Africa Report N°259
Elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo have been postponed since December 2016, but now seem to be slated for the end of the year. All parties should work to ensure credible polls, the best hope for a peaceful transfer of power.
What’s new? After repeated delays, President Joseph Kabila’s government in the Democratic Republic of Congo has made progress over the past few months toward organising elections for 23 December 2018. But there are still important concerns about the transparency and quality of the polls.
Why does it matter? While there are still numerous uncertainties, prospects for elections this year have improved – mostly due to increased pressure on the president from African leaders. This provides an opportunity for renewed regional and international engagement to help push toward a more credible vote in December and a peaceful transfer of power.
What should be done? Regional and international actors should push for the confidence-building measures in the 2016 Saint Sylvester agreement, focusing on steps to help level the playing field and improve trust in electoral preparations. The ruling majority and the opposition should participate constructively in the process and refrain from incendiary tactics and language.
President Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) may be preparing to hold long-postponed elections at the end of 2018. Until recently, Kabila appeared more likely to keep delaying. But official statements, including by the president himself, and steps taken by the Congolese electoral commission (CENI), suggest his calculations may be changing. Elections present several challenges for the regime, first and foremost that of selecting a successor Kabila trusts. But overall his regime is operating from a position of relative strength: it retains firm control of the state and electoral machinery and the opposition remains split. The apparent move toward a vote requires Kabila’s opponents and international actors to quickly adapt. African, Western and other governments should push for a few critical reforms that would make for more credible polls, build confidence in key aspects of electoral preparations and level the playing field.
Signs abound that the regime is seriously contemplating elections. In November 2017, the CENI published a new electoral calendar, foreseeing a vote at the end of 2018. The following month, Kabila approved a new electoral law. In January 2018, the CENI announced the end of voter registration – a milestone in electoral preparations. Kabila’s plans remain unclear, perhaps even in his own mind. He may proceed toward a vote, which would mean choosing a dauphin to replace him and hoping that he can pull strings behind the scenes as head of the ruling party, or at least protect his family interests. But picking a successor could provoke splits – and possibly even violent contestation – among Kabila’s allies. Alternatively, he may revert to further delays; insecurity might provide a pretext. For now, however, preparations for a December vote appear to be underway.
This poses dilemmas for the Congolese opposition, civil society and international actors. Electoral preparations thus far exclude important elements of the Saint Sylvester deal struck between the government and its opponents on 31 December 2016, which set out steps for a democratic transition of power. Opposition parties are starting to prepare for the campaign, but are divided and face an uphill battle. Some of their leaders, facing legal charges, remain in exile; others struggle to gain traction among a population frustrated with the entire political class. At this point, domestic pressure for reform comes essentially from civil society organisations affiliated with the Catholic Church.
If the shift in pace of electoral preparations requires international actors to adjust quickly, it also presents an opportunity. African and Western powers agree that President Kabila should not seek a third term; indeed, the African Union (AU) and leaders of the sub-regional body, the South African Development Community (SADC), have redoubled diplomatic efforts, seemingly to convey that message to Kabila and push him toward an election which he does not contest. They and Western governments might be able to forge similar consensus on, and then push hard for, a handful of important steps that Congolese authorities could take to help level the playing field and improve prospects for a more credible vote, even if full implementation of the Saint Sylvester deal now appears unlikely. Among these steps:
The government should allow all candidates to run unless clear and legally justified obstacles exist; charges that do not meet those criteria should be dropped well ahead of the deadline for registering as a candidate.
The government, having declared it will pay for elections, should, together with the CENI, provide details of that funding, in case foreign support is required to plug deficits. Donors should prepare to engage also in the funding of the CENI if so required, and not limit their engagement to accompanying measures led by civil society.
The government also should refrain from violence against protesters and, as the election approaches, allow opposition parties to campaign freely. It should implement the recommendations of the 10 March report of the Joint Commission of Inquiry, composed of representatives of the human rights, justice and security ministries as well as civil society, examining bloodshed at recent protests, including by lifting the general ban on meetings and peaceful public protests and by taking measures to restrict the use of the army and Republican Guard in maintaining and restoring public order.
The government should ensure the security of all political actors and prevent the intimidation of opposition candidates and supporters by political party militants. Like all Congolese political actors, it should make firm commitments to avoid inflammatory or ethnically divisive rhetoric, perhaps in a code of conduct.
The CENI should continue to consult the opposition and civil society on key preparations, particularly an audit of the voter register and procedures for the use of new voting machines, while allowing their representatives the opportunity to verify those aspects of election preparations; its recent meetings along these lines are a positive first step.
The CENI also should reach swift agreement on the role of the joint international expert team with those bodies that have deployed experts on the team – the UN, African Union (AU), European Union (EU), Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the International Organisation of La Francophonie (OIF). The experts should be embedded in the CENI and continuously assess and build a shared understanding among those organisations on what progress has been made. They also should keep a close watch on the voter register audit and testing of the new voting machines.
For their part, opposition leaders, who appear to be gearing up for the election, should prepare to campaign across the country. For now, an opposition boycott appears unlikely, especially if the regime fulfils some of the measures outlined above. Even without such reform, shunning the vote would likely prove ineffective, particularly as breakaway opposition factions would participate in any case. A boycott would risk giving whatever regime is elected a freer hand.
The UN mission in the DRC, known as MONUSCO, should increase its human rights monitoring. Along with Kinshasa-based diplomats and the envoys that frequently visit, it should continue to denounce any repression of opposition and civil society groups. Those organisations likely to observe the vote – notably the SADC, AU and EU – should prepare to send exploratory missions to determine minimum conditions under which observers would deploy. The Congolese government should extend invitations to those organisations and bodies that express an intent to observe and have a meaningful role in support of the electoral process.
Western and African powers alike should signal to the government – to both President Kabila and any apparent successor – that broad international acceptance and the benefits that might flow from that depend on an open and transparent process. Regular public meetings and statements, including at the UN Security Council, will be important to demonstrate cohesion, while disagreements should be kept away from the spotlight. The Security Council, whose 27 March renewal of MONUSCO’s mandate focused on its support for the electoral process, should remain closely engaged with the AU and its Peace and Security Council as well as the SADC and other relevant regional bodies. It should also regularly assess the state of electoral preparations, using the CENI’s electoral calendar as a key reference. Regular high-level meetings or visits to the DRC at crucial moments – such as when candidates must register – would help demonstrate international resolve and interest.
Despite the obvious challenges and uncertainty, elections this year in the DRC are now a real possibility. All foreign actors involved should push for a vote that is as credible as possible, limits the further fragmentation of Congolese society and improves prospects for a peaceful transfer of power.
Nairobi/Brussels, 4 April 2018