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Kabila’s Strengths and Vulnerabilities as DRC Deadline Nears
Kabila’s Strengths and Vulnerabilities as DRC Deadline Nears
Need for International Unity as DR Congo Awaits Electoral Results
Need for International Unity as DR Congo Awaits Electoral Results
Op-Ed / Africa

Kabila’s Strengths and Vulnerabilities as DRC Deadline Nears

Originally published in Independent Online

Protests have been announced for December 19, the day President Joseph Kabila’s mandate is supposed to end. What should we expect?

For many, December 19 should be the end of Kabila’s second and last term in office. Opposition parties and civil society groups are invoking article 64 of the constitution, which places with the people the “duty” to defend the country against unconstitutional rule. Large demonstrations in January 2015 and this September revealed a popular mood against Kabila’s attempts to amend the constitution, which would allow him to stay in power. Both series of protests were violently repressed and dozens killed. After September, demonstrations were banned and some organisers were arrested or prohibited from domestic travel. This repression has dampened popular mobilisation.

This reliance on security and intelligence will continue and pro-regime youth groups are being mobilised in Kinshasa. Without a consensual agreement on the date of elections and the transition period, the opposition is bound to call for protests: its credibility is at stake. So protests and violence are almost inevitable. But there are signs that repression has had an impact and December 19 may not be as explosive as some expect.

The ruling majority portrays the 19th as a “normal” day, noting the constitutional court ruled that the president will remain in office until his replacement is elected. While the court’s independence is heavily contested, this interpretation is an important underpinning of the AU-backed the October 18 agreement which put the new election dates in April 2018, leaving President Kabila with full powers.

What is your prognosis for violence and political instability over the coming year?

Even if the regime contains unrest in December, tension will remain high. The economic crisis will put more pressure on families. Increased numbers of people will question state institutions’ legitimacy, so we can expect to see pockets of violence around the country gain ground. In North Kivu in the east, where the state is doing little to protect local communities, Mai Mai community defence militia are taking actions against predatory armed groups. While dispersed violence, however, is far from civil war, the regime could hunker down and survive, the more dangerous the outlook gets.

What drives President Kabila and the people around him to remain in power?

Congo has never known a peaceful democratic handover of power. Winner-takes-all politics, lack of transparency, violence, corruption and instability all mean a change at the top can have enormous consequences. So the status quo is preferable for the regime, unless change can be managed from within.

Kabila has no popular or regional political base, although he was once respected for having helped end the civil war. His entourage fears he would have little chance of winning an election. And losing, in their eyes, means likely prosecution for corruption and human rights violations. The loser of the 2006 elections, Jean-Pierre Bemba, was prosecuted by the International Criminal Court.

What is the role of the opposition in the current crisis?

The main opposition is calling for Kabila to leave well before April 2018. But it has struggled to maintain unity. The current umbrella group, the Rassemblement, formed in June 2016, is led by UDPS leader Etienne Tshisekedi and includes the former governor of Katanga, Moise Katumbi. It refused to participate in the AU mediated National Dialogue launched in September 2016. But other opposition figures, including Samy Badibanga (a dissident from the UDPS) did take part. Badibanga was appointed prime minister in November, a move probably calculated to further divide the opposition by tempting some into government. A limited mobilisation on December 19 risks weakening the opposition’s credibility.

Youth groups, in particular Lutte pour le changement (Lucha), continue to play a prominent role, but have struggled to put down deeper roots. Targeted repression has hampered their development but contributed to their credibility.

There has been emphasis on the need for dialogue and inclusivity. Do attempts at mediation, such as the recent process managed by the Catholic Church, still stand a chance?

All actors agree on the need for dialogue. But when it comes to the details, agreement is rarely found. The Rassemblement refused to participate in the September dialogue which they saw as an attempt to legitimise the government’s desire to stay in power. So the resulting agreement of October 18 has not been signed by the opposition - hence the new Catholic Church initiative.

This process is however also deadlocked. The church has now called for direct talks, which the president has accepted in principle. So while agreement may be reached on second order issues such as political prisoners, positions on fundamentals are still far apart. The Rassemblement’s view - that the president should remain for up to a year, but with limited power - is a more pragmatic position, but the regime feels under little pressure to make concessions.

How does political tension affect the country?

Tension is more apparent in big cities. People have used gatherings, such as football matches, to express their desire for political change. The regime has deployed police and the military to deter protest, or to counter it with violence.

As the regime focuses on maintaining power, the neutralisation of armed groups in the east has taken a back seat, thereby further weakening the government's legitimacy. This is mostly felt in Beni, North Kivu, where nearly 1000 have been killed since 2014. These killings have also eroded the credibility of the UN mission (Monusco).

The country’s economic crisis could also have more impact on popular mobilisation. If the worsening situation triggers hunger riots, this will have a more unpredictable outcome than organised political protests.

What is the regional dimension of the DRC crisis?

The region is concerned about the security implications of the DRC’s political crisis escalating. Immediate neighbours worry about refugees. The region and AU have both supported dialogue. Angola continues to support mediation. Regional organisations have accepted the October 18 agreement, but seemingly put little pressure on Kabila to step down. They show little faith in the opposition and support the status quo for now. The opposition, meanwhile, focuses its attention more on the EU and the US, regarded as defenders of democracy.

In the east, Rwanda and Uganda are not interfering as they once did, which led South Africa to intervene through the UN.

What has been the role of the international community and Monusco, the UN’s largest peacekeeping mission?

The US and, to a lesser extent, the EU, pressured the government to organise elections within the constitutional timeframe. As this has had little effect, both have supported inclusive dialogue and called for elections in 2017. Unlike African powers, they have criticised the October 18 agreement, for delaying the electoral timetable into 2018. To increase pressure, the US has adopted targeted sanctions.

The EU has stated it is willing to follow suit. Sanctions have caused some unease within government, as has the increased recent publicity over corruption scandals. The direct political impact has, however, been limited. Repression continues. This is a reminder of the decreasing influence of Western actors on the continent.

The UN mission and Special Representative have played a discrete role. Monusco and joint human rights office observers have publicised human rights abuses in Kinshasa and other cities, with some dissuasive impact. The South African-led military component, has expanded its presence in Kinshasa. But if urban violence breaks out, the UN mission will struggle to protect civilians.

* This text corrects the original published version that dropped the words "for the regime" in the sentence "So the status quo is preferable for the regime, unless change can be managed from within".

Read the PDF version here.

An Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) agent seals a ballot box in front of observers in the Lubumbashi's Mapala district on December 30, 2018, following the close of polls in DR Congo’s presidential, provincial and national elections. CAROLINE THIRION/AFP
Statement / Africa

Need for International Unity as DR Congo Awaits Electoral Results

The Democratic Republic of Congo awaits the official results of 30 December 2018 elections, amid hints that unofficial numbers show an opposition presidential candidate winning. Conflicting tallies could spark violence. Outside powers should stand together in urging calm and careful verification of the electoral outcome.

The Independent Electoral Commission in the Democratic Republic of Congo will likely declare results of the 30 December elections this week. Already there are worrying signs of divisions among international actors, after a statement by the Catholic Church, which fielded the largest election observation mission, indicating an opposition victory. Failure to respect the electoral result would risk throwing the country into a major political crisis. If there are indications the electoral commission has attempted to manipulate results, international actors, starting with the UN Security Council which plans to meet on Friday, should call for thorough and credible investigation before those results are accepted as definitive. They must remain united in their response and, led by African powers, encourage the Congolese to undertake delicate negotiations to ensure a peaceful outcome that reflects the will of the people.

On Sunday 30 December, millions of Congolese voted to elect a new president and provincial and national lawmakers. Despite growing tensions over repeated delays and the unwarranted exclusion of around 4 per cent of the electorate, mainly in North Kivu province, the vote passed off in relative calm. Both the African Union (AU) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC), who fielded the biggest international observation missions, concluded the poll was adequately run despite some unrest and technical problems.

On 3 January, the Episcopal Council of the Congolese Catholic Church, known as CENCO, issued a statement based on information gathered by its forty thousand observers, present in many of the 75,500 polling stations, and on its parallel vote tabulation. The CENCO is widely regarded as credible in the DRC and has observed many previous elections. It stated that the irregularities and problems it had observed had not prevented the Congolese people making a democratic choice and that a single candidate had emerged as clear winner. CENCO is barred by law from naming a victor before official results are proclaimed, but in urging the largely government-controlled Independent Electoral Commission (CENI) to respect the vote’s outcome, it strongly hinted that the incumbent President Joseph Kabila’s preferred candidate, Emmanuel Shadary, had not won. Subsequent sources briefed by CENCO point to opposition candidate Martin Fayulu as the winner.

The split between CENCO and the ruling majority has left diplomats struggling to reach consensus.

CENCO’s calculation, if correct, could have far reaching consequences. Fayulu, a long-time opposition figure and former businessman, is backed by two exiled opposition heavyweights, Moïse Katumbi and Jean-Pierre Bemba. The government’s successful moves to exclude those two men from the presidential contest added to their already bad relations with those in power in Kinshasa, many of whom would expect a Fayulu presidency to look into their alleged past crimes and corruption. Indeed, for President Kabila and his close allies a Fayulu victory is the worst possible outcome; they regard the other main opposition candidate Felix Tshisekedi as more conciliatory. There is a real danger they push the election commission to engineer a result more to their liking.

The split between CENCO and the ruling majority (which has strongly criticised CENCO’s declaration) has left diplomats struggling to reach consensus. It threatens the international cohesion of the past twelve months which led to increased pressure on President Kabila and partly explains his August 2018 decision not to stand for a third term in office. Worryingly, the CENCO position is being portrayed by some in private as a “western” position, potentially playing into an unhelpful Africa versus the West narrative. The UN Security Council has been unable to agree upon a position. Its members and other international actors all concur that Congolese politicians should respect the election results. But they disagree over whether to put immediate pressure on the electoral commission, and by extension the government, by urging the commission to rapidly publish results and warning that it must respect the voters’ choice, or to give it the benefit of the doubt and allow it time to publish official results, thereby avoiding giving too much weight to the CENCO’s tallies. An important Security Council meeting has been pushed back to Friday in the expectation that the electoral commission will have declared results by then. It is foreseen that the council will be briefed by outside experts, including the CENCO and possibly regional actors – the AU and SADC – that observed the vote.

It is vital that the electoral commission declares the result of the election transparently.

The situation is tense. Internet communications are mainly suspended in-country and the Congolese rumour mill is generating unhelpful and polarising conjecture that feeds into the international debate. Many Congolese are caught between hope for change and uncertainty as to what will happen next. To encourage calm, all three candidates and their entourages must pass constructive messages of reassurance, urge supporters to remain calm, call for patience and avoid inflammatory statements.

It is vital that the electoral commission declares the result of the election transparently, and in enough detail for their conclusions to be verified, and if necessary challenged in the courts. Any attempt to manipulate results would likely generate enormous anger and potentially spark violence countrywide. On the other hand, many of those currently in power have much to lose in what could be a dramatic shift of fortunes. If Fayulu has won, it is important they receive assurances about their future to the extent possible so as to improve prospects of a peaceful transition.

International actors must remain steadfast in calling for the result to be respected. They should, however, resist drawing hasty conclusions that could widen international divides. Foreign powers must avoid splitting along pro-Kabila, pro-opposition lines, which would likely embolden each side just as delicate negotiations and signs of inclusivity and accommodation are needed. In this light, the Security Council meeting on Friday provides a crucial occasion for a display of unity. The council should call for calm and for all parties to respect the outcome of the vote. If the electoral commission declares a result significantly at odds with figures collected by the CENCO and other observers, including those of political parties, the council will have to call for a thorough and credible investigation before results are accepted as definitive. As they did in persuading Kabila to step down, African powers should again take the lead to help Congolese actors negotiate a peaceful outcome that respects the will of the people.