In October 2006, after a run off with former Vice-President Jean-Pierre Bemba, incumbent President Joseph Kabila won the first elections the country has organised since 1960 to become the first Head of State of the Third Republic. The first legislature of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)’s Third Republic proved difficult: some of the institutions were never installed; local elections, for instance, never took place. Others were, but functioned with a noticeable democratic deficit. Neither the directly nor the indirectly elected institutions nor the appointed ones impressed observers with the democratic quality of their work. Despite lots of rhetoric surrounding the “cinq chantiers”, the political programme of developmentalism which formed the heart of Kabila’s 2006 election campaign, few Congolese citizens saw tangible improvements in their daily living conditions. Kabila managed to put an end to the war, but not to the insecurity and impunity.
Constitutional revision of January 2011
President Kabila started the electoral year 2011 by changing the rules of the game. The revision was carried out in a very short space of time, maybe not coincidentally when diplomats were returning from their holidays and when the world’s attention was focused on South Sudan and on Côte d’Ivoire. Seen from a short term perspective, this revision aimed to reduce any space for political shenanigans. Observed from a broader perspective, it can be considered as a step in the evolution of the semi-presidential system in the 2005 constitution towards a strongly centralising presidential system.
The importance of the revision cannot be overemphasised. It prevents the political parties from using the first round as a trial run to allow a final challenger to garner support in the second round. They have to face the president in a single round and they know that they will be very unlikely to beat Kabila if they don’t organise themselves around one opposition candidate. The revision makes it difficult for the international community to find the right tone for any critical messages it may wish to send in the course of the electoral process, not having reacted to the constitutional revision in the first place.
When Etienne Tshisekedi, opposition leader since the late seventies, returned to Kinshasa and Vital Kamerhe, former Speaker of the Parliament, announced his ambition to run for presidency in December 2010, the hope was that Congo was moving towards elections fought in terms of competing visions, ideologies or strategies to rebuild society. Since the revision of the constitution and the need for the opposition to present a sole candidate, the main activity of the opposition seems to be reduced to a game of positioning where regions, clans, origins and mercantile interests will determine the result. Any ideological debate seems to have vanished.
Today, in early October, it seems very unlikely that the opposition will manage to unite behind one candidate, largely because of Tshisekedi’s refusal to discuss seriously with the other major opposition leaders. He seems to consider an electoral victory as a moral right after thirty years of opposition work. The heavy focus on the presidential elections makes them a “now or never” moment, an “everything or nothing” event.
The events of September 5th and 6th (violent clashes between PPRD activists supporting the President and those of Tshisekedi’s UDPS) clearly showed the violent potential of the electoral process. It may be that the opposition overestimates its mobilising ability but there is no doubt that there is deep frustration on the socio-economic level: progress in infrastructure and on the macro-economic front is not felt at the grassroots. People are angry and their patience is exhausted and that makes them vulnerable to political recuperation. This increases the uncertainty of the impact of any appeal to “the streets” by the opposition in case of defeat.
Kabila’s heavy machinery for total control
In the mean time, Kabila heavily invests in his re-election. There is a contradiction between on the one hand a heavy machine setting off towards the elections in a well thought out and systematic manner with complete control of the details of all aspects of the process and on the other hand the fragility of the Congolese state which has difficulty in responding efficiently to the problems it faces.
One of the elements that make the state fragile is the lack of coherence of the regime, including the conflicts and divisions which exist in the inner circle around the president. Kabila’s power is based on an endless list of ad hoc alliances with national, provincial and local leaders and he will have to manage their ambitions and frustrations if he wants to consolidate their loyalty.
Many, Congolese or expatriate, think it is most unlikely that Kabila would really hand over power if he loses the elections. The quote that is often heard is: « Si Kabila perd, c’est la guerre. » Some see this as a reason for thinking of Kabila as a factor for relative stability, the least of several evils, but it would be wrong to reduce the potential for violence to scenarios in which Kabila loses the elections.
Insecurity in the east
Since 2006, the security situation in Eastern Congo developed from open war to a low intensity conflict, especially after the integration of the former enemy, Laurent Nkunda’s CNDP, into the Congolese national army in January 2009. Nkunda was arrested by the Rwandan Defence Forces, and the CNDP became an army within the army. It kept its parallel chain of command. This new position allowed the CNDP to become bigger in terms of soldiers and geography under their control, as well as access to strategic mining sites.
Early in 2011, President Kabila launched a series of initiatives. He started a discrete dialogue with the leadership of the Rwandan Hutu rebel movement FDLR on a scenario where they would lay down their arms and accept to be dislocated to Maniema with their families. Negotiations were started with most of the major armed groups and militia to integrate them in the army, and the old claims of the CNDP were met: they received the military grades they had asked for and there was no pressure on them to be deployed outside the Kivus.
The aim of these initiatives was to create a feeling of stability and reverse the unpopularity of the President in the eastern provinces which handed him his victory in 2006. But already mid 2011, it was clear that none of them would lead to sustainable solutions. The government faces the almost impossible task of dealing with two different Pandora’s boxes at the same time. To make progress on the issue of effective integration of the CNDP, it is hard not to agree to the promotion to ranks that the CNDP has been demanding for two years. But if the authorities grant this, the pressure from Congolese armed groups will increase and there is a risk that they will develop unrealistic expectations. The greater the effort made to respond to expectations of the various groups in the east, the greater the feeling of exclusion which existed already elsewhere in the army and the Kabila’s Republican Guard.
The President has failed to solve all these problems at once, and the result is disintegration and growing insecurity. Part of the disintegration is caused by the desertion of recently and superficially integrated officers who form small armed groups with twenty or thirty of their men. They do not have particular objectives or any political agenda. They make no declarations; such groups do not even take a proper name. They are simply known by the name of their commander. In Congo, all the major questions are interrelated and at the moment they are all coming together around the elections, due to the grey area between the armed militias and the political scene as much on the provincial as on the national level, often with ethnicity as a connecting factor.
In the mean time, the international community seems to have reached the limits of its impact. A lot has been done in terms of security sector reforms, for instance, but the output remains essentially technical. And technical improvements will lead to nothing sustainable if they’re not embedded in a coherent Congolese vision and strategy on the security forces and the genuine political will of the Congolese authorities to implement them. The lack of sustainable results in SSR is partly due to the fact that the international community tries to assist the Congo using classical schemes and standard post-conflict packages whereas the page of conflict has not yet been turned.
Thus, the main questions today are: will the 2011 elections add something to the embryonic democracy which came out of the 2006 elections, and will the Congolese state be capable of managing the potential violence and instability? The least you can say is that we, as civil society partners of the Congolese people, are very worried. This is why, within the NGO European network for Central Africa EurAc, we have joined AETA’s appeal to the political actors to commit themselves to non-violence during the electoral process while maintaining a space for interactive dialogue between them. We are adding to this our recommendations to the EU to be more involved in the electoral process so as to guarantee that the Congolese people can make their choice and express their wishes in a free and transparent process.
Kris Berwouts (°1963) studied African languages and history at the University of Ghent. In the last 25 years he has been working for different Belgian and international NGOs on peace and reconciliation, security and democratic processes. Since 2007 he’s the director of EurAc, the network of the European NGOs for advocacy on Central Africa.