DR Congo’s Joseph Kabila has gained some international and domestic support for his plan to stay in power until at least 2018. But some inconvenient truths expose his lack of popular legitimacy.
Since he came to power in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2001, Joseph Kabila has ruled from the shadows through emissaries and proxies. His will is usually obscured from all but his inner circle. However, one aspect of his thinking that has become clear is that the secretive president intends to hold on to power beyond 19 December, the end of his second term.
According to the constitution, there were meant to be elections this month, but ever since it became apparent that the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) would fail to organise them on time, it was expected that Kabila would seek to prolong his mandate.
His ambition became unmistakeable this May when the Constitutional Court ruled that the incumbent could stay in office until a new president is elected. Aware that preparation for the polls was at an incipient stage, the court effectively granted Kabila several additional years of dubious legitimacy.
The decision was still more controversial because the president’s opponents − many of whom have taken to the streets in recent months at considerable risk to themselves − accuse his government of deliberately undermining CENI in order to delay the elections.
Kabila wins support at home and abroad
Until recently, the court’s position that Kabila could stay in power while the country waited for elections had found little support outside the obedient ranks of the majorité présidentielle (MP), Kabila’s political alliance. But that changed on 18 October when six weeks of cross-party talks came to an end and a deal was signed by the MP, an opposition faction led by Vital Kamerhe (who finished third in the 2011 presidential election) and a group of civil society organisations.
The accord, which was facilitated by the African Union, resolved that: Kabila can hold on to the presidency until the election of the next head of state; elections (presidential, legislative and provincial) will take place in late April 2018; and a government of national unity will be formed to manage the transition with the new prime minister coming from the opposition. Kamerhe is the favourite but by no means a certainty to claim this post.
A week later, Kabila and his new agreement received a vote of confidence from his regional peers. At a high-level conference in Luanda, Angola’s President Dos Santos declared the signing of the Congolese agreement “a cause for celebration” and the summit’s concluding statement congratulated the Kabila for having convened the dialogue.
For Jean-Lucien Bussa, the opposition’s spokesperson during the dialogue and a contender for the prime minister’s office, joining the negotiations was the only responsible course of action. “On 19 December, we will not have had elections. It’s impossible. What should we do? Be caught out or find a way out of the crisis?”, he asks.
An absence of inclusivity and unresolved fears
But not everyone is best pleased.
Many others believe the agreement cannot deliver the DRC from an onrushing constitutional emergency and point out that the Rassemblement − an opposition platform much larger than Kamerhe’s − boycotted the dialogue from the beginning, opting instead for public protest. (The Rassemblement has repeatedly declared its desire to enter into talks with the MP but Kabila has shown no inclination to meet its preconditions, which include him relinquishing power on 19 December.) The Conférence Episcopale Nationale du Congo (CENCO), the body which represents the influential Catholic Church, also withdrew from the talks on account of their lack of inclusivity.
“The agreement is basically between the majorité presidentielle and one major party of the opposition,” says Soraya Aziz Souleymane, a member of the civic action group Lucha. She is equally scathing about the meeting in Angola. “Luanda is not the voice of Africa. There were five dictators there who’ve all been in power for more than ten years, some for more than thirty. They cannot tell us anything about democracy.”
Souleymane and others hold Kabila’s government responsible for the CENI’s failure to organise elections and therefore doubt it will honour the new agreement. “If they couldn’t respect the constitution, why will they respect the resolutions of the dialogue?”, she asks.
Bussa insists such fears are unmerited and that the accord precludes the possibility of Kabila altering the rulebook. He acknowledges that the current government and CENI “are considered as factors which have not allowed us to have a presidential election in the constitutional timeframe” but asserts that it will be different once the opposition heads the transitional government.
For their part, the EU and US, two of the DRC’s most important donors, have also received the accord sceptically. Like the Rassemblement, they insist that elections should and could take place in 2017 and have urged Kabila to explicitly commit himself to respecting the constitution. “Kabila has made almost no concessions,” says one European official on condition of anonymity. “Should we be delighted that there’s a sort of half promise to have elections only 16 months late if circumstances permit? No.”
An inconvenient truth
Kabila’s allies argue that the president’s plan for the transitional period is both prudent and uncontentious, widely accepted at home and abroad, rejected only by a zealous fringe. But unfortunately for them, enlightening revelations during October reaffirmed that Kabila’s regime does not derive its authority from the popular will.
On 19 September, the Rassemblement organised a march in Kinshasa to protest the then ongoing dialogue and the electoral commission’s failure to call elections. It swiftly descended into 36 hours of lethal violence in which scores died. The government presented the disorder as an “insurrection” launched by aspiring putchists, but investigations by the UN Joint Human Rights Office (UNJHRO) and Human Rights Watch indicate that it is the Congolese security forces which deserve forceful condemnation.
Both groups accuse security forces of being responsible for nearly all the deaths and put the minimum death toll in the 50s, but assert that the true figure could be much higher. The UNJHRO claims “its investigations and access to information were hindered by restrictions imposed by Congolese authorities”. Human Rights Watch states that many bodies were removed by the security forces “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence and prevent families from organizing funerals”.
The UN’s probe also suggests that the state’s reaction was coordinated. “A central command centre” was apparently “jointly managed” by senior officials from the different parts of the security apparatus. At 9.30am on 19 September, the report claims, this cell “decided to prohibit the event without informing the organisers” and “radioed orders to PNC [police] agents…informing them of the imminent arrival of military reinforcements”. The report found that the command centre then “authorized the use of force including fire arms against demonstrators”.
The inquiries also corroborate claims made by the Rassemblement that the perpetrators of arson attacks against several of their member parties’ headquarters were soldiers, notably the presidential bodyguard.
The government’s official inquiry into the same events claimed that only 32 people died and attributed a solitary death to the security forces, an instance of self-defence during an attempted robbery. The rest, the government said, were killed during outbreaks of pillage and looting.
“The lying characterises everything the government has been doing for the past 15 years”, says Souleymane. “They lie shamelessly in broad daylight and they get away with it.”
Another inconvenient truth
It has long been an article of faith for Congo-watchers that Kabila is deeply unpopular and the constitution widely supported. A dearth of hard data, however, has allowed the president’s acolytes to dismiss this conventional wisdom as inaccurate, even scurrilous. Some have even suggested that the nation’s love for their president could justify holding a constitutional referendum to excise term limits.
Research conducted by the Congo Research Group (CRG) and the Bureau d’Études de Recherches et de Consulting International (BERCI) highlights the absurdity of such statements. 7,545 people were polled throughout the DRC and, asked for whom they would vote if elections were held this year, fewer than 8% gave Kabila as their answer. Only 15.8% of respondents nationwide were in favour of a constitutional amendment which would allow Kabila to seek a third term and 74.3% thought he should step down on 19 December. Blackening the gloom still further for the ruling alliance, none of the politicians from Kabila’s majority most commonly presented as potential successors scored higher than 3%.
These results are grim reading for those who would welcome a third term for Kabila. Short of wholesale cheating, he would be humiliated in either an election or a referendum. For the moment, however, it appears that Kabila’s priority is simply making it unscathed into 2017. “Everything he is now doing is just to cross 19 December and once he’s done that he can discuss something totally different”, says Souleymane.
The signatories of the accord have urged those who did not participate in the dialogue to sign up to the agreement and Bussa makes clear that the new government of national unity would be open to new adherents. Fearing the arrival of unpredictable chaos, CENCO is working behind the scenes to reconcile the positions of the MP and Kabila’s more implacable adversaries. But these indicatives and overtures are unlikely to be successful. The Rassemblement continues to insist that the election must take place in 2017 and that Kabila step down on 19 December.
The president has shown himself more than willing to rule in defiance of popular opinion and to smash expressions of discontent. Indeed, to cling to power, Kabila will need to deploy ever more dishonest and violent means.
William Clowes is a journalist based in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo. Follow him on Twitter at @WTBClowes.