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The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC): A Dangerous Stalemate
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC): A Dangerous Stalemate
CrisisWatch 2018 January Trends & February Alerts
CrisisWatch 2018 January Trends & February Alerts
Commentary / Africa

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC): A Dangerous Stalemate

Political uncertainty and increasing polarisation between government and opposition, combined with escalating violence in many provinces, have set the DRC on a dangerous trajectory. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2017 – Third Update early warning report for European policy makers, Crisis Group urges the European Union and its member states to denounce attempts by the DRC government to further delay the polls and offer technical electoral support to the Electoral Commission.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2017 – Third Update.

Political uncertainty and instability in the DRC are growing as the one-sided implementation of the 31 December 2016 (Saint Sylvester) agreement has deepened the gulf between a newly invigorated regime and a weakened opposition and civil society. The Electoral Commission (CENI) still has not published a new calendar for polls promised by the end of the year, although, speaking at the UN General Assembly on 23 September, President Joseph Kabila indicated it was imminent. Recent comments by the CENI president indicate that the elections would not be organised before 2019. In this context of political uncertainty, opposition and civil society are renewing efforts to bring people out onto the streets; whether they can do so is unclear, as is whether they could control any protests that do occur. The grave socio-economic crisis, harsh repression by security forces and lack of confidence in political elites make for a potentially explosive cocktail of resentment and frustration. Beyond urban centres, violence is escalating in many provinces, adding to concerns for regional stability.

An increasingly confident regime that lacks a clear strategy

Few, if any, of the 31 December agreement’s signatories sincerely believed in the agreement’s stipulation that elections would be held by the end of 2017. The government has since controlled implementation of that deal and interpreted its provisions to suit its agenda of delay. Meanwhile, domestic pressure to stick to the timeline has diminished, in particular following the February death of Etienne Tshisekedi, the charismatic opposition leader, and in March, after the Catholic Church withdrew from its direct mediation role.

For its part, Kabila’s government has engaged in a two-pronged strategy: violent repression and closure of political space at home on the one hand, intensive regional diplomacy to defuse U.S. and European Union (EU) pressure on the other. The latter track appears to have been particularly successful. African and especially Southern African powers now largely accept the government’s interpretation of the agreement (notably its unilateral choice of prime minister). While they have been more critical behind closed doors and acknowledge that the political manoeuvring and delay tactics increase the risk of violence, their public positioning has given the regime vital breathing space.

A weakened opposition focused on Kabila leaving power

Faced with the regime’s hijacking of the 31 December agreement, opposition and civil society are trying to regain the initiative. In July, Felix Tshisekedi, president of the main opposition coalition, the Rassemblement, suggested a six-month transition if the vote were not held in December, but without Kabila (whose constitutional mandate expired in 2016) retaining the presidency. In August, representatives of civil society platforms (including the youth protest movements Lucha and Filimbi as well as the “Debout Congolais” recently launched by Congolese businessman Sindika Dokolo) adopted a manifesto with a similar proposal. Moïse Katumbi, a prominent opponent in exile, added his name to this manifesto in September. It calls for non-violent actions to pressure the government, reminding the population of its duty, enshrined in Article 64, to defend the constitution against anyone seeking to exercise power by violating its provisions. It hopes such actions will force President Kabila out, with a national conference held afterwards to designate a transitional mechanism.

This approach has scant chance of success. The opposition, weakened by the exile and imprisonment of several of its leaders, is riven by distrust among its factions and lacks internal cohesion. Struggling to organise street demonstrations, or control them when they do take place, its leaders appear for now to be resting their hopes on greater international (particularly Western) engagement. But the opposition faces a paradox: international actors are unlikely to take a more robust position in the absence of a credible domestic dynamic.

Worrying security developments

Meanwhile, several provinces – including the Kasais, Tanganyika, North and South Kivu – are experiencing violent conflict, fuelled by both local tensions and the national political stalemate. Playing the role of pompier-pyromane, the government thus far has contained the fighting while people close to the regime have simultaneously stoked unrest and used it to justify election delays. But this dangerous strategy has increased tensions with several neighbours, notably Angola, which hosts thousands of refugees from the troubled Kasai region. As one of the world’s gravest humanitarian crises, with 3.8 million internally displaced and more than 600.000 refugees, humanitarian support remains under-funded despite some EU and member states contributions, and the recent additional amounts announced this year.

A recent small rebound in copper prices has allowed the government to promise better and more regular salaries as well as to ease currency depreciation pressures. But economic fundamentals remain poor. With families squeezed by rising prices and growing petty corruption, popular discontent is rising along with prospects for urban unrest.

International actors need to step up support for the 31 December agreement

The EU, UN, the African Union (AU), relevant sub-regional organisations and the Chinese, French, Russian and UK governments, together with the DRC government, met on 19 September on the margins of the UN General Assembly in New York. The chair’s summary of that meeting reaffirmed broad support for the Saint Sylvester agreement, despite the inevitability that its electoral timetable will now slip. This is welcome news insofar as the agreement’s core principle – the need to hold elections without amending the constitution – deserves strong support in the face of the regime’s attempts to kill it with a thousand cuts.

But international actors need to turn this support into concrete action that pressures the government and electoral commission to move forward with election preparations. While the EU should offer technical electoral support, as envisaged at the New York meeting, it should denounce attempts by the DRC government to further delay the polls (including through publishing unnecessarily long timetables). It also should condemn, of course, any attempt by Kabila to change the constitution’s presidential two-term limit. International reaction to the soon-to-be-announced electoral calendar will be an initial test – if the timetable stretches too far into the future, as recent communications from the CENI indicate it may, the EU, in concert with other relevant international actors, should make this clear, stressing that elections could be held sooner and offering technical support to reach that goal while actively criticising delay tactics. Alongside this, EU and member states should continue work that supports Congolese civil society and internal voices calling for democracy and constitutionalism.

Effective pressure on President Kabila to move toward elections and stick to term limits requires better international cooperation. Western powers – notably the EU and its member states – should reach out to African leaders to hear their concerns and try to iron out differences. At present, African powers tend to acquiesce in Kabila’s interpretation of the agreement and refrain from criticising (at least publicly) his efforts to remain in power, while the West has adopted a more critical stance. Disagreement thus far has revolved around how best to push Kinshasa toward elections. African leaders are hostile to Western sanctions on DRC leaders put in place over the last fifteen months. While those sanctions may have had some impact in 2016 in deterring violence and helping forge the December agreement, they increasingly have diminishing returns as Kabila’s regime uses them to portray pressure on it as a form of Western imperialism. They ought not be reinforced while efforts are made to align international views.

 

Commentary

CrisisWatch 2018 January Trends & February Alerts

The latest edition of Crisis Group's monthly conflict tracker highlights dangers of new conflict in Somaliland, Afghanistan and Syria. CrisisWatch also notes that February's winter Olympics on the Korean Peninsula represent a chance for peace against a great background risk of war.

January saw violence rise in Afghanistan, likely to continue in February as conflict parties compete to gain the upper hand ahead of spring offensives. Clashes look set to escalate in north-west Syria, with the regime ramping up its push against rebels and Turkey launching an assault on Kurdish-held Afrin. In Yemen, southern separatists fought government forces, their erstwhile allies, to take control of Aden city in the south. In West Africa, both Mali and Niger experienced a rise in jihadist violence, in Nigeria deadly attacks between herders and farmers spiralled, and Equatorial Guinea said it had thwarted an attempted coup. In the Horn of Africa, Somaliland troops clashed with neighbouring Puntland’s forces and both sides looked to be preparing for more hostilities. In Colombia, peace talks between the government and the National Liberation Army were suspended following a spate of guerrilla attacks. The Venezuelan government’s announcement of early elections sparked a crisis of confidence in talks with the opposition. Meanwhile, peace talks between North and South Korea provide an opportunity for de-escalation, however the threat of war on the peninsula is higher now than at any time in recent history.

With peace talks stalled, Afghanistan experienced a rise in deadly attacks by all armed actors, at a tempo and intensity that could persist as conflict parties try to gain the upper hand ahead of spring offensives. The Afghan National Security Forces claimed to have killed about 2,000 Taliban and Islamic State-Khorasan Province (IS-KP) fighters since late December, while attacks by the Taliban and the IS-KP have left scores dead. In one incident in Kabul claimed by the Taliban, a bomb in an ambulance killed more than 100. Recognising that Afghanistan risks facing escalating violence in 2018, Crisis Group has stressed that diplomatic channels should be preserved and a political settlement pursued.

In Syria’s north west, Turkey’s air and land offensive against Kurdish “People’s Protection Units” (YPG) in Afrin, and regime advances against rebels in Hama and Idlib provinces, marked a severe escalation and paved the way for worse fighting in February. As we warned, Turkey’s offensive among a hostile population and in difficult territory could easily become a prolonged fight against a gritty insurgency, further strain its alliance with the YPG’s main backer, the U.S., and provoke Kurdish attacks at home. A deal would serve both sides better. In Yemen’s port city of Aden, southern separatists – nominally allied with the government in its fight against Huthi rebels – routed government forces from much of the city; dozens died in the fighting.

Suspected jihadist gunmen and suicide bombers in Mali upped deadly attacks against the military and French Barkhane forces, especially in Ménaka region in the east. In neighbouring Niger, Boko Haram militants increased attacks against the army in the south east, killing at least ten soldiers. To confront these rural insurgencies in the Sahel, in tandem with military efforts, authorities and foreign partners should promote local mediation and peacebuilding initiatives and, where possible, try to engage militant leaders. Nigeria’s expanding conflict between herding and farming communities spiralled in January with at least 200 killed across five states. Also in West Africa, Equatorial Guinea said it had foiled a coup attempt; 39 mercenaries were arrested in southern Cameroon.

Tensions between Somaliland and Puntland state in Somalia turned violent when on 8 January Somaliland troops seized the town of Tukaraq in the disputed Sool region, pushing out Puntland forces. With fighters exchanging fire on 28 January and both sides reportedly mobilising more manpower, February could see further hostilities.

In Colombia, amid a climate of mistrust at the negotiating table and a general atmosphere of public scepticism and apathy, peace talks between the government and the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla group were suspended on 29 January following a spate of guerrilla attacks. In Venezuela, the government’s announcement that it will hold early elections “before 30 April”, in defiance of ongoing talks with the opposition, sparked a crisis of confidence in the talks, greatly reducing the prospects of a viable agreement to resolve the political standoff.

In Kosovo, the murder of moderate Serb politician Oliver Ivanovic in Mitrovica on 16 January triggered shock and condemnation within Kosovo and by the U.S., EU and others in the international community, who called for all sides to remain calm, exercise restraint and avoid dangerous rhetoric.

North and South Korea conducted multiple rounds of peace talks in January and agreed to conduct several joint activities in the coming months. This came after Seoul responded positively to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s offer of immediate and unconditional talks with South Korea in his annual New Year’s address. As Crisis Group reports state, the thaw in relations offers an opportunity to dial down tensions and reduce the immediate risk of conflict through some form of de-escalatory deal between the U.S. and North Korea. Nevertheless, the threat of catastrophic war on the peninsula is higher now than at any time in recent history, and escalation could quickly resume after the Olympics.

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