The Democratic Republic of Congo risks sliding into a depressingly familiar pattern of turmoil as another African president seeks set to extend his term by any and all means, Luke Doogan reports.
The Congolese don’t have to look far to realise the upheaval their President may be about to inflict on them.
Deadly clashes, an attempted coup, malnutrition and disease have befallen neighboring Burundi since its President, Pierre Nkurunziza, grabbed an unconstitutional third term in August.
In Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni won a bid to extend his rule into a fourth decade in February, aided by the detention of the main opposition candidate and a social-media blackout.
In Burkina Faso, it took the mobilisation of hundreds of thousands of protestors to stop President Blaise Compaoré from prolonging his 27-year rule. Referendums in the Republic of Congo and Rwanda have given a green light for Denis Sassou Nguesso and Paul Kagame to hang on longer.
The Democratic Republic of Congo’s stoic yet media-shy President, Joseph Kabila, hasn’t released a statement regarding his political future. Members of his inner circle have repeatedly said he will allow a democratic transition to take place at the end of his constitutionally final second term later this year.
But the actions of both the ruling coalition and the President himself suggest his intentions may not be quite so sincere. As far back as March 2014, Kabila stated at a closed-door meeting with members of his Alliance of the Presidential Majority, or AMP, that he would endeavour staying beyond his term limit.
One good reason for Kabila to cling on is his current political immunity. An incoming president could seek to prosecute Kabila for his administration’s human rights record given the unprecedented scale of violent intimidation and persecution of political opponents and human rights advocates.
The International Criminal Court might also try to bring war crimes charges against Kabila, a commander in 1996-97 for the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire, or AFDL. Among the war’s atrocities: conscription of child soldiers and the massacre of Hutu refugees and Congolese citizens.
Abuse continues. In the first nine months of 2015, the UN Joint Human Rights Office (UNJHRO) documented 143 human rights violations and at least 649 arbitrary detentions connected to the electoral process. These crackdowns are only likely to intensify in the run-up to the scheduled elections as the opposition mobilises pressure on Kabila to step down.
The streets of Kinshasa and Goma are increasingly restless. A very real threat of mass civil unrest hinges on Kabila’s decision. By all accounts, the President plans to extend his autocratic control by any and all means.
Do a Putin?
One option for Kabila would be to transition to the role of Prime Minister. The new president – a malleable and trustworthy successor – would be covertly manipulated until the Kabila can resume the helm. Such a swap worked in Russia for Vladimir Putin, switching jobs with Dmitry Medvedev from 2008 to 2012.
Alternatively, Kabila may simply try to install a successor and govern from the shadows without any intention of officially resuming power. Notoriously untrusting, he retains an extremely close circle of elite allies, so – intuitively – any groomed successor would come from his kinship network or inner circle.
The President’s siblings, Zoe and Janet Kabila, and his wife Olive, would fit the bill, but it’s unlikely that they’d be appointed. With increased tension on the streets, such a move would provoke public outrage as a cheap ploy to keep power.
Mindful of the unrest in Burundi unleashed by Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term last year, it’s likely Kabila would opt for a less divisive and conspicuous figure.
Among loyal followers are Prime Minister Augustin Matata Ponyo, Vice Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior and Security Évariste Boshab, Parliament Speaker Aubin Minaku, and Communications Minister Lambert Mende.
Seeking a third presidential term would be the most audacious route. Under the constitution, the President’s five-year mandate is renewable once only.
Yet Kabila has manipulated the constitution in the past to strengthen his position. Shortly before the 2011 presidential election, the requirement for an absolute majority was ditched, benefiting Kabila.
Key members of his inner circle, including Vice Prime Minister Boshab, have been stating publicly since 2014 that the constitution could be revised to allow for a third term – either through a two-thirds majority vote by MPs and senators in Congress, or by a national referendum.
While this might once have been seen as a legitimate option by Kabila to retain power, the strength of the opposition has significantly reduced its likelihood.
Seven senior political figures submitted a letter to Kabila demanding that he adhere to the proposed electoral schedule, resulting in this so-called G7 being expelled from the AMP’s ruling coalition in September.
Parties backing the G7 control more than 80 of 500 seats in the Lower House and 13 of the 47 ministerial or vice-ministerial posts in the cabinet.
While Kabila might have hoped that the G7’s expulsion would deter other detractors within the AMP, it’s more likely to galvanise opposition politicians in their quest to see the President removed.
Most significantly, in late September, Moïse Katumbi, the immensely popular former governor of the copper-rich Katanga province, and a former Kabila ally, quit his post and the People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy, or PPRD – part of the ruling AMP coalition.
Tipped as a leading presidential candidate, Katumbi was among 27 high-profile political figures to form the ‘Citizen Front 2016’ coalition in December to oppose the Kabila regime.
By consolidating their political and financial resources, the opposition may be able to block any attempted constitutional amendment and dash the hopes of Kabila clinching a third term. For Kabila, there’s the added threat that their combined popularity might supersede his or his groomed successor’s support, and allow them to capture the presidency should the elections proceed as scheduled.
With this in mind, Kabila’s most likely strategy must be to frustrate the election timetable. It’s a far less conspicuous option that’s least liable to incite significant outrage among the mainstream of the electorate.
The scenario has been coined glissement, or slippage. It effectively involves a number of strategically planned administrative and political delays that will allow Kabila to remain in power indefinitely.
The first excuse for postponement is the failure to administer a national census of voters last year. The National Independent Electoral Commission (CENI) in January concluded it will be impossible for the country to hold the presidential election as scheduled in November as it will take at least 13 months to partially revise the voter register and 16 months for a full update, with costs in the region of $290 million. The opposition has suggested such a process would take at least four years to complete.
To the consternation of Kabila’s opponents, the UN and the European Union have said they’ll support the voter registration process and the President’s plan for a “national dialogue.” The chairwoman of the African Union Commission, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, and the Catholic Church – ostensibly on the orders of the Vatican – have also given public backing for the dialogue approach. Opposition leaders had been counting on support from the Church to help legitimize their protests.
A further glissement will be justified by what’s being called the découpage initiative. Outlined in the 2006 constitution, découpage would subdivide Congo’s existing 11 provinces into 25 smaller ones, plus Kinshasa. A decade after its creation, this clause has been revived by Kabila.
In theory, découpage could strengthen the opposition as it offers the opportunity to win more votes with the increase in provinces. But it’s also a chance for Kabila to replace the more powerful of his opponents within the AMP with party stalwarts.
The most complicated process the government has had to tackle since the end of the Second Congolese War in 2003, découpage has never been budgeted for, nor has an implementation plan been drawn up. Adding provinces would require new infrastructure, administrative staff and extensive investment.
With the 2016 presidential elections estimated to cost over $1.1 billion, dividing territories could become another ploy to delay the elections on the grounds of insufficient funds.
AMP spokesman Andre Alain Atundu in October called for elections to be postponed by up to four years to allow for a national census and a revision of voter rolls.
The streets of Kinshasa, a city of 12 million, have been bristling with palpable tension. State security forces quickly and brutally suppressed protests early in 2015.
When further unrest erupts with confirmation of the election delay, opposition will be systematically suppressed. The government is preparing already, having reportedly imported a cache of anti-riot equipment in January that includes five armored riot control vehicles equipped with water cannons.
However, Kabila will also be mindful of the recent wave of politically inspired violence that has swept across Sub-Saharan Africa as other incumbent presidents have attempted to cling to power – especially next-door Burundi, in the throes of unprecedented civil conflict, and Burkina Faso, having triggered massive popular protests.
What’s been referred to as the “Black Spring” is a real and credible threat to the Kabila regime should it seek to retain power. An increase in internet access and the use of social media, as well as rising youth unemployment, are key factors that have led to the proliferation of youth-led uprisings, and may well trigger a similar revolt in the DRC this year.
The opposition orchestrated a one-day general strike dubbed ‘Ville Morte’ – or ‘Dead City – to raise the pressure in February. In Kinshasa, a traditionally anti-Kabila region, several government offices were operating at less than half-strength despite a statement that employees would be punished for refusing to work. Goma, Matadi, Bukavu and many more towns and cities were paralysed.
It was a successful first step, according to the opposition leader, Katumbi. The scale now must be raised to the level of protests in Burkina Faso in 2014, said another leader, Martin Fayulu, President of the Engagement for Citizenship and Development (ECIDE) party.
In reality though, the strike is unlikely to weaken the President’s resolve to retain power – and Museveni’s success in Uganda will only embolden Kabila.
Given the political uncertainty, investor confidence is at an all-time low. Kabila and his close circle of key elites have monopolised control over the economy, pillaging the country’s vast natural resources.
While this business environment is relatively simple to navigate, many foreign investors are unwilling to associate themselves or their assets with the Kabila regime, especially with the threat of large-scale civil unrest looming. Should the opposition achieve electoral success, those corporations with interests intertwined with those of the incumbent administration are likely to suffer.
The government and the International Monetary Fund have projected that the economy will grow by about 9% this year, but this could well be negated were the country to suffer fallout similar to that of neighbouring Burundi.
The precarious political situation poses a serious threat to an already struggling nation.
he author is Luke Doogan, Africa Analyst at West Sands Advisory Limited. After working in the energy industry in Ghana, Luke has focused on investigating the intricacies of how informal networks exert influence over political and commercial decision-making throughout Sub-Saharan Africa.
West Sands is a business intelligence, investigations and political advisory firm that has, since 2006, helped clients identify opportunities and reduce risk in emerging and frontier markets (http://www.westsandsadvisory.com).