The Struggle for the Congo

Joseph Kabila’s second term as Democratic Republic of Congo president was supposed to end last November, but he’s still clinging to power, despite massive resistance.

Joseph Kabila in 2013. GovernmentZA / Flickr

In 1997, Laurent Kabila successfully led a rebellion against President Mobutu Sese Soko and named himself president of the vast country then called Zaire. In 2001, when Kabila was assassinated, his son Joseph came to power. He has dominated what is now officially named the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for the past fifteen years, but has never established effective control, let alone presided over significant economic and social development.

Virtually limitless water from the world’s second-largest river, a moderate climate, and rich soil grant the DRC excellent agricultural potential. Abundant deposits of copper, gold, diamonds, cobalt, uranium, coltan, and oil should make it one of the world’s richest countries. But annual per capita GDP is only about $450, and income per capita is below $1 a day. Furthermore, Kabila’s rule has been marked by almost continual conflict, especially in the eastern region, which MONUSCO, a small UN peacekeeping force first deployed in 1999, has failed to contain. Millions have died, either as a direct result of conflict or as a consequence of the disruptions to normal life and basic services.

Rival militias, often supported by neighboring African states, local groups unwilling to accept Kabila’s legitimacy, and intertribal struggles over land have all contributed to the chaos. Private mining corporations from around the world have taken advantage of this state of affairs to exploit the DRC’s rich mineral deposits. Protected by private security companies and mercenaries, these multinationals effectively exist beyond the reach of government regulation or taxation.

For the past two years, the political opposition has struggled against Kabila, worried that he will try to extend his term by any means necessary.

Kabila, who succeeded his father less than two weeks after the latter was assassinated, has won two questionable presidential elections since then. In 2006, the results were disputed; five years later, the main opposition boycotted the vote. While it’s clear he could manipulate the elections and win again, Congo’s constitution bars Kabila from seeking a third term. He’s had to devise new strategies to hold on to power.

In January 2015, the opposition began organizing protests against a draft law they feared would allow Kabila to remain in power beyond his current mandate. The proposed legislation called for a new census to revise the voting rolls, as approximately seven million new citizens between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two needed to be registered. The opposition saw this as Kabila’s attempt to postpone the elections and allow him to run for a third term.

The census provision was eventually removed from the legislation, but the opposition argued it was only ever one of numerous methods available to delay the elections. The most effective method, some say, has been to compromise the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI).

Lambert Mende, the communications minister, denied that the government could block the electoral process, reiterating that CENI, not the government, organizes elections. But the opposition claims the elections commission is independent in name only. According to Jason Stearns, the director of the Congo Research Group at New York University, these accusations are justified: “the political influence on the electoral commission has been clear,” he explains. “While, in theory, the political opposition can nominate members to the body, almost none of those are still recognized by the opposition.”

On October 9, 2015, Kris Berwouts commented that “President Kabila faces challenges on a number of fronts, from the opposition to the grassroots to members of his own inner circle” and asked, “How much longer can he hold on?” While we still can’t answer that question, there have been significant developments in the DRC since Berwouts posed it.

Citizen Front

In November and December 2015, various opposition forces united to form Citizen Front 2016 — a coalition of political parties and civil society organizations all demanding elections. At its formal launch, the front gave the government an ultimatum: it must “unblock the electoral process” before the end of January 2016 and allow CENI to publish an electoral calendar. Should Kabila fail to meet this fast-approaching deadline, the coalition promised to launch a program of nonviolent resistance. The BBC reported in December 2015 that “activists believe violence would escalate if the election deadline is missed.”

The date set was clearly optimistic, and few seriously expected a meaningful organization of elections to get underway before February. Even the Citizen Front leaders doubted that much would change.

“The government won’t unblock the electoral process,” said Martin Fayulu. He thought Kabila might nominate “a weak successor” if he encounters a strong and united opposition, but believed that the president’s “first choice is to violate the constitution and carry on as president without elections.” Albert Moleka suggested that “Kabila’s logic is that it’s him or chaos and civil war.” According to Vital Kamerhe, an opposition heavyweight who came in third in the 2011 presidential race, “Elections will not be held because of lack of political will. If President Kabila could run, then elections would take place.”

Despite this pessimism, Citizen Front managed to achieve significant momentum. At the beginning of January 2016, Moïse Katumbi, former governor of Katanga and Kabila’s old ally, announced that he had joined the front. He explained, “The purpose of the Citizen Front is first to insist on the provincial elections of 2016 and the 2016 presidential election by respecting the constitutional deadlines and have the electoral calendar, as soon as possible.”

The front planned numerous “conferences” followed by church services at an estimated forty-four locations across the capital city of Kinshasa. The events were scheduled to commemorate the killing of some forty or so opposition demonstrators by security forces in January 2015. Some conferences went ahead on the anniversary of the protests (January 19) while others were blocked.

Many of the organizers and activists associated with these events were arrested — some sources put the number at around forty; others at above one hundred. According to Al Jazeera:

“Early in the morning, the government sent soldiers and policemen to the site allotted to me and my party where they blocked our access and arrested five of my activists,” said Martin Fayulu, a leading figure within the Citizen Front. “They told the priest to stop the mass, not only here but at all the other sites too.” Albert Moleka — a founding member of the Citizen Front and a veteran of Congolese politics — was supposed to attend the conference in Ngiri Ngiri, but says: “The regime wants no opposition demonstrations in Kinshasa at all.”

Both Moleka and Kamerhe claimed that “machete-wielding thugs loyal to President Kabila” harangued and intimidated opposition activists. While MONUSCO has not gathered any evidence to substantiate these allegations, Jose Maria Aranaz, director of the United Nations’s Joint Human Rights Office, told Al Jazeera that “there was a concerted effort by the police and the ANR [the intelligence agency] to impede the opposition’s demonstrations from taking place.”

Pierrot Mwanamputu, spokesperson for the Congolese National Police, however, justified the crackdown, claiming that organizers had published leaflets of “a seditious character calling on the population to rebel against the government” and had not secured proper authorization — something opposition leaders insist was not required.

Growing Discontent

In mid-January 2016, CENI prepared and distributed an electoral timetable to embassies in Kinshasa, showing that the commission expected it would take between thirteen and sixteen months just to update the DRC’s electoral roll. In February 2016, Carol Jean Gallo, writing from Bukavu in eastern Congo, suggested that although elections were months away, there were already “signs that this volatile and conflict prone country may be headed toward a deep political crisis.”

She reported:

Here in Bukavu, South Kivu, in DRC, murmurs of discontent can be heard with regard to upcoming DRC elections. People understand that the DRC, like other countries in the region, are being watched — and international support depends in large part on respecting constitutional mandates. But opposition parties and activists in DRC think that Kabila is trying to be more clever and surreptitious about staying in power by coming up with ways of delaying the elections scheduled for November — a strategy known as glissement (“slippage” in French).

At this point, CENI had not even started to revise the voting register, causing delays in the local and provincial elections that had been scheduled for October 2015. According to Gallo:

[T]he two main glissement strategies people have been talking about . . . are the claim that the government does not have enough money or resources to hold elections in November and the government’s assertion that the DRC must complete a “national dialogue” before elections are held. Kabila called for such a dialogue about three months ago, and CENI estimates it will cost over $1 billion.

Government officials denied that the president was trying to remain in power. They argued that major logistical shortcomings needed to be overcome and a “secure environment” established across the country before the elections could be held. “This may take up to four years,” they warned.

They had a point. The DRC is nearly two-thirds the size of Western Europe and has a population of more than seventy-nine million. Registering new voters has always been a problem, and, given DRC’s rate of population growth — about 2.7 percent annually — it is likely that the current registry seriously underestimates eligible voters.

Meanwhile, Western nations, including the United States, continued to warn the president to stick to the election calendar, and diplomats from the African Union to the United Nations expressed concern about postponing the November elections.

On March 10, 2016, the European Parliament, in an emergency plenary session, called on the DRC government and Kabila to respect the nation’s laws. It noted that the Congolese constitution clearly gave the president the right to run for only two consecutive terms, commenting that “if President Joseph Kabila, who was elected in 2006 and re-elected in 2011, deeply respects the constitution, he cannot be a candidate to be his own successor.”

It also called on the African Union to act as a mediator in the interests of regional stability and on the United Nations to extend MONUSCO’s mandate to provide civil protection during the elections. It further resolved that the European Union should “commit to use all instruments at its disposal, be they political, diplomatic, or economic, to lobby for the respect of the Constitution and the protection of local populations.” It stated that it would favor a comprehensive political dialogue but indicated that targeted sanctions remained on the table. The European politicians demanded an end to arbitrary arrests and intimidation and prosecution for human rights violations.

However, Gallo explained that, according to DRC citizens, even this resolution doesn’t go far enough:

[O]rdinary people — bartenders, taxi drivers, and even ex-rebels — have told me in no uncertain terms that, whether knowingly or inadvertently, these international actors are simply buying into Kabila’s shenanigans and that a comprehensive dialogue will only result in a delay in the elections, which will cause those fed up with the status quo to react with political violence.

Dealing With the Opposition

At the beginning of May 2016, the Constitutional Court ruled, in an idiosyncratic interpretation of Article 70 of the constitution, that Kabila could stay in power until voters choose a new president. Shortly afterwards, protesters took to the streets, clashing with police. The opposition feared that its predictions were coming true: the elections would be postponed, and the president would remain in office.

At least one protester died and two more were wounded by gunfire during running battles in Goma, the largest city in the east. Security forces in Kinshasa fired tear gas at a march consisting of several thousand citizens. Unverified reports began circulating that protesters had stoned a police officer to death. At least fifty-nine people were arrested. Local authorities banned demonstrations in some cities.

A particularly heavy deployment of riot police appeared on the streets of the southern mining hub Lubumbashi, where supporters of Katumbi — who had emerged as a real threat to Kabila — repeatedly clashed with police.

On May 13, 2016, the attorney general issued an arrest warrant for Katumbi, claiming he “threaten[ed] the internal and external security of the country by recruiting mercenaries to support his cause.” Police once again used tear gas to disperse protesters who had gathered outside the courtroom to support him. Katumbi fled the next day, ostensibly to receive medical treatment in South Africa for injuries sustained during a demonstration earlier that month.

His supporters in the Citizen Front continued to defy a ban on protests in North Kivu and Lubumbashi, and opposition parties and civil society groups called for nationwide demonstrations to protest the Constitutional Court’s ruling.

In late July, tens of thousands gathered in Kinshasa to greet Étienne Tshisekedi, the veteran leader of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) who had spent the previous two years in exile. Tshisekedi’s supporters accompanied him to the party’s headquarters in the Limete municipality of Kinshasa. That same day, two people were injured and seven others arrested as police violently dispersed opposition gatherings in Lubumbashi and Tshikapa (Kasai District).

Both pro- and anti-government groups planned protests in major urban areas at the end of July and into August. The ruling coalition scheduled a large demonstration to support the president and his proposed national dialogue on the electoral process for July 29 at the Stade Tata Raphael in Kinshasa.

The Rally of Forces for Change planned large opposition actions for two days later at the Stade des Martyrs in Kinshasa, where Tshisekedi would speak, and at the Grande Place Tshombe in Lubumbashi. They also organized a large meeting on August 7 at the Esplanade du Palais du Peuple in Kinshasa. Protesters insisted that the presidential elections take place in November.

Many feared escalating violence. Amnesty International’s regional director for East Africa, the Horn, and the Great Lakes, Muthoni Wanyeki, demanded that:

The authorities . . . facilitate the right to peaceful assembly for all, including opposition supporters protesting election delays that they regard as a tactic to prolong President Joseph Kabila’s stay in power. Police and other security forces must refrain from using force against peaceful protesters.

Tobias Ellwood, the United Kingdom’s minister for the Middle East and Africa, visited the DRC in early August and pressed the government to make progress toward timely elections. He also met with opposition figures and emphasized the importance of elections to the DRC’s continuing development. The Foreign Office advice website now warns British travelers that “the political situation in DRC . . . remains uncertain.”

The Crunch

On August 20, 2016, CENI announced that the presidential election would be delayed until at least July 2017. The commission’s president, Corneille Nangaa, explained that the process of registering more than thirty million voters would take an estimated sixteen months to complete. “The issue before us today in Congo is how to reconcile the electoral cycle . . . with the technical constraints we face,” he added, referring to the logistical challenge of updating voter rolls in a large country with poor infrastructure and communications.

The government then decided that it preferred to hold local and provincial elections before the presidential campaign, suggesting that Congolese voters would have to wait until 2018 or 2019 to choose a new leader. Many anticipated this outcome, but it nevertheless fueled further protests.

The main opposition alliance rejected further dialogue and called on its supporters to hold a general strike, creating a “dead city” (ville morte) on Tuesday August 23. Tshisekedi declared that the government had not met the “necessary requirements for holding a dialogue” and lent his support to the strike. Katumbi, still in exile, urged people to stay at home in protest of what he termed a “constitutional breach” and a “false and non-inclusive dialogue in the country.”

The opposition chose August 23 because African Union mediator and former prime minister of Togo, Edem Kodjo, had planned to open talks with all domestic political parties that day. Opposition politicians had criticized Kodjo in the past, portraying him as a Kabila apologist, and called for his resignation. Martin Fayulu, leader of the new Citizenship and Development Party evolved out of the Citizen Front, vocally disapproved of the mediator and asked him to step down: “[W]e want to demonstrate to Mr Kabila that the people of Congo don’t want . . . Mr Kodjo. We want the talks to take place in accordance with UN Resolution 2277,” which calls for dialogue in accordance with the constitution. “We are saying that Mr Kodjo is becoming a bottleneck and has to go,” he declared.

The strike proved to have less impact than anticipated. It had the greatest effect in Kinshasa and slowed business activities in Goma, the east’s main trading center, but the opposition in Lubumbashi found the results disappointing. A government spokesman dismissed the strike as the work of “some radicals … having some old-fashioned fun,” and the opposition vowed to hold large-scale actions across the country before September 19 — the date when the president was constitutionally required to call for elections to choose his successor.

On the day of the deadline, thousands of Congolese marched against President Kabila. Interior Minister Evariste Boshab reported that only seventeen people, including three policemen, had died in clashes. But, significantly, he also referred to the protests as “an uprising.”

Other sources printed much higher casualty figures, and close to two hundred people are believed to have been arrested. Human Rights Watch reported that security forces had killed fifty-six people.

Robert Coville, spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, held a news briefing in Geneva the same day, saying that the United Nations was “deeply worried” by the latest round of violence.

We have received reports of excessive use of force by some elements of the security forces as well as reports that some demonstrators resorted to violence yesterday. We call on all sides to show restraint and we urge the authorities to ensure that existing national and international standards on the appropriate use of force are fully respected by all security personnel. We call for a credible and impartial investigation to bring those responsible of human rights violations and criminal acts to justice, and we stand ready to support such an inquiry.

He added that the violence underlined the urgent need for dialogue on the nation’s electoral process.

Despite strong internal and external pressure, the deadline passed with no announcement. All signs now indicated that Kabila intended to cling to power until 2018 or even 2019. Between the Constitutional Court decision allowing him to remain president until elections are held, the ongoing revision of the national voter registry, and the government’s decision to hold local and provincial elections first, Kabila seemed to have effectively extended his term by two or three years.

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

The government did agree to talks with the smaller opposition parties; these produced a provisional agreement in October 2016. The deal announced that Kabila would remain in power until presidential elections, now scheduled for 2018. Following the vote, he would step down.

The main opposition coalition objected strenuously to this agreement, claiming it had been excluded from the talks, and called for another general strike. The so-called dialogue continued without these major players, and pressure on Kabila grew after an opinion poll revealed that he had approval ratings under 8 percent and that the majority of Congolese voters preferred either Tshisekedi or Katumbi for president.

In November 2016, Kabila nominated Samy Badibanga, leader of the main opposition bloc in parliament, to replace Augustin Matata as prime minister. This decision signified a major development. Mounting popular resistance, poor polling, and international pressure pushed Kabila to sign a “global and inclusive agreement,” brokered by the Congolese Catholic Church, on December 31, 2016.

The agreement called on the Kabila administration and the opposition parties to create a transitional government that would take control in March 2017. Elections would take place before the end of the year, and Kabila would not run for reelection.

While Tshisekedi’s poor health precluded him from participating in the talks, his symbolic importance was underlined when he was appointed as the president of the critical transitional council — the National Council for the Monitoring of the Agreement and the Electoral Process (CNSA).

Kabila himself promised that elections “would be organized in the coming months” but warned against foreign “interference,” apparently referring to remarks by some UN Security Council diplomats who had visited the DRC to push for a peaceful transition of power.

Negotiations over the agreement’s implementation — which were supposed to be completed by the end of January — stalled over several issues, including the procedure for appointing a new prime minister and the division of ministerial positions. The lack of progress, combined with deepening economic malaise and insecurity in several provinces, increased citizens’ frustration.

Meanwhile Tshisekedi’s health declined further, and he died, at the age of eighty-four, on February 1. His death came at a critical moment. He was set to lead the transitional council and, with negotiations faltering, had left no obvious successor.

His party, the UDPS, had played a major role in the opposition coalition. Party leadership suggested that Tshisekedi’s son Felix be named prime minister in the power-sharing government. But Jason Stearns, director of the Congo Research Group at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University, explained:

There is no heir apparent, either within [his UPDS party] or the broader opposition. Even before his death, opposition leaders were vying for the prime ministry and cabinet jobs; there is little doubt that President Kabila will seek to capitalize on this moment to sow discord among his rivals. At the same time, the political elite and the broad population are still relatively united on their objectives: Kabila must step down and elections must be held as soon as possible. The question is whether they can overcome their internal division to make those goals a reality.

Opposition politicians pledged to maintain the coalition’s unity, but Hans Hoebeke, DRC analyst with the International Crisis Group, warned, “We are entering murky waters. No one has the popular legitimacy to take over.” He feared “an outbreak of violence.”

Two weeks after the Tshisekedi’s death, Kabila’s budget minister, Pierre Kangudia, claimed yet again that it would be difficult to collect the funds required to undertake a new census in time for a 2017 vote. Close aides to the president continued to insist that it would be impossible hold elections with an updated registry before 2018.

A report in the Guardian concluded:

Analysts suggest two possibilities if opposition factions and the government cannot agree on a process with a minimum of legitimacy: a bloody, popular, urban uprising that ousts the president, or the slow collapse of the government as economic weakness, meddling by regional powers and international isolation undermine its authority.

Until either of those scenarios played out, Joseph Kabila would remain president.

Over the next month, the opposition claimed that Kabila, still intent on staying in power, was purposefully blocking the deal’s implementation and promised to continue to organize actions until he stood down.

In early April, the Catholic bishops who had been mediating the talks announced that they were done: neither side, they claimed, was willing to compromise. Soon after, Kabila announced that he would replace opposition leader Badibanga as prime minister and asked the opposition parties to name his successor.

Many expected Felix Tshisekedi to become the new prime minister. A candidate from the opposition coalition party, The Rally, Tshisekedi enjoys support across the country as well as among diplomatic circles in Kinshasa — something his father could not claim. Surprisingly, on April 8, Kabila appointed Bruno Tshibala as the prime minister of the power-sharing government.

The UDPS had expelled Tshibala in March for contesting the designation of Felix Tshisekedi as his father’s successor. His appointment as prime minister was an astute move that will likely further divide Kabila’s opponents. In the meantime, Kabila has promised that the dialogue will continue.

While Kabila’s willingness to negotiate with the opposition last December seemed to offer hope that the nation would soon elect a new president, he has proven himself to be a wily and resilient strategist. The nation has not experienced a peaceful transfer of power since it gained independence from Belgium in 1960. Unfortunately, this election looks unlikely to change that record.