuously assess and review the process and develop benchmarks for the provision of international support. Essential areas are: the voter list and its planned audit, adequate national funding, clarity on CENI intentions regarding the voting system (traditional ballots or a semi-electronic vote) and the logistics support provided by MONUSCO. As to the latter, any such support should be targeted at strategic choking points that, if left unaddressed, are liable to cause further delays. Parliament should promptly adopt the electoral law and the legislation on seat distribution.

Outside parties should press the government to clarify its plans for funding the electoral process; in turn, the level of ambition (notably, for example, the extent to which the voting process will be digitalised) should reflect available funds. The government should refrain from initiatives that distract from this priority, such as new policy proposals that ought not to be in its purview insofar as it lacks legitimacy. The entire process ought to be as transparent as possible.

Pressing for confidence-building measures enshrined in the agreement. Opposition and civil society actors have no confidence in either the government or current actors responsible for the election’s management and oversight (CNSA, CENI). The regime has effectively hijacked implementation of the Saint Sylvester agreement. To effectively operationalise the electoral calendar, and consistent with the principles of the Saint Sylvester agreement, international actors, including those in the region, ought to press the regime to rapidly enact the legislation required for the CNSA to operate and allow it to be opened up to civil society observation. They should press for the opening up of political space to allow the opposition to operate freely. Steps should include setting up a credible process to assess the legality and validity of the current prosecution of several opposition politicians.[fn] The CENCO report on the cases of Moïse Katumbi and Jean-Claude Muyambo, presented to the government in March 2017, should be taken into account. Creating a more level electoral playing field also will require the government to allow peaceful political protest, political party activity and free media reporting. MONUSCO police and human rights observers should play a part in this, by continuing to actively monitor police operations, in particular during protests. Recent legislation on civil society activities goes counter to this and should be reversed.

An engaged opposition. International action also has been hampered by the tactics of the DRC opposition, which too often has boycotted talks, out of understandable distrust of either the regime or of one another. The better course would be for opposition figures to intensify their engagement in the process, including by seeking an active role in the electoral process, pressuring the government to open political space, beginning work on their electoral platforms and proving their relevance to a restive citizenry. Foreign governments with sway over the opposition should encourage such a course.

Preparing for the future. With the balance of forces currently pointing at best toward stagnation, both regional and international actors should take steps to prepare for what might come next. This means being ready to respond to a further deterioration, including the spread and intensification of insurgencies. If the impasse continues, armed groups that are as yet poorly coordinated could conceivably merge efforts or at least synchronise them. This would fundamentally alter the situation. MONUSCO will be at the front line and needs to shift rapidly toward a more flexible and mobile posture, notably by being able to deploy resources more quickly around the country as signalled in its September strategic review.[fn]“Special report of the Secretary-General on the strategic review of the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission”, op. cit.; and “Open Letter to the UN Secretary-General on Peacekeeping in DRC”, Crisis Group, 27 July 2017.Hide Footnote

VI. Conclusion

At its December 2016 signing, the Saint Sylvester agreement seemed to offer a credible way out of the DRC’s spiralling crisis. A considerable weakening of the opposition, lack of international political engagement, a focus on the conflict and humanitarian crisis in the Kasai and an effective diplomatic offensive by the Congolese government all contributed to stalling its implementation. Yet this setback aside, the fundamental principles of the agreement remain a solid foundation for international reengagement aimed at avoiding any further degeneration.

The likelihood that the DRC will witness a rise in violent conflict remains high; the Kasai experience suggest how quickly and intensely it can spread. Should that occur, a regime that lacks both popular legitimacy and resources will find it highly challenging to manage. In the short term, this likely would reinforce the regime’s belief in its strategy of glissement, but at a huge human cost. A sudden, major deterioration of security, with large scale displacement and major implications for the region, cannot be ruled out.

The immediate priority is for Western and regional powers to forge consensus, as best they can, on a coherent approach. This requires that both revisit existing policies: for now, the West should pause any further sanctions and African powers should step up pressure, even if behind closed doors, on President Kabila. A new electoral calendar for the DRC is on the table. It is far from ideal, as it allows Kabila to extend his stay in power, with all the attendant consequences for the country. But now is not the moment to sit on the sidelines and reinforce those in the regime who are eagerly awaiting the opportunity to blame further delays on foreign powers or the opposition. This latest development provides a new opening for the region and donor community to step up their efforts and work in concert toward this common goal.

Nairobi/Brussels, 4 December 2017

Appendix A: Map of DR Congo

Map of DR Congo International Crisis Group/KO/October 2016. Based on UN map No 4007 Rev 11 (May 2016).

Appendix B: Glossary

ANR: National Intelligence Agency
BDK: Bundu dia Kongo
BDM: Bundu dia Mayala
CENCO: National Episcopal Conference of Congo
CENI: Independent National Electoral Commission
CNSA: National Council for Monitoring the Agreement and the Electoral Process
CNPSC: National People’s Coalition for the Sovereignty of Congo
FONUS: Innovative Forces for Union and Solidarity
ECCAS: Economic Community of Central African States
ECOWAS: Economic Community of West African States
FARDC: Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo
FIB: Force Integration Brigade
ICGLR: International Conference on the Great Lakes Region
LUCHA: Lutte pour le changement, a social movement
M23: Mouvement du 23 mars
MLC: Movement for the Liberation of Congo
MONUSCO: United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo
MNR: National Movement for the Revolution
OIF: Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie
PNC: Congolese National Police
PPRD: Peoples’ Party for Reconstruction and Democracy
PSCF: Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework
RASSOP: Rassemblement de l’Opposition
SADC: Southern African Development Community
SRSG: Special representative of the Secretary-General
UDPS: Union for Democracy and Social Progress
UDCO: Union for the Development of Congo
UNC: Union for the Congolese Nation
UNDP: United Nations Development Programme

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