Kabila Shows His Hand in DR Congo’s Electoral Poker
Kabila Shows His Hand in DR Congo’s Electoral Poker
Congolese gather at a bar in Kinshasa to watch the President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Joseph Kabila, addressing the nation, on 19 July 2018. AFP/John Wessels
Commentary / Africa 11 minutes

Kabila Shows His Hand in DR Congo’s Electoral Poker

As election preparations in the Democratic Republic of Congo proceed, President Joseph Kabila has announced he will not run for re-election. He may hope this important move will relieve outside pressure for free and fair elections. International actors should keep up the scrutiny.

On 8 August 2018, the filing deadline, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)’s ruling majority coalition announced that Emmanuel Ramazani Shadari would be its candidate in the presidential election slated for 23 December. The announcement ended, for now, speculation that the incumbent, President Joseph Kabila, would run for a third term in violation of the country’s 2006 constitution. Instead, Kabila opted to nominate a loyalist “dauphin” to succeed him. The president’s decision to stand down is a major positive development – the payoff of years of patient pressure from Congolese and outsiders alike.

By selecting a new candidate, the ruling party has shown its intent to contest the elections without the incumbent president. It likely hopes that domestic and international pressure for fair elections will diminish now that the constitution is likely to be respected. Kabila will indeed be inclined to clearly state that he did what he had always said he would – respect the constitution – and that therefore, the international community should back off. Should the scrutiny in fact lessen, it would leave the regime in the driver’s seat, the unrestrained master of the election’s timing and procedures. The risk of manipulation would remain.

Even though it appears that Kabila will respect the constitution and leave office, a flawed vote would potentially generate a new political crisis, with consequences that could be dangerous for the country and its neighbours. To avert this outcome, international actors, chiefly the African Union (AU) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC), should keep up rigorous oversight over the DRC’s electoral process. In particular, they should take steps to enhance the election’s credibility by supporting an audit of the voter register and inspection of voting machines and push the Kabila regime to relax its political repression.

Pressuring the Regime

Presidential elections were supposed to take place in December 2016. The regime’s machinations to stay in power – first by trying to amend the constitution so that Kabila could run for a third term; then by postponing the election – plunged the country into deep political crisis. The Catholic Church, one of the country’s central institutions and long active in politics, stepped in to mediate among the government, political parties and civil society groups. The outcome was the 31 December 2016 Saint Sylvester agreement, which provided a basis for managing the electoral delay, safeguarding the constitutional term limit for presidents and easing restrictions on political freedoms.

The agreement aside, the regime did what it could to hold on to power, as Crisis Group has reported throughout 2017 and 2018. In particular, it subverted the implementation of the Saint Sylvester agreement – for example, appointing a new prime minister without wide consultation and persisting with politically motivated prosecutions of opposition politicians – and disregarded many concerns the opposition and external observers expressed about election preparations.

The architecture is built for Kabila to retain huge influence even outside the presidency.

In the months running up to the 8 August deadline, African and international actors stepped up pressure on the regime to abide by the constitution and the Saint Sylvester agreement. Most prominent was Angolan President João Lourenço’s statement at a May press conference held at the Elysée Palace in Paris that Kabila should not run again. Domestic actors likewise played a key role. In the days prior to Kabila’s announcement, Congolese civil society actors, including the Catholic Church’s lay organisation, threatened renewed street protests if he decided to stand for re-election.

Again, the regime tried to push back. In July, it unilaterally cancelled visits by UN Secretary-General António Guterres, AU Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat and U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, all of which would have made the international insistence upon a transition very visible. Later that month, the regime reached out to several neighbours to relieve the pressure, with Kabila paying a two-day visit to Angola and sending a large delegation to Rwanda.

It is clear that in the end, the pressure worked, as the regime did not change the constitution to allow Kabila to run again and designated Shadari as successor. Yet, while the regime gave in on the main demand, it has managed thus far to keep electoral preparations skewed in its own favour and signalled that it has not played its last card.

Shadari and Kabila’s Future

As expected, Kabila waited until the last moment to make a decision about registering a candidate for the presidential race, keeping his own political alliance, the “presidential majority”, in the dark. His choice of heir apparent came as something of a surprise. Unlike others he could have named, the 57-year-old member of parliament Shadari is more soldier than general. From Maniema province in the East, where Kabila’s mother was born, he has been staunchly loyal to the Kabilas since Joseph’s father Laurent seized power from Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997. In 2012, Shadari became head of Kabila’s majority parliamentary bloc, and then from December 2016 to February 2018 served as deputy prime minister and interior minister. The European Union placed him on its sanctions list in May 2017 for his alleged role in violent crackdowns on urban protesters and repression in the Kasai region during his tenure as interior minister.

At present Shadari is permanent secretary of Kabila’s People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy (PPRD). The party is the largest and most dynamic of the majority bloc, now called the Common Front for Congo. He has spent the last couple of months travelling through numerous provinces in the PPRD campaign plane, making himself better known to party MPs, territorial and provincial administrations, and traditional chiefs.

As long as there is no clarity as to who can run, the opposition will likely be unable to come together behind a single candidate.

By naming Shadari, and not a well-established figure with an independent base like Matata Ponyo or Aubin Minaku, Kabila sets himself up to wield considerable power behind the scenes. In retrospect, it seems that he telegraphed this intention on 19 July, in a highly anticipated statement before the assembled chambers of parliament. He began by joking: “Why do I sense some tension in the room?” He then exclaimed, “Understand my passion for the Congo!”, a reference to the phrase “understand my emotion” (comprenez mon emotion) in the April 1990 speech in which Mobutu announced his retirement from his party. Kabila avowed his patriotic feeling but made no political concession. The address was thus a sign of defiance – the world had expected major news and instead Kabila made clear that he alone was the decision maker.  

Once he leaves office, he is expected to become PPRD president, a newly created post. He will also remain the Common Front’s political leader. The constitution gives Kabila the position of senator-for-life, and a recently adopted law on former presidents provides him with further benefits, such as an ample security detail, a diplomatic passport and permanent housing. He has placed several other loyalists highly, for example General John Numbi and Norbert Nkulu, whom he appointed army inspector-general and constitutional court judge, respectively. The architecture is built for Kabila to retain huge influence even outside the presidency.

Only the coming weeks will tell whether other regime heavyweights will quietly line up behind Shadari. There may be some unhappiness in the south-eastern region of Katanga. There has long been disquiet among Katangese over the influence of politicians from neighbouring Maniema in the Kabila regime. The recent appointments of Numbi and Nkulu, both senior Luba from Katanga, may have been designed to calm local elites. Kabila’s decision to wait until the eleventh hour to designate his successor was most likely aimed at preventing potential dissenting candidates from the majority – whether Katangese or others – from registering. That said, while Kabila appears to have engineered this scenario to boost his interests, there is no guarantee that Shadari ultimately will protect him and his inner circle if he becomes president. In neighbouring Angola, where the outgoing leader also tried to stage manage a transition, President Lourenço wasted little time in turning on the entourage of his former mentor José Eduardo dos Santos, in particular his family.

Countdown to Voting Day

As of this date, two dozen candidates have provisionally registered for the presidential election. Three are major opposition leaders: Jean-Pierre Bemba (Movement for the Liberation of Congo), the runner-up in the 2006 presidential election who was acquitted of war crimes charges by the International Criminal Court in June; Felix Tshisekedi (Union for Democracy and Social Progress), the son of Etienne Tshisekedi, the deceased opposition leader who finished second in the 2011 contest; and Vital Kamerhe (Union for the Congolese Nation) a former Kabila ally from South Kivu who came third in 2011. Missing from the list is Moïse Katumbi, leader of Ensemble, a coalition of political parties, and a leading presumptive presidential contender. In a clear violation of the Saint Sylvester accords, the regime barred his return to the country during the candidate registration process. The regime has several legal cases pending against Katumbi. A commission set up by the Catholic Church has denounced these cases as a masquerade, and Katumbi’s allies have filed suit to allow him to register late.

The large number of candidates clearly serves the regime’s interests. Pursuant to a 2011 constitutional amendment, the forthcoming election will be held in a single-round vote, with the winner being decided by plurality. In a joint declaration following the announcement that Kabila will not run, opposition leaders pledged to unite behind a single candidate. But this agreement is shaky: the choice of a relative unknown as dauphin may lead several of Shadari’s opponents to think that they can beat him without having to form coalitions, which could undermine the opposition’s much-needed unity.

The active resistance of several layers of Congolese society throughout the country, and the engagement of regional and international actors, helped thwart the regime’s initial plans.

The CENI may still reject some candidates. It will publish a preliminary list on 24 August, allowing time for recourse in case of legal concerns. A definitive list will be published on 19 September, three months before the election. Particularly worrying are comments by Common Front politicians that Bemba may be ineligible to run on legal grounds. While Bemba was acquitted of war crimes, there is a second case pending at the ICC regarding witness tampering. Congolese lawyers are now debating whether this charge counts as corruption under Congolese law; if so, Bemba would be ruled out. As with the refusal to allow Katumbi to register, such talk gives the impression that the regime is seeking an “à la carte” election in which it can choose its opponents. As long as there is no clarity as to who can run, the opposition will likely be unable to come together behind a single candidate.

Elections in principle can be held on 23 December, as scheduled. But major concerns remain about whether voting will be transparent and whether the government is truly willing to proceed. The main opposition groups are united behind several of these.  Most crucial is the voter register. An Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie audit of the register identified a considerable number of voters with incomplete data, increasing fears of “ghost” voters. The opposition wants up to ten million voters to be purged from the rolls. Likewise, the CENI’s decision to use voting machines, instead of the traditional paper ballot, is highly controversial as the technology is untested and voters, particularly in rural areas, are accustomed to marking their preferences on paper. There are concerns about possible fraud and the machines’ impact on election funding. The Catholic Church has called for an independent audit of this equipment, but its pleas have gone largely unheeded. The opposition, for its part, wants the machines removed. Another issue is the composition of the CENI itself, in particular the non-replacement of the representative from the Union for Democracy and Social Progress, despite the party’s right to do so. Lastly, there is the general political climate: several politicians remain imprisoned and the security services severely restrict parties’ ability to organise rallies and other campaign events.

International actors, particularly from the region, still have time to press the CENI and Congolese government to address most of these concerns. But any major change – in particular, a decision to revert to the paper ballot or a thorough revisiting of the voter register – could take up significant time and resources. Nor can the DRC rely on meaningful UN or Western help with these matters, given that the government and CENI decided to limit that sort of external involvement in electoral preparations.

The Need for Oversight

The regime may think that, with Kabila officially out of the picture, it can now freely proceed with its schemes for maintaining power. It could select one of two options: move ahead with the election, counting on fading international attention, and use one or more of its various advantages to win; or, alternatively, notably in the event the opposition unites behind a single candidate, invoke the need for electoral reforms to delay the vote. Any meaningful delay could seriously harm the Saint Sylvester process and result in new attempts to alter the constitution so that Kabila can stay in power. Insecurity in parts of the country could also be used to postpone the election yet again.

To keep a credible election on track, international actors – in particular the AU and the SADC – should carefully oversee the electoral process and continue to exert high-level pressure. On 14 August, regional organisations held a summit called by Angola and reiterated their willingness to remain engaged with the electoral process to the end. Through their electoral experts and other personnel on the ground, regional actors should contribute to improving the quality and transparency of electoral preparations. The AU and SADC should:

  • Help improve public confidence in the voter register, in particular by pressing the CENI to quickly and transparently publish the provisional voter lists to allow voters, civil society and opposition parties to undertake minimal verifications and corrections;
  • Press the CENI to ensure that, as it deploys voting machines throughout the country, it allows domestic and international experts to inspect them as a way to build public confidence. In areas where the machines could cause specific logistical problems, the CENI should prepare for the possibility of using the classic paper ballot;
  • Push the bureau of the national assembly to ensure that the assembly acts urgently to allow the Union for Democracy and Social Progress to replace its representative in the CENI; and
  • Get the government to open up political space, in particular by permitting public protest, releasing political prisoners and ending politically motivated prosecutions.

Given the fragility of the socio-political climate, and the ongoing crisis of legitimacy triggered by the extension of the president’s tenure beyond the official end of his second mandate, Kabila’s decision not to run again is a considerable achievement. The active resistance of several layers of Congolese society throughout the country, and the engagement of regional and international actors, helped thwart the regime’s initial plans. More can and should be done to improve the quality and legitimacy of the voting, as a controversial and tainted election at best would perpetuate current tensions and at worst further destabilise the country (and perhaps the region).    

The 23 December elections are but a first step on a long road toward stabilisation of a country that has inched just slightly ahead since the end of the lethal 1998-2003 wars. But they could be a crucial one. As preparations proceed, the DRC’s neighbours and regional institutions should do everything in their power to ensure that the elections represent a step forward – not backward.

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