There are hints that the president of the DRC wants to delay presidential elections. Here’s why that would be a disaster.
On Oct. 31, a spokesman for President Joseph Kabila’s ruling coalition in the Democratic Republic of the Congo called for the country’s presidential election — originally scheduled for November 2016 — to be delayed for two to four years in order to ensure their “credibility.” This would be convenient for Kabila, who is constitutionally ineligible to run for another term. Although the government’s information minister played down the possibility of a delay, DRC experts have already noted Kabila’s strategy of creating administrative hurdles to postpone elections. In the DRC, the rules don’t matter. Power does.
Most importantly, it can be argued that any presidential election held in 2016 would be too flawed to maintain stability, because the Congolese election commission lacks expertise, money, and the ability to organize a census. Fears of instability are compounded by the fact that the DRC has never witnessed a peaceful transition of power. In this narrative, leaving Kabila in power would be a trade of democracy for good governance — and peace — that would ultimately serve the Congolese people. So why insist on upholding the rules?
"Kabila’s regime has forfeited its legitimacy by regularly committing atrocities and violating human rights."
There are two reasons, and both suggest that Kabila’s time in power needs to end. The first is that Kabila’s regime has forfeited its legitimacy by regularly committing atrocities and violating human rights. In January this year, Congolese security forces fatally shot at least 21 peaceful protesters by firing into a crowd. In the country’s volatile eastern hot spots, Congolese soldiers often rape, loot, and kill civilians with impunity. In one especially gruesome case of mass rape, more than 130 women and girls were assaulted, but only two out of 39 implicated soldiers were found guilty of rape despite overwhelming evidence. This culture of impunity makes clear that Kabila’s disdain for the rules has invalidated his regime’s legitimacy. (Perhaps in an effort to encourage Kabila to step down, one of his main opponents, Moïse Katumbi, said in a statement on Wednesday that he should receive immunity from prosecution after he goes.)
Second, if Kabila disregards legally imposed term limits, he risks destabilizing his country’s precarious peace. Although conflict never truly stopped in the DRC, it has become more localized and small scale since the Second Congo War ended in 2003. Causing several million excess deaths, the war involved multiple African countries and more than a dozen armed groups. If the chaos in nearby Burundi is any indication, an attempt to prolong a presidential administration beyond its prescribed limit risks sparking violent opposition. And the violence currently engulfing Burundi is much, much smaller than what we can expect in the DRC.
Since the country remains impoverished, the grievances that fueled the armed opposition have not been solved — these conflicts are merely on hold. Throughout the country, groups from the Catholic Church to the regime’s powerful ex-allies have made clear that they will not accept an extension of Kabila’s reign. At the beginning of this year, crowds across this vast country took to the streets when Kabila made a first attempt to stay in power by manipulating the legal system.
By contrast, giving up power and following the rules set out by the constitution would signal to the country that Kabila is subject to the same rules as everyone else. It would also set a precedent for others with wealth and power in the DRC who believe they are exempt from adherence to the law.
Another reason Kabila should step down is that this would buck an increasingly dangerous regional trend of flaunting constitutional limits. In Rwanda, President Paul Kagame is in the process of changing the rules so that he can stay in power until 2034 rather than the current limit of 2017 — which would allow him to reign for nearly three and a half decades. Across the river from Kinshasa, President Denis Sassou Nguesso of Congo-Brazzaville recently won a controversial referendum allowing him to run for a third term. In Burundi, as we have seen, President Pierre Nkurunziza has already gone a step further: His attempt to grasp a third term in office plunged his country into chaos. After surviving an attempted coup, he cracked down on dissent and held sham elections that were widely criticized by the international community.
The Kabila government itself has always insisted — and continues to pointedly tell donors such as the United States — that Kabila respects the constitution. The plan to delay elections proves that he doesn’t. Even before the ruling coalition spokesman called for an election delay, funding for the Congolese election commission (CENI) had been delayed, and both its president and its vice president have mysteriously resigned within three weeks of each other. Given the regime’s penchant for brutally repressing dissent, it seems unlikely that these officials simply volunteered to step aside.
Given the country’s extremely limited infrastructure, budget shortfalls, and logistical issues, a Congolese presidential election in 2016 would certainly not be perfect. Nevertheless, the West must pressure Kabila to step down after his mandate. While in Kinshasa last year, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry offered Kabila assistance for the upcoming election and urged him to step down. This is not enough, as the West’s direct influence is limited. In addition to direct pressure, the United States and the European Union should make a serious effort to convince powerful regional players such as Angola and South Africa that an orderly transition can best protect their interests and investments.
"The first peaceful transition in one of the world’s most troubled countries would send a powerful message across Africa."
If Kabila can be convinced to allow an orderly transition of power in the DRC, it will make clear that such an improbable feat can be done just about anywhere — in Burundi, in Rwanda, and across the river in Brazzaville. The first peaceful transition in one of the world’s most troubled countries would send a powerful message across Africa.
But most of all, Kabila’s decisions hurt ordinary citizens of his own country. There’s a saying that the fish rots from the head, and so it is in the DRC, where Kabila’s disdain for the rule of law decays down to the local level.
Two years ago, I found myself in a remote village in the southeastern tip of the sprawling country, in the volatile Katanga province. The scenery was breathtaking. The hospitality was, too, as a local fisherman took me out on his boat, showing off the pristine, untouched beauty of an adjoining lake. After months in a compound, this was a breath of fresh air — a side of the DRC that is obscured by conflict and insecurity: vast, beautiful, and full of potential.
When I arrived back on land, hospitality turned to hostility. As the boat came ashore, armed men in fatigues greeted me, AK-47s slung on their shoulders, and claimed to be a part of the Congolese security services. They informed me that I had broken an important ‘law’ by being on the lake. “You could have drowned, and laws are laws,” the security officer said, his words of concern for my wellbeing somewhat at odds with the order to come to the “station” for questioning. I was certain there was no such law. But I was also certain that I did not want to spend a night in a Congolese jail.
The law didn’t really matter. What mattered was who had an AK-47 and who did not. When the choice was put before me to pay a modest ‘fee’ or face their wrath, I eventually paid.
As a Western visitor, I was merely passing through. For me, it was an unpleasant afternoon. For tens of millions of Congolese, it’s everyday reality. There is no bribe that can be paid to release the DRC from Kabila’s political machinations and free it from poverty, plunder, and conflict. Until the DRC’s governance improves, the potential of one of the most natural resource-rich countries on Earth — and the aspirations of its people — will continue to be squandered by men with guns.