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Examining the Role of Rwanda in the DRC Insurgency
Examining the Role of Rwanda in the DRC Insurgency
Speech / Africa

Examining the Role of Rwanda in the DRC Insurgency

Testimony by Mark L. Schneider, Senior Vice President, International Crisis Group to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, and Human Rights on “Examining the Role of Rwanda in the DRC Insurgency”.

I want to express my appreciation to Chairman Smith, Ranking Member Bass, and the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, and Human Rights for the opportunity to testify this morning. I want to commend the subcommittee for focusing its attention during this critical time.

Crisis Group is an independent, non-partisan, non-governmental organization that provides field-based analysis, policy advice and advocacy to governments, the United Nations, and other multilateral organizations on the prevention and resolution of deadly conflict. Crisis Group was founded in 1995 as an international non-governmental organisation by distinguished diplomats, statesmen and opinion leaders including Career Ambassador Mort Abramowitz, Nobel Prize winner and former Finland president Martti Ahtisaari, the late Congressman Stephen Solarz, and former UN and British diplomat Mark Malloch Brown who were deeply concerned at the international community’s failure to anticipate and respond effectively to mass atrocities in Rwanda and Bosnia. Senator George Mitchell was our first chairman; Ambassador Thomas Pickering is our current chairman. Louise Arbour, former chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, is our current president. In 2011, Crisis Group was awarded the Eisenhower Medal for Leadership and Service.

Crisis Group publishes annually around 90 reports and briefing papers, as well as the monthly CrisisWatch bulletin. Our staff are located on the ground in ten regional offices and sixteen other locations covering between them over 60 countries focused on conflict prevention and post-conflict stabilization. We maintain advocacy and research offices in Brussels (the global headquarters), Washington and New York and liaison and research presences in London, Moscow, and Beijing.

Crisis Group’s Africa program oversees four projects covering Central, Southern, and West Africa, and the Horn of Africa, reporting on 22 different countries within these regions. We have produced 35 reports/briefings on the DRC.

A rebellion in the Eastern Congo has exploded again with new reports of lives lost, armed violence against communities and threats to regional security. The seriously flawed 2011 presidential and legislative elections constituted a major step backward on the DRC path toward stability and democracy. We collectively deplored that situation. Today conditions are even worse. The M23 violence since April, motivated by greed and power, has already produced nearly half a million displaced persons and refugees from the Eastern Congo provinces, according to UNHCR.
 

Briefly are the following steps needed to be taken immediately:

  • an immediate ceasefire to be monitored by the United Nations Stabilization Mission in the Congo (MONUSCO);
  • the end of foreign support to armed groups, particularly an end to Rwandan support of M23 by expanding aid suspension if needed;
  • the arrest of Bosco Ntaganda and his appearance before the International Criminal Court;
  • implementation of the joint mechanism for border verification;
  • the disarmament and demobilization of M23;
  • assessment of the 23 March 2009 agreement between the CNDP and the government;
  • include on the UN sanctions list all individuals and entities responsible for supporting the M23;
  • request the ICC to start investigating the M23 and other armed groups, especially regarding child soldiers recruitment

These measures are part of a conflict management approach but if only these immediate stop-gap actions are taken, it will not prevent the repetition of another Kivu crisis in one or two years. The only way to prevent it is to force the Congolese government to implement the peace framework defined in 2008 and to force the Rwanda government to end its policy of control by proxies in Eastern Congo. For a long-term conflict resolution, there is already a peace framework - the problem being the non-implementation of this peace framework. Only pressure on the stakeholders will force them to implement this peace framework.

In addition, I will discuss briefly four other key issues that remain crucial to stability in the Democratic Republic of the Congo: post-electoral dynamics; Security Sector Reform; conflict minerals and oil and natural resources; and the role of MONUSCO.

But first, let me return to describe Crisis Group’s assessment of the Crisis in North Kivu - it is Déjà vu all over again?

If we had a time machine, we could go back to 2008 when the CNDP (the National Congress for the Defense of the People) led a rebellion against the government in North Kivu, defeated the Congolese army and made a mockery of a force of peace keepers with the support of a close neighbor. During that Goma crisis, Laurent Nkunda was running the CNDP. But in fact, we do not need a time machine because it is happening again in 2012. The current fighting in North Kivu bears many of the ethnic, political economical and structural characteristics of the 2008 crisis.

In March 2012, Joseph Kabila ordered the arrest of General Bosco Ntaganda and wants to judge him in the Congolese justice system. The former CNDP rebel, who had been integrated into the Congolese armed forces (FARDC), defected from the army and took to the bush with several hundreds of his soldiers. The FARDC launched an offensive to capture Ntaganda. However, surprisingly, while they had surrounded him and were close to victory, President Kabila ordered his troops to halt their attack. This unexplained event allowed Bosco Ntaganda to flee and join renegade army officer colonel Sultani Makenga and reorganize in North Kivu’s volcano area. The group took the name “M23” in reference to the March 23, 2009 agreement between the government and the CNDP armed group, which they claimed was not respected by Kinshasa. According to this agreement, the rebels were supposed to integrate the FARDC and end their struggle. However, the real motivations of M23 are more complex.

The group is an offshoot of a faction of the CNDP and is mainly Tutsi-based. However, it is not fighting to protect the interest of its community as the CNDP argued it in the past. Rather, its members defected from the FARDC in order to defend the business interests and networks established under the CNDP and perpetuated even after they integrated into the Congolese army. The failure to dismantle the CNDP command structure when the troops were incorporated into the FARDC allowed them to fester within the FARDC structure and also allowed them to continue illicit control over local resources. This pattern of exploitation and control of natural resources by armed groups, including the FARDC, is recurrent in the eastern DRC and very often one of the main sources of conflict. Rwanda is once more directly involved with the recent mutiny. According to the UN experts report annex, Kigali has supported the M23 not only because of the common ethnic identity, but also because it allows the country to freely exploit the DRC’s natural riches through illegal mineral exploitation networks.

Rwanda has been more strongly condemned by the international community in 2012 than in 2008. In June, the UN group of expert issued a report accusing Rwanda of supporting the rebels on DRC’s soil. The UK, the US, Holland, Germany and Sweden then cut or delayed aid to the central African nation, even though this will not do major damage to the Rwandan economy directly since that aid represents only 3% of state budget. After those sanctions on Rwanda, there were reports that new military attacks by M23 were stopped temporarily although they continue as a dangerous military force occupying key areas and have been accused of a range of serious human rights violations as well. Even more important is that the diplomatic message is strong, especially since it includes the US, Rwanda’s strongest western ally, that continued cross-border support of illegal armed groups that threaten human life and regional security must cease.

Key sections from the addendum to the Group of Experts Interim Report (pages three and four) state:

Over the course of its investigation since late 2011, the Group has found substantial evidence attesting to support from Rwandan officials to armed groups operating in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Initially the RDF appeared to establish these alliances to facilitate a wave of targeted assassinations against key officers of the Forces démocratique pour la libération du Rwanda (FDLR) thus significantly weakening the rebel movement (see S/2012/348, paras. 37 and 38). However, these activities quickly extended to support for a series of post-electoral mutinies within the FARDC and eventually included the direct facilitation, through the use of Rwandan territory, of the creation of the M23 rebellion. The latter is comprised of ex-CNDP officers integrated into the Congolese army (FARDC) in January 2009. Since M23 established itself in strategic positions along the Rwandan border in May 2012, the Group has gathered overwhelming evidence demonstrating that senior RDF officers, in their official capacities, have been backstopping the rebels through providing weapons, military supplies, and new recruits.

In turn, M23 continues to solidify alliances with many other armed groups and mutineer movements, including those previously benefiting from RDF support. This has created enormous security challenges, extending from Ituri district in the north to Fizi territory in the south, for the already overstretched Congolese army (FARDC). Through such arms embargo violations, Rwandan officials have also been in contravention of the sanctions regime’s travel ban and assets freeze measures, by including three designated individuals among their direct allies.

In an attempt to solve the crisis which this Rwandan support to armed groups had exacerbated, the Governments of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda have held a series of high-level bilateral meetings since early in April 2012. During these discussions, Rwandan officials have insisted on impunity for their armed group and mutineer allies, including ex-CNDP General Bosco Ntaganda, and the deployment of additional RDF units to the Kivus to conduct large-scale joint operations against the FDLR.

Since the earliest stages of its inception, the Group documented a systematic pattern of military and political support provided to the M23 rebellion by Rwandan authorities. Upon taking control over the strategic position of Runyoni, along the Rwandan border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, M23 officers opened two supply routes going from Runyoni to Kinigi or Njerima in Rwanda, which RDF officers used to deliver such support as troops, recruits and weapons. The Group also found evidence that Rwandan officials mobilized ex-CNDP cadres and officers, North Kivu politicians, business leaders and youth in support of M23.  

Direct assistance in the creation of M23 through Rwandan territory

Colonel Sultani Makenga deserted the FARDC in order to create the M23 rebellion using Rwandan territory and benefiting directly from RDF facilitation (see S/2012/348, para. 104). On 4 May, Makenga crossed the border from Goma into Gisenyi, Rwanda, and waited for his soldiers to join him from Goma and Bukavu.

Another important and unfortunately repetitive element of the current crisis is the blatant military ineffectiveness of the Congolese army. Internal infighting, corruption, delinquency and the total lack of professionalism of the FARDC allowed 700 poorly armed and trained rebels to defeat for more than five months a government army of thousands of troops trained by several countries, including the US, and with a 18,000 UN force charged with backing the DRC army. Defections, human rights abuses and corruption all too often have characterized FARDC behaviour, undermining the many who want to see a professional military capable of defending the population

MONUSCO has been totally incapable of engaging the rebels or defending civilian areas where interethnic fighting has broken out. MONUSCO has clear and adequate rules of engagement and the authority under its mandate to protect civilians. It has thousands of troops in the Kivus and the Indian army component that leads it is a professional force equipped with helicopters and armed vehicles. In the DRC people cannot understand why the most capable military force in their country is unwilling to use its firepower to implement its mandate. Far more active engagement by MONUSCO is required.

  • Since April, the M23 has conquered large chunk of territory in North Kivu and is now administrating them. The fall of Bunagana on 5 July, 2012 was a serious warning. Following the Addis Ababa conference, the M23 rebellion increased its territorial control on 25 July by defeating FARDC in Rumangabo, 30 km north from Goma, the provincial capital. It has formed its own government and is now busy installing its administration in the Rutshuru area. As usual, the rebel movement is financing itself through coercive taxation of on any supply trucks going into Goma, which has sent food prices sky-rocketing. Like the CNDP in the past, the M23 wants talks with the government, which would be humiliating for Kinshasa.
  • Given the government’s weak response to the M23 challenge, FARDC officers are defecting in South Kivu but also in Province Oriental and Kasai Occidental. In the absence of a political response from DRC government, increasing its lack of legitimacy and weaken even more the institutions.
  • Deep in the rural areas, other armed groups are taking advantage of the tactical situation and are expanding their territorial control by committing abuses against the civilian population and recruiting child soldiers. According to very credible sources, the Rayia Mutomboki group has committed killings in the Walikale and Kalehe territories and launched a policy of ethnic cleansing against the Kinyarwanda-speaking people.
  • Despite calls from the EU and Belgium for dialogue and army reform, Kinshasa remains unwilling to reform the army and instead has sought to forge an alliance with some anti-Tutsi armed groups, has asked for more training and is busy recruiting youths to reinforce its troops in the Kivus. The government is already unable to manage and pay about 80,000 soldiers but it is presently recruiting new ones.
  • Rwanda is denying any allegations of involvement and is trying to divert international community attention from mineral cross border illegal trade by elevating the threat of FDLR as the principal issue.

At the regional level, the International Conference on Great Lake Region (ICGLR) initiated talks between Rwanda and DRC but this initiative is not going to provide a rapid solution to the on-going upsurge of armed groups’ activity in the Kivus. The ICGLR met several times in July, August and September (Khartoum 30 July-1 August, Kampala 6-8 August, Goma 16 August, Kampala 7-8 September) but failed to come up with innovative solution, except for a “neutral force” whose mandate would be 1) border control and 2) neutralizing the armed groups, but whose formation remains uncertain. ICGLR agreed to reactivate old mechanisms (mediation team, border verification mechanism, etc.) but failed to reach an agreement about the composition of a “neutral” force of 4,000 during the heads of state conference in Kampala.

These troops will add to 18,000 UN peacekeepers and about 30,000 Congolese soldiers. At best, this neutral ICGLR deployment is expected in December 2012 but the heads of state have not been able yet to agree on the composition and deployment of this African force. In addition to the fact that it is difficult to understand what difference 4,000 untested additional soldiers will make, the ICGLR already made clear that it does not have the implementation capacity for such a plan and will turn to the AU and UN for support. The secretary general of the ICGLR has been tasked to contact donors to fund such a force. The people of the Kivus cannot afford a diplomatic ping-pong game between international organisations in the coming months. Unless Kinshasa and Kigali change their positions, prospects for a change in the status quo are slim. One can expect the current threat to civilian safety and public security to persist unless military operations change the reality on the ground.

The fact that the international community has for once taken measures against the rebel’s foreign backer, Rwanda, is a good sign (but still not enough). However, the repetition of the Kivu crisis shows that the root causes of the conflict have not been addressed. Without significant security sector reform, public administration delivering basic services to the people, violators of human rights held accountable and serious regulation and control of natural resource exploitation, peace and stability will continue to elude the Eastern Congo. A clear framework for peace in the Kivu has existed since 2008: it is a peace package made of the Acts of engagement (January 2008), the 23 March 2009 agreement with the CNDP and the stabilization program called STAREC. This framework for peace needs to be implemented in order to move beyond conflict management to conflict resolution. It needs to be implemented.

Now let me turn briefly to other issues of governance that affect DRC stability.

Post-electoral Dynamics

The failure to see legitimate, credible governing institutions in place throughout the Eastern Congo and the country as a whole remains a core source of continued instability and lack of development. Our reports starting in 2010 documented the flaws leading up to presidential and legislative elections at the end of 2011. We cited the consequences of a hasty constitutional change in January 2011, flawed voter registration and voter roll issues, minimal outreach by Congo’s Independent National Election Commission (CENI) to the political parties, lack of transparency, a sharp increase of political tension, incidents of violence, the general inadequate preparation of the elections, and the late design of an integrated electoral security plan. And we especially pressed unsuccessfully, given all of these suspect issues, on the CENI, the government, opposition parties, MONUSCO and the larger international community, including the U.S. and the EU, to develop a consensual Plan B if, despite all good faith efforts, the outlook for decent elections on 28 November appeared grim. Otherwise, we warned that without concerted and unified action by the DRC and committed international diplomacy, the November general elections, the second since the end to the Congo conflict, could result in massive irregularities if not massive fraud with the potential for widespread violence and the undermining of the legitimacy of any pronounced elections winner. We know the results.

The lack of credibility of the results sparked opposition protests that, in turn, prompted heavy-handed repression by Congolese security forces in Kinshasa. After refusing any external assessment of the electoral process, the electoral commission blamed the international community for the errors in its post elections evaluation report.

Congo's electoral woes reflected the country's broader lack of democratic and institutional development since 2006. But they also stem from weak international and continental engagement, from MONUSCO and the AU to donors– especially the EU and the UK, who partly funded the polls, and the U.S. All have been largely ineffective in preventing Kabila's consolidation of power and stacking the decks.

Despite the record of failed elections last year, the DRC government still has been unwilling to change CENI’s members. The prospect of the provincial election is now very remote (2013 at best) and local elections remain very vague in the CENI’s planning, thus demonstrating the lack of government’s willingness to organize them.

Donors should condition support on fundamental electoral reforms, including the replacement of the CENI president and choose new members who reflect a consensus of parties and civil society.

Security Sector Reform

For five years now, several countries, including the US, have provided support to the so-called army reform in the DRC. The result of this effort is the fact that the Congolese army has once again been easily defeated by a far less important force. For instance one brigade trained by Belgium fled to Uganda when the M23 launched its offensive. The training provided to an “army” that is not paid and not disciplined and does not have a decent logistical organization is a mere waste of money. The situation of the army is so bad that the North Kivu civil society suggested that it would pay for it and there are more and more voices in the DRC raising the essential issue of corruption within the army. In itself, training cannot lead to significant change in the army. Security sector reform (SSR) is vital to stability in the DRC, but the Congolese government just paid lip-service to it for five years and a corruption network has blocked virtually every serious reform effort. If the donors really think that SSR is vital for the stability of the DRC, they should put significant pressure on the authorities or stop wasting their money in ineffective training programs.

Conflict minerals and soon conflict oil

On 22 August, the SEC voted (3-2) to adopt the rules regarding disclosure and reporting obligations required by the Dodd-Frank financial reform law (Section 1502) concerning conflict minerals. It is unfortunate that vote was delayed, even more that more specific penalties were not imposed and that companies, including the globe’s largest, were given a two-year grace period for reporting and allowed to assert an "undeterminable" origin option. As the new Kivu crisis demonstrates and unlike what opponents of this law said, the problem is not to impose new standards (origin certification) to the industry and the Congolese artisanal miners; the problem is the lawlessness of the mining sector in this part of the world.

The present crisis in the Kivu is strongly related to the minerals wealth of the Kivus. But other natural resources are being explored in the region and, if discoveries were confirmed, its impact on the Kivu conflict could be far greater. Oil companies are starting prospecting the Great Lakes region while borders are vaguely demarcated, natural resources illegal exploitation is rampant and distrust among the governments of the region is high. And as ICG has just warned in the report we issued, the rush for DRC oil and gas almost assuredly guarantees both future corruption and future violence.

On the oil issue, Crisis Group’s 11 July report warned that new oil reserves could create new centers of power and could exacerbate the conflict in Eastern Congo. Preventive action is needed to turn a real threat to stability into a genuine development opportunity. Donors should provide technical and financial assistance to the Congolese authorities for the border demarcation, the frame¬work agreement for the exploration and development of cross-border reserves and oil governance reform, and support the Congolese civil society efforts to build a monitoring capacity in the oil sector. This challenge follows on-going unhappiness with the success of the Kimberley Process and with conflict minerals.

The role of MONUSCO

In Crisis Group’s 11 June letter, we stated that the United Nations Stabilization Mission in the Congo (MONUSCO) was failing in its core mandate of stabilization and protection of civilians.

MONUSCO technical and logistical support to deeply flawed elections in 2011 and the inability to successfully promote dialogue between the parties has altered perceptions about the Mission's impartiality. Neither the Security Council nor MONUSCO articulated clear red lines for the credibility of the process, and the good offices role of the Mission appeared underutilized. With the failed decentralization agenda, constitutional reforms that further expanded the power of the Presidency and little accountability for violence and massive fraud associated with the elections, the evidence continues to mount of the potential for authoritarian drift. If not corrected, international involvement in the DRC, including through MONUSCO, risks entrenching an unaccountable government and undermining its own eventual rule of law and peacebuilding efforts.

Closing

A lack of clarity about the overall military strategy and articulation of an end state to the military operations against illegal armed groups also exists. What is required is actual implementation of the comprehensive strategy that exists as I have indicated with its strong political component, to address pervasive insecurity and the threat of illegal armed groups in eastern Congo. Key governance reforms—such as the holding credible provincial and local elections decentralization and progress in the fight against corruption—by updating operative paragraph four of Security Council resolution 1991 (2011) to include their achievement as one of the core objectives is essential. Clearly there is a need to address both local drivers of conflict between communities and the interplay with regional dynamics, including relations with Rwanda, and to break the cycle of impunity in this part of the world. If the western countries, including the US, want to move from crisis management to conflict resolution in the Great Lakes region, they should speak with a single clear voice and exert direct political pressure on both Kinshasa and Kigali.

People walk by a banner of the President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Joseph Kabila, with a text reading "our candidate, Joseph Kabila Kabanga" on 25 May 2018 in Kinshasa. DR Congo will hold long-postponed elections at the end of 2018. JOHN WESSELS / AFP
Briefing 139 / Africa

Increasing the Stakes in DR Congo’s Electoral Poker

A moment of waning international attention has led some in President Kabila’s camp to revisit the idea of an internationally-opposed third presidential term. African and Western leaders must maintain unity, redouble efforts to dissuade Kabila from pursuing this course and ensure preparations for elections in 2018 continue apace.
 

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What’s new? Allies of President Joseph Kabila suggest increasingly overtly that he could seek a third term in office; international actors, led by Angola, firmly reject that idea. Meanwhile, preparations for elections scheduled for December continue, but Kabila’s opponents and civil society distrust the voter register and potential use of voter machines.

Why does it matter? A concerted effort by President Kabila to remain in power or significantly delay elections could provoke a major crisis in the DRC, with consequences well beyond its borders. A genuine transition based on a credible election is a prerequisite for stability in the DRC and the region.

What should be done? African and Western powers must hold firm on elections this year without Kabila. They should threaten his isolation and further sanctions should he seek a third term, while offering assurances if he steps down. Critical, too, are measures to level the playing field and overcome distrust in election procedures.

I. Overview

Election preparations in the DRC continue apace, though the playing field remains badly skewed against Congolese president Joseph Kabila’s opponents and they and civil society distrust election modalities, notably the voter register and the potential use of voting machines, and view electoral authorities as partisan. More­over, in April and early May 2018, Kabila’s allies appeared to exploit a moment of waning international attention to float prospects of Kabila circumventing the constitution and seeking a third term in office. African and Western powers have given the idea short shrift. Indeed, public statements by leaders on the continent and beyond suggest that international consensus remains strong that elections must take place this year and President Kabila must not stand. Maintaining this unified position is critical. Africa and Western leaders should redouble efforts to persuade Kabila not to prolong his rule, while pushing Congolese institutions to take steps to level the playing field and increase confidence in the forthcoming vote.

Diplomatic efforts to nudge President Kabila toward a transition should involve a mix of pressure and incentives. First, African leaders – and the Angolan government in particular – should continue to convey to the president that he would be isolated on the continent were he to pursue a third term. Secondly, Western powers should threaten further sanctions targeting Kabila’s entourage and his financial interests were he to declare his intentions to contest the vote or seek to delay it. Thirdly, the president should receive reassurances that he can retire in dignity, with his security protected.

That preparations for the vote have got this far is significant, notwithstanding the ever louder hints by Kabila’s allies that he might seek a third term and the disputes around procedures.

In addition to concerted efforts to persuade Kabila not to seek a third term, African and Western governments should push his government toward a more credible vote. That means taking measures to level the playing field, notably by ensuring opposition parties can campaign freely, allowing protests, releasing political prisoners and ending politically inspired prosecutions. It also means resolving controversial technical issues: taking steps to increase the quality of and confidence in the voter list, making a final decision on whether to use voting machines and if so, clarifying procedures for their use and for scrutiny by opposition representatives and civil society.

That preparations for the vote have got this far is significant, notwithstanding the ever louder hints by Kabila’s allies that he might seek a third term and the disputes around procedures. So, too, is the clear African and Western position that the DRC needs a genuine transition of power. The closer the vote looms and the stronger international consensus appears, the narrower the space Kabila will have in which to manoeuvre. A credible vote is still a long way off, however. Kabila’s intentions can be hard to read but holding onto power has always been his preference. He and his allies will likely exploit any lapse in international attention or unity to make that happen.

II. Kabila’s Allies Float a Third Term

At the start of this year, Kabila appeared to understand that he could neither change the constitution’s two-term limit, nor find another way of staying in power beyond 23 December, the date set for elections by the Electoral Commission back in November 2017.[fn]For details of the move toward elections and preparations thus far, see Crisis Group Africa Report N°259, Electoral Poker in DR Congo, 4 April 2018.Hide Footnote The 31 December 2016 Saint Sylvester agreement – a deal between the government and opposition struck after Kabila’s second term legally expired and which laid out steps toward elections and a series of measures to improve confidence in the process – also bars him from standing again. Thus far, Saint Sylvester remains a firm, commonly accepted reference point, albeit with an adjustment to the election timeframe.[fn]For an analysis of the Saint Sylvester agreement and its implementation, see Crisis Group Africa Report N°257, Time for Concerted Action in DR Congo, 4 December 2017.Hide Footnote

Under international and domestic pressure, Congolese authorities adopted in November 2017 an electoral calendar, which slated elections for 23 December 2018. Since then, Congolese authorities have continued their technical preparations for the elections, which are now quite advanced. In addition, both Kabila’s majority coalition in parliament and his People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy showed signs of organising for the December polls. As yet, however, these efforts do not include steps to select a successor. Leaving aside the problem of who will eventually be its presidential candidate, the ruling coalition continues to benefit from an enormously skewed playing field, and in particular from control over state resources.

Kabila’s plans can be difficult to decipher. Since he came to power in 2001, the president has operated by keeping his options open. He rarely expresses himself in public while privately saying different things to different people and playing for time. This has served him well in navigating DR Congo’s vast and fractured political landscape. Over the past couple of years, however, his efforts to circumvent the constitutional ban on pursuing a third term in office have run aground; suggestions to amend the constitution to abolish the two-term limit, floated by President Kabila’s political allies since 2013, have met stiff resistance from within the majority and Congolese society at large.[fn]This issue contributed to opposition leader Moïse Katumbi and several other individuals and parties, notably those in the so-called G7 grouping, leaving the majority in 2015. For more, see Crisis Group Africa Report N°225, Congo: Is Democratic Change Possible?, 5 May 2015.Hide Footnote This, combined with increasing international and regional pressure on the president to stand down, means his options for staying in power – which almost certainly remains his preference – appeared to be rapidly narrowing. If he cannot circumvent term limits, his only option for doing so would be to delay the vote.[fn]For details on mounting African pressure over late 2017 and early 2018, see Crisis Group Report, Electoral Poker in DR Congo, op cit.Hide Footnote

Kabila’s team will seek to exploit any sign of division among international or African governments.

In April and early May, however, international and African attention seemed to wane and pressure on Kabila to temporarily let up. That period saw no firm international statements on the DRC. Perhaps sensing an opportunity, and aware that time was short, Kabila’s supporters tested the waters by raising the prospect of his standing for a third term. They have invoked a legal technicality, arguing that since the constitution was changed in 2011, amending the system by which the president is elected – switching from a runoff system to a single-round vote decided by plurality – Kabila in fact has served only one term according to the new rules.[fn]“Cyrus Mirindi: “Il reste un mandat a Joseph Kabila pour atteindre le plafond constitutionnel”, Radio Okapi, 21 May 2018. On 24 April 2018, Jean-Cyrus Mirindi, a researcher in Constitutional Law at the University of Kinshasa, organised a debate, presenting an interpretation of the constitution according to which Kabila would have the right to a further term.Hide Footnote Therefore, the claim goes, he can stand for office again. Posters and banners describing Kabila as the man of the moment have sprung up in Kinshasa, almost certainly with senior-level authorisation.

That Kabila and his allies would – and will continue to – look for opportunities to delay the vote or put forward his candidacy should come as no surprise. The apparent lack of progress in the selection of a successor, for which the majority has less than two months, has increased speculation about his intentions. Kabila’s team will seek to exploit any sign of division among international or African governments in their response, as well as the continued weakness of his domestic opponents.

III. A Forceful Western and African Response

African and Western governments have maintained a strong consensus in support of the 2016 Saint Sylvester agreement, notwithstanding delays in its implementation. The departure of presidents previously supportive of Kabila in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Angola and their replacement with leaders far less inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt has further reinforced that consensus.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, diplomats in Kinshasa, Addis Ababa, New York and Pretoria, February-April 2018.Hide Footnote So, too, have statements by both African and Western politicians over the past few weeks that leave little doubt that patience with Kabila is wearing thin.

On 23 May French President Emmanuel Macron – speaking at a Paris press conference flanked by Rwandan President (and current African Union Chair) Paul Kagame – announced his support for the Rwandan and Angolan position on the DRC. This position consists of maintaining continental support for the elections in December and for the Saint Sylvester agreement, and hence for Kabila leaving power. Before this, France had been less outspoken, creating the impression that it was less engaged in supporting the Saint Sylvester agreement’s key principles.

On 28 May, Kinshasa reacted to Macron’s press conference with a strongly worded statement criticising neighbours for interfering in DRC’s internal affairs.[fn]Point de presse du ministre de la communication et des médias, Kinshasa, 28 May 2018 ; “Kinshasa demande des explications à Emmanuel Macron”, Le Monde, 28 May 2018.Hide Footnote Just a few hours later, also during a meeting in Paris, Presidents João Lourenço (of Angola) and Macron unequivocally confirmed their support for the Saint Sylvester deal. According to Lourenço, the DRC’s neighbours “have the right to protect themselves from any destabilisation”, which – he implied – would worsen if Kabila stays in office.[fn]See the video  “Déclaration conjointe à la presse du président de la République Emmanuel Macron et de João Lourenço, Président de la République d’Angola”, 28 May 2018 (http://www.elysee.fr/videos/new-video-301/).Hide Footnote Lourenço repeated this clear line in support of the Saint Sylvester agreement in a televised interview in early June.[fn]“Angola’s new president speaks exclusively to Euronews”, Euronews.com, 1 June 2018. Angola is a key regional powerbroker; it helped remove long-time Congolese dictator Mobutu Sese Seko and later intervened in support of Joseph’s father Laurent Kabila from 1998. Earlier in May, Kabila had appointed one of his most trusted associates, Didier Kazadi, ambassador to Luanda, possibly in a bid to persuade Lourenço to take a softer line. Thus far, however, this appears to have yielded no change in Angola’s position.      

IV. Election Preparations: Important Technical Fixes Needed

There has been considerable technical progress in preparing for elections, largely in conformity with the electoral calendar announced in November last year. Serious operational hurdles remain, however, and Kabila’s political opponents and Congolese civil society are disputing core operational aspects.

Since early November 2017, the Congolese parliament has adopted laws revising the electoral code and setting the geographical distribution of parliamentary seats; electoral authorities have finalised – and the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie (OIF) audited and validated – the voter register.[fn]“Audit du fichier électoral, conclusions et recommandations préliminaires”, Organisation internationale de la francophonie, 25 May 2018.Hide Footnote But civil society and opposition have criticised each step and have no confidence in the neutrality of the electoral commission.[fn]“Assessment of Electoral Preparations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo”, Strengthening Democracy through Partnership (CEPPS) – USAID, 8 May 2018, pp. 20-25.Hide Footnote Concessions to the opposition, such as allowing the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) party to replace its current supposed representative in the Electoral Commission (whom UDPS leaders do not trust to act in their interests), have been announced but have yet to happen.

It is vital that the Electoral Commission implement the OIF’s recommendations and other steps to improve confidence in the register.

The OIF’s assessment of the voter register was cautiously positive. But that has not reassured the opposition and civil society. The opposition wants the register to be purged of millions of voters it presumes fictitious.[fn]“Déclaration commune de l’opposition congolaise en rapport avec l’audit du fichier électoral conduit par l’OIF”, 28 May 2018. The document is signed by the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS)/Tshisekedi, the Union for the Congolese Nation (UNC), the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), the Dynamique de l’Opposition and Ensemble pour le Changement (the platform led by Moïse Katumbi).Hide Footnote The OIF audit identified large numbers of voters on the list with incomplete data; many with missing fingerprints, for example, which indicates problems, but does not necessary prove that those voters are fictitious. It is vital that the Electoral Commission implement the OIF’s recommendations and other steps to improve confidence in the register. In particular, it should:

  • complete the registration of voters with incomplete data;
     
  • adopt measures to stop people with voter cards but who have been removed from the voter list for valid reasons such as their age, or double registration, from casting a vote;
     
  • put in place clear and timely procedures to resolve problems with eligible voters who have been omitted from the list (a major issue in the 2011 election);
  • ensure safeguards are in place to prevent multiple voting; and
     
  • make available provisional voter lists in good time before the vote at polling stations to allow a “citizen audit of the register”.

This latter measure would allow people to check for their names, spot fictitious voters and raise complaints with electoral officials. Posting of voter lists in advance has been suggested by civil society organisations and is common practice in elections across Africa.

The voting machines that the Electoral Commission seems determined to use are equally if not more controversial. All major opposition candidates and civil society groups are calling on the commission to abandon their use. The Catholic Church has asked for the machines to be checked by competent national and international bodies. The commission has not budged and time is very short, especially if the paper-only ballot has to be reinstated across some or all of the country. If the machines are used without the independent check recommended by the Church, the elections’ credibility will take a significant hit.

V. A Fraught Political Environment

Even these technical fixes will not guarantee a credible election, given that the political environment is tense. It is likely to grow even more so in the coming months, as electoral preparations continue and candidates put their names forward to contest the vote.

Since those brutally repressed marches, organised by the Catholic lay organisation, there have been only a few smaller protests.

The government has only very partially implemented the Saint Sylvester agreement’s provisions for opening up political space and continues to clamp down on protests.[fn]“Appel à la responsabilité”, Press Conference by the Secretary-general of the Congolese Episcopal Conference, Kinshasa, 24 May 2018.Hide Footnote Nor have recommendations made by the human rights minister following investigations into the security forces’ violent repression of political demonstrations in December 2017 and January 2018 been implemented. Since those brutally repressed marches, organised by the Catholic lay organisation (the Comité laïc de coordination, CLC), there have been only a few smaller protests. This de facto truce may soon end, following a CLC conference in Kinshasa on 30 April and 1 May. The country’s Catholic bishops are preparing to evaluate the electoral process and the Saint Sylvester agreement’s implementation by the end of June. Should they judge progress on the latter insufficient, as they likely will, one could expect a renewed unity of purpose and support for further demonstrations across the Church (in particular in Kinshasa) and other denominations.

The registration of candidates, which starts soon, could be another source of friction. Candidates have to register to run for office starting 24 June for the provincial elections and 25 July for the presidential and national parliamentary contests.[fn]Candidates for the provincial elections are to register from 24 June until 8 July. Provisional lists are to be published on 28 July, and the definitive candidate lists will be published on 20 August. For the national legislative and presidential elections, candidates have to register from 25 July until 8 August. A provisional list is to be published on 24 August.Hide Footnote The mostly ill-resourced provincial appeals courts will adjudicate challenges to candidates’ eligibility for provincial elections and the Constitutional Court will adjudicate those for parliamentary and presidential candidates. By 19 September, approximately three months before the election date, all candidate lists should be finalised. The timetable leaves the government but especially opposition parties little time to prepare. Wrangling continues over the recognition of opposition parties, some of which have had their names hijacked by government-backed factions. For example, the recently published list of officially recognised parties includes four different ones that call themselves the UDPS, the name of one of the country’s oldest opposition parties.

Opposition leaders are making attempts to unite and mount a more serious challenge. UDPS leader Felix Tshisekedi and the wealthy former Katanga Governor Moïse Katumbi are discussing a joint program and the possibility of fielding a single candidate.[fn]“Déclaration conjointe de New York”, 25 May 2018 (signed by Moïse Katumbi and Felix Tshisekedi).Hide Footnote Katumbi still faces major hurdles before he could stand as a presidential candidate, including pending legal cases and claims he may have forfeited his Congolese citizenship when he obtained an Italian passport several years ago in exile.[fn]“RDC : Moïse Katumbi a bel et bien eu la nationalite italienne pendant 17 ans”, Jeune Afrique, 22 March 2018.Hide Footnote Even were the two opposition leaders to agree among themselves on a single candidate, whichever of the two backs the other’s presidential bid would still have to persuade his supporters to accept that plan.

VI. Maintaining Pressure on Kinshasa

The next few months will be vital, in terms both of who runs in the elections and the credibility of the vote. At present Kabila still has three options: to run again, to delay elections or to stand aside. He may simply face down international criticism and calculate that the isolation that would come with a third term is worth it. Or he may orchestrate chaos in the country to justify further delays, possibly through the declaration of a state of emergency; continued insecurity in several provinces as well as the possibility of new popular protest in major cities could be used to justify such a step. Pursuing either of these options would be fraught with risk for his country and the region. The good news is that regional leaders seem to understand this and are indicating that the price of isolation will be high. It is critical that they maintain this unity.

Overall, an international and African strategy to pressure Kabila should involve three elements. The first is continued threats of isolation, with an African, and particularly Angolan, lead: President Kabila should understand that he would be shunned on the continent were he to pursue a third term. Second is the threat of further sanctions targeting his entourage and his financial interests, that would be imposed were Kabila’s to declare his intentions to contest the vote or seek major electoral delays. Third are reassurances to the president and his close entourage that he will be able to retire in dignity and that his interests and security would be safe were he to leave power – to the extent that any foreign power can fully guarantee that.

International actors should seize every opportunity to coordinate their positions and showcase their unity.

The recent statements by the Angolan and French presidents are welcome; such coordinated messaging will without doubt have a strong influence on Kabila’s personal calculations and on those of his entourage. African and Western leaders need to accompany these signals that Kabila should not stand with greater pressure on the Congolese authorities to implement the confidence-building measures in the Saint Sylvester agreement – particularly opening political space, allowing protests, releasing political prisoners and ending politically inspired prosecutions. They likewise should press the authorities to resolve the main outstanding issues around the elections, which means achieving consensus on the voter list, by adopting the measures detailed in section IV, and deciding whether, and if so how, to use the voter machines.

International actors should seize every opportunity to coordinate their positions and showcase their unity. The proposed joint visit by AU Commission President Moussa Faki and UN Secretary-General António Guterres would be a powerful way of demonstrating common purpose. Equally, a UN Security Council visit in August, when presidential candidates put their names forward, would reinforce vital messages on the need for a peaceful, and credible, transfer of power.

VII. Conclusion

Notwithstanding the controversies, the preparations for elections thus far are significant: as elections loom, Kabila’s room for manoeuvre shrinks. Significant, too, is what appears to be strong African and international consensus that President Kabila must stand down. That said, while some uncertainty remains about Kabila’s intentions, it appears likely that were an opportunity to present itself, he almost certainly would prefer to remain in power. The increasing willingness of his entourage to suggest publicly that he should remain in office illustrates that he and his allies are likely to turn any lapse of international focus or unity to their advantage. African leaders, whose diplomatic efforts have been pivotal in driving elections preparations this far, must keep up the pressure together with their Western allies. Absent that, Kabila is likely to make a play to extend his rule and provoke a crisis that could destabilise the DRC and the wider region.

Nairobi/Brussels, 8 June 2018