President Kabila’s delaying tactics are holding hostage DR Congo’s political transition, while internal strife and government repression are weakening the opposition. Western and African actors need to coordinate their approach to the deepening crisis, support the advancement of democratic elections and encourage the opening of political space.
What’s the issue? President Joseph Kabila’s apparent determination to remain in power threatens to prolong the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) political stalemate. Having subverted the December 2016 Saint Sylvester agreement that set out a path toward elections, the regime is increasingly confident while the opposition grows weaker and more divided.
Why does it matter? The DRC is already among the world’s worst humanitarian crises. Violence has been intensifying across several provinces and the risk of further escalation is high. A rapid implosion would have dire consequences for stability in the DRC and its neighbours.
What should be done? Western and regional powers need to redouble efforts to encourage a peaceful transition. The recently-announced electoral calendar provides an opening for reinvigorated international engagement, ideally behind the Saint Sylvester principles. The Congolese opposition and civil society should engage in, not boycott, the political process.
The political impasse in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) continues, and violence has been rising in several provinces throughout 2017. Yet the regime of President Joseph Kabila appears determined to stay in power by postponing elections. It has outmanoeuvred the opposition and international actors alike. The blockage carries grave dangers for Congolese and regional stability; the longer the crisis drags on, the harder it will be to pick up the pieces. To minimise these risks, Western and African powers need to overcome their inertia and forge consensus on how to pressure President Kabila. Revising international coordination mechanisms for the DRC could help. A joint Western and African approach should focus on advancing election preparations based on the recently published electoral calendar while actively pushing to open political space and eventually establish the confidence necessary to carry out a credible and peaceful vote and to maintain stability in its aftermath.
Since the signing of the 31 December 2016 Saint Sylvester agreement, which stipulated that elections should occur in 2017 and that President Kabila should leave power, the regime has dug in, weakening the opposition through attrition. In contravention of the agreement, it now controls the government and the agreement’s national oversight committee, as well as the electoral commission. It has no grand strategy for staying in power, nor does it need one. The Kabila regime’s control of state finances and key institutions, the opposition’s weakness following the death of its historic leader, Etienne Tshisekedi, and dwindling international attention have allowed it to subvert the agreement’s implementation.
Although the opposition coalition platform, the Rassemblement, has remained relatively coherent, it is weak and has been losing traction with a restless population. It is now calling for the establishment of a transitional government without Kabila at the end of 2017, an outcome that has no chance of occurring. The opposition’s weakness along with the regime’s repressive tactics has opened space for armed groups. Insurgencies, massive prison breaks, and vicious or clumsy security force reactions have all grown throughout 2017. There are tentative signs that armed groups are attempting to coordinate their positions, which could become a serious threat to the region’s stability. At least ten provinces now are in the grip of armed conflict, resulting in one of the world’s most complex and challenging humanitarian crises. Neighbours, particularly Angola and the Republic of Congo, are worried by renewed or potential refugee surges into their territory. It is a vicious cycle: as the government’s grip on power loosens, it increasingly uses heavy-handed tactics and disregards the rule of law while invoking the unrest to justify election delays, all of which only further fuels discontent.
The electoral commission, after months of delay, finally has produced its electoral calendar, with presidential polls now scheduled for 23 December 2018 – a full year beyond the Saint Sylvester deadline. Left on its own, the government is likely to drag out electoral preparations even longer. International actors have been unwilling to engage more actively, partly out of frustration at the parties’ intransigence, partly due to their own differences over how to pressure the government. Many Western powers have become more critical of the regime, with the European Union (EU) and U.S. sanctioning nearly two dozen officials. In contrast, African heads of state generally have acquiesced as the government violates the spirit and terms of the Saint Sylvester agreement and tend to dismiss Western sanctions as ineffectual. Although neither Western nor African powers hold homogenous views, these broad divides allow the government to forum shop and portray pressure as a form of neo-colonialism. The sheer number of actors involved, including a multitude of regional organisations, adds to the problem.
The starting point is for both Western and African powers to recognise that the direction in which President Kabila is driving the country poses the gravest threat to its stability, notwithstanding the uncertainty that a transition would bring. Even if many believe the current regime is highly unlikely to willingly leave power, working toward elections and a more open political environment remains vital. International actors share an interest in holding President Kabila to the Saint Sylvester deal’s main principles – notably the effective organisation of elections, no constitutional amendment to allow President Kabila to remain in office and an opening of political space and respect for human rights – which still offer the best route out of the crisis.
Behind closed doors, African leaders recognise the dangers, but the forces of inertia are more complex to overcome. The result: continued public support for Kabila on the continent provides his regime breathing space. Western powers should redouble efforts to overcome differences with their African counterparts, listening to their concerns and, for now, refraining from further sanctions. Even united, it would not be easy for Western and regional powers to nudge Kabila toward a transition and the DRC out of its current predicament; divided, the prospects are close to zero.
One option to reinvigorate and sustain regional and international diplomacy around the DRC would be to set up a smaller group of envoys, composed of the institutions that have initiated the group of experts for electoral support – the African Union (AU), UN, la Francophonie, EU and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) – preferably along with the U.S. Ideally, then, a consensus position would involve active African and Western diplomacy to promote the following:
Adherence to the electoral timeline and a transparent elections budget. The recent publication of a feasible timeline – one that gives the opposition time to organise ahead of polls – is an opportunity for active engagement. International actors involved in electoral preparations, including the UN as well as regional groups and the EU, should monitor adherence to the calendar and warn against unjustified slippage. The government and electoral commission (CENI) should make it a priority to clarify and detail the funding of the process. The CENI should also rapidly clarify the financial and operational impact of its proposed semi-digital vote. Any option proposed should include a thorough and open assessment of its impact on the timing of elections. Parliament urgently needs to adopt relevant electoral legislation. Electoral legislation as well as other legal initiatives should avoid restricting political space.
Implementation of previously agreed confidence-building measures. The government should establish a credible process to assess the legality and validity of the prosecution of several opposition leaders. It also should allow peaceful political protest, party activity and free media reporting. International actors, including regional ones, should pressure the government to this end. Recent initiatives, such as a restrictive law on civil society, run counter to the spirit of the Saint Sylvester and will hamper the transparency of the electoral process.
Opposition parties’ intensified engagement in the process. Rather than boycotting talks or refusing to engage on key issues such as the electoral calendar, opposition figures should intensify their engagement in the process, including by actively challenging the regime’s manipulation of the judiciary. The opposition should transform its narrative and address key social and economic questions, proving their relevance to a restive citizenry. They also should start preparing their party structures and base for upcoming elections.
Last, international actors, including the UN, have to be prepared for a potential short-term deterioration of the situation. The UN Security Council should give careful consideration to the recommendations of the September 2017 strategic review of the UN Mission, especially regarding greater flexibility in force deployment and human rights monitoring. The risk of violence escalating over the coming months is high and international actors, including the UN, should be prepared to manage the consequences as best possible.
Nairobi/Brussels, 4 December 2017