Congo’s uncertain election

By William Clowes, November 7, 2015

President Joseph Kabila of the DR Congo, 25 September, at the UN General Assembly in New York. UN Photo/Cia Pak/Flickr. Some rights reserved.

President Joseph Kabila of the DR Congo, 25 September, at the UN General Assembly in New York. UN Photo/Cia Pak/Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Kabila is fast approaching the end of his legitimate time as president and his options for altering that inconvenient fact through legal means appear non-existent. But the dysfunctions of the state that Kabila has shaped for nearly 15 years are his best bet of staying at the helm.

Towards the end of last month, on 25 October, the voters of the Democratic Republic of Congo went to the polls and elected representatives to sit in the parliaments of each of the country’s 26 provinces. That Sunday two weeks ago was the firing of a starting pistol which has launched a mammoth exercise in democracy during which, over 13 months and six different dates, the Congolese people and their new provincial legislators will take part in 12 separate elections, some direct (provincial and national deputies), others indirect (governors and national senators).

Having filled thousands of elected positions from town councillors to provincial governors, the culmination of this herculean process will take place on 27 November 2016 when, returning to the polling booth, the Congolese will choose their 500 national parliamentarians and a new president.

At least that was the theory, the roadmap for what should happen between now and the end of next year. This was how it was laid out when CENI, the DRC’s electoral commission, published its schedule in February. It remains possible that the two really significant elections – those for the National Assembly and the presidency – may take place during 2016 and indeed a vociferous insistence on precisely this point unites the DRC’s myriad opposition parties more than any other issue. Nevertheless, the prospects are not especially auspicious. Underfunded and lacking leadership, CENI is in disarray, its calendar voided by the constitutional court and a replacement as yet unforthcoming.

The electoral landscape in the DRC is ever more uncertain and muddled. For the Congolese, the lack of clarity is a fount of unrelenting suspicion and rumour – and at the centre of all that is unknown is the figure of Joseph Kabila, the taciturn 44-year-old who came to power during wartime when his father was assassinated in 2001. Nobody (apart from, one presumes, the head of state himself and his closest confidantes) appears to have any idea how Kabila plans to approach a presidential election which the Congolese constitution requires to be held before the close of 2016. Equally, nobody thinks it likely he’ll meekly step aside.

The principal problem for the incumbent is that he cannot compete to retain his job even though – popular opinion holds – he wants to extend his presidency beyond 2016. Kabila’s second term as president is coming to an end after, in elections of varying probity, he overcame Jean-Pierre Bemba in 2006 and Etienne Tshisekedi in 2011, and theoretically that’s his lot. He is barred from standing again since, as in other African countries, a two-term limit was introduced into the DRC’s constitution in order to prevent the presidency becoming a life-long sinecure.

However, throughout the continent, leaders are increasingly treating this prudent and supposedly immutable safeguard as a disposable irritant – yet one which must be discarded through (quasi or superficially) legitimate means.

Constitutional amendment? Denied

President Joseph Kabila of the DR Congo, 25 September, at the UN General Assembly in New York. UN Photo/Cia Pak/Flickr. Some rights reserved.

The African strongman, allergic to relinquishing power and bent upon monopolising it well into old age, is something of a stock character. In the last year, plenty of stage time has been granted to such figures attempting to circumvent constitutional restrictions on presidential tenures. Burkina Faso’s Blaise Compaore, who in 1987 shot his way to the presidency, might caution an interested observer against manoeuvring to overstay one’s welcome. His efforts to amend the Burkinabe constitution to remove term limits provoked enraged protests in October 2014 and resulted in a humiliating exile.

But the more recent examples of Pierre Nkurunziza in Burundi – who claimed his first term didn’t count, overcame an attempted military coup, secured victory in an much criticised election, and returned his country to a state of violence – and Denis Sassou Nguesso in the Republic of Congo – who called and won an opposition-boycotted and questionably conducted referendum permitting him to stand again in 2016 – will prove more salutary to an aspirant president-for-life presently restrained by a pesky constitution. A quick look towards Rwanda reveals that Paul Kagame is progressing serenely in his endeavour to excise term limits from the national rulebook.

If Sassou Nguesso and Kagame are sitting pretty, the outlook is far less promising for their neighbour in the DRC. Kabila’s route to changing the Congolese constitution and therefore participating legitimately in the next presidential election looks decidedly unnavigable, if not entirely impassable. The Congolese population is acutely sensitive to any hint that the president might have in mind any such scheme and increasingly sees the commands of the constitution – dictating both that this is Kabila’s final term and that the election of his successor happens in 2016 – as something bordering on sacrosanct.

Compaore’s fate profoundly shocked the Kabila camp and, it’s thought, convinced them for now to shelve any plans to pursue a constitutional amendment. The DRC’s president simply lacks the levels of popular support or control over the legislature commanded by his counterparts in Rwanda and the Republic of Congo.

Diminishing popular support

Protest against the president of Congo Joseph Kabila took place in Paris, February the 18th. Jelena Prtoric/Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Yet, even if Kabila were able to secure sanction to take part in the next presidential election, his prospects for victory would be significantly worse than they were in 2011. He comes from the Swahili-speaking east of his enormous and fragmented country. As such, Kabila has always lacked support in Kinshasa, as well as the largely Lingala-speaking west and Tshiluba-speaking centre, where the men he previously overcame – Tshisekedi, an octogenarian veteran of the Congolese opposition, and Bemba, currently on trial in The Hague for war crimes – remain the most popular politicians.

Unfortunately for the president, two developments have eroded his eastern support base. In 2009 the then president of the National Assembly, Vital Kamerhe, broke from Kabila’s party, the PPRD, and founded his own, the UNC, in the process taking with him a significant slice of the president’s votes from South Kivu, Kamerhe’s home state.

More recently and more consequentially, at the end of September another one-time presidential ally, Moise Katumbi, quit the PPRD and has since set out to build an opposition coalition which could prove the most meaningful political threat faced by Kabila since he was handed power 14 years ago. Until his resignation, the popular, respected and very wealthy Katumbi had been the governor of the resource-rich Katanga, which is also Kabila’s home province and hitherto has provided his most important support base.

It is expected that Katumbi will launch a bid for the presidency, presumably once a date for the election is finalised, and he has already held talks with leading opposition parties. He has met with Kamerhe, who came third in the 2011 election, Tshisekedi, who came second and heads the largest opposition party, and representatives of the G7, a group of seven parties kicked out of Kabila’s majority this September for calling for the president to respect the constitution.

Both Kamerhe and Olivier Kamitatu, a leading figure in the G7, have made positive noises about Katumbi’s credentials to challenge Kabila. If the DRC’s famously fractious opposition can maintain discipline and unite behind a single candidate, the man currently on the throne would struggle to prevail – even if he was allowed to compete. A Katumbi candidacy leant the support of influential westerners is presumably the stuff of Kabila’s nightmares.


Congolese President Joseph Kabila proposes a toast during a state banquet in honour of President Jacob Zuma at the African Union Village in Kinshasa. GCIS/Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Kabila, as is his introverted way, has so far declined to reveal his intentions and his spokesman has claimed simply that the president will respect the constitution. Yet, no one has unequivocally stated that he will step down in 2016 – as that very same constitution demands. As such, the dominant view is that Kabila has no desire to surrender the presidency and, bereft of the option of altering the constitution, has alighted on an alternative, as simple as it is crude: to prolong his day of reckoning as long as possible and use the intervening time to come up with a way of re-legitimising his mandate at some unspecified point in the future.

This scheme is known ubiquitously in the DRC as ‘glissement’, the French for ‘slippage’ or ‘sliding’. The word embodies the tremendously popular argument that Kabila and his influential supporters in the civil service, government and legislature are doing all in their power to ensure that CENI is unable to properly fulfil its function and that therefore a presidential election will not take place in late 2016 or indeed any time soon after. Officially a policy of ‘glissement’ does not exist and the presidency takes great umbrage at the suggestion that it is actively opposed to holding elections in 2016. Nonetheless, in early November one member of Kabila’s majority suffered an undisciplined moment and told journalists that the government would need two to four years to organise the polls.

This January, as they impatiently waited for CENI to publish its long overdue calendar, the Congolese opposition exploded in rage against what it saw as an underhand manoeuvre by the Kabila government seeking to push the presidential election off into the wilderness. In a vote boycotted by the opposition parties the presidential majority shoved through the National Assembly an electoral law containing an article necessitating that a census be held before a presidential ballot could take place. Such an undertaking in a country the size of the DRC, critics fulminated, would take years to complete, years during which Kabila would remain their president.

The opposition took to the streets in their thousands, in Kinshasa and other Congolese cities, and Kabila cracked down hard, deploying his loyal Republican Guards. The government’s draconian response killed at least 40 protesters but the intensity of the unrest sufficiently spooked the Senate, the DRC’s upper chambers, to erase the census requirement from the bill that was subsequently passed into law. For the opposition, however, this partial victory was less a cause for celebration than an urgent summons to vigilance against all other means of electoral delay, every manifestation of ‘glissement’.

In mid-February CENI finally released its timetable. From the outset, its ambitious demands were the source of distrust, its logistical requirements seen as far beyond the DRC’s institutional capacity and – critics suggested – created explicitly in order to fail. Those wedded to the constitutional stipulation that Kabila step down in November 2016 have long advocated that the elections for the National Assembly and presidency be prioritised over the others, while the presidential majority, perhaps unsurprisingly, remains unflinching in its commitment to the order set out in CENI’s calendar. That means that the electoral commission will need to organise an array of ballots which it has either never conducted before, such as at the municipal level, or not since 2006, such as those for the provincial assemblies or the Senate.

CENI’s disarray

CENI counting the ballots. Elections Day 2011. MONUSCO / Myriam Asmani/Flickr. Some rights reserved.

If CENI was not in any position to fulfil the requirements of its own schedule at publication, it is in even worse shape now. The commission is poorly resourced and again, some say, this is a deliberate ploy by the government. CENI claims it’ll need more than $1.1 billion to organise and hold all the elections outlined in its schedule and, formally at least, the government has allocated that amount in funding from this year’s budget and the preceding three. Yet, CENI has stated that less than 20 percent of the money had been disbursed and is therefore unable to function properly.

Other recent events have contributed to CENI’s current state of ineffectual limbo. In early September, the Constitutional Court ordered CENI to revise its overladen and untenable electoral calendar, and quickly publish a more realistic timetable. This is yet to happen and won’t happen before the commission can appoint a satisfactory new president to replace Abbot Apollinaire Malu Malu, a Catholic priest who oversaw the 2006 poll but not the highly flawed repeat in 2011. The government announced his resignation this month on the grounds of poor health. While Malu Malu is known to have been unwell for a long time, the timing of his departure only served to further fuel already entrenched doubts about the Kabila administration’s dedication to elections. The constitution requires that the DRC’s religious groups must jointly present a new CENI president for approval by the National Assembly and then the president – but the loudly anti-Kabila Catholic Church has come to an impasse with the other denominations over who should succeed Malu Malu.

CENI was derailed even more at the end of October when its vice president also stepped down. By a quirk of Congolese law, CENI’s number two must be a member of the president’s party so his resignation is widely viewed as the result of weeks of pressure from the government seeking to undermine the supposedly independent electoral commission and render it inert. These empty posts can only delay the CENI’s return to any kind of efficacy and the presidential majority, the ‘glissement’ theory goes, can only benefit from such a stalemate.

Two other major decisions taken by the government so far in 2015 have contributed to the unlikelihood of a handover of presidential power during 2016. The first is the wholesale national decentralisation programme known as ‘découpage’ whereby the DRC’s 11 provinces have been broken up into 26. This restructuring has placed huge pressures on administrators in the six provinces which have been dismembered (the other five are intact). Quite apart from allowing Kabila to neuter certain opposition power-bases or exacerbating ethnic tensions, ‘découpage’ requires provincial governments and public administrations to be established in new capitals throughout the country, often in towns lacking basics such as electricity and decent roads.

‘Découpage’ was added to the Congolese constitution in 2006 and should have been completed by 2010. Therefore, one needn’t be a conspiracy theorist to find it curious that Kabila launched this gargantuan undertaking – unbudgeted and poorly planned – shortly before the start of a fiendishly complex election period, the conclusion of which the government is loath to see. What’s more, when the Constitutional Court ordered CENI to reconsider its timetable it also instructed the government to adopt ‘exceptional transitional measures’ to avoid anarchy in the country’s new provinces. Under this dispensation Kabila has appointed interim governors who are not accountable to any local legislatures, allowing him to consolidate his grip on the new provinces.

The second is a stalled national dialogue which the president announced in May. Kabila has said that he would like to consult the opposition parties and Congolese civil society in order to ensure the organisation of transparent and credible elections. Indeed, a dialogue of some kind is certainly necessary and few deny it. The EU and US have called for such a process so that, among other things, new voters can be registered on the electoral role and dead ones removed. Many in the opposition movement have consented to an internationally mediated negotiation ahead of elections but the government has vetoed the suggestion outright. Subsequently, all the main opposition parties have rejected the offer, dismissing it as yet another means of ‘glissement’ ultimately focused on extending Kabila’s rule.

The major opposition party which has so far come closest to joining the president’s dialogue is also the largest and most venerable, Tshisekedi’s UDPS, which has been riven by splits in recent years as its patriarch’s health has deteriorated. His son Felix currently controls the party but is not trusted by the grass roots. When it appeared that the UDPS would join the consultations during the summer, Kabila’s critics feared – despite Felix’s insistence to the contrary – that the presidential majority would form a government of national unity with the UDPS and enter the country into a transitional phase lasting several years.

This, the thinking ran, would allow the president more time to prepare a revision of the constitution, wiping his slate clean and eventually putting himself forward for the presidency in the first term of a reborn Republic. How developed planning for this scenario was or whether Felix would have participated in it is, for now, irrelevant after his ailing father last month withdrew the UDPS from negotiations with the government. The president and the opposition remain at odds, with the latter increasingly convinced of the former’s bad faith and intention to reign over their country for years to come.

Administrative weakness, Kabila’s strength

Protests against Joseph Kabila, President of Congo, in Paris. Jelena Prtoric/Flickr. Some rights reserved.

In certain important aspects, Kabila is weak and getting weaker. He is fast approaching the end of his legitimate time as president and his options for altering that inconvenient fact through legal means appear almost non-existent. Western donor governments repeatedly have warned him against taking the leap into an unconstitutional presidency. He has less popular support in the crucial east of the country after first Kamerhe and then Katumbi broke allegiance with the PPRD and now faces the possibility of an unprecedentedly formidable opposition coalition cohering against him.

Therefore, it is perhaps lucky, if not unexpected, that it is the weaknesses and dysfunctions of the state that Kabila has shaped for nearly 15 years which represent his best bet of staying at the summit of Congolese politics beyond the end of 2016. That, and the not insignificant point that none of his rivals control an army.


William Clowes is a freelance journalist based in Kinshasa in the DRC. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, The Independent, Roads & Kingdoms, and MailOnline. Previously he was a sub-Saharan Africa analyst at a commercial due diligence firm headquartered in London. He tweets: @WTBClowes.

Article courtesy of Open Democracy

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