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Presidential and legislative elections were due to be held in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) at the end of 2016. However, once attempts by supporters of President Joseph Kabila to secure changes to the Constitution that would allow him to stand for a third-term had faltered in 2015, Kabila, who has been in office since 2001, began looking for a way to extend his tenure by avoiding holding the elections.
Kabila and his ruling coaltion, Majorité Presidentielle, spent the first half of 2016 warning that the financial and logistical problems meant that holding the elections on time was not realistic. Opposition parties and international donors (who were expecting to meet the bulk of election costs) disputed this.
Opposition protests against Kabila escalated. Many of his opponents argued that, even if the elections did not take place on time, Kabila’s mandate expired on 19 December 2016 and he and the government should leave office regardless, handing over power to a caretaker administration. But a tame Constitutional Court ended that possibility by ruling that Kabila could stay on until elections were held.
The level of street protests rose dramatically in late-2016. The Catholic Bishops’ Episcopal Conference launched a mediation initiative between Kabila and the opposition.
The December 2016 agreement
On 18 December, Kabila and a minority of opposition forces agreed to form a transitional government, postponing elections until April 2018. But it was quickly clear that this move would not stabilise the situation. Two days later, at least 26 protestors were killed by the security forces at a banned demonstration in Kinshasa.
The Catholic Bishops’ achieved an apparent breakthrough on 31 December when they brokered a much broader-based agreement, bringing into the transitional government the main parties in the Rassemblement opposition coalition – in particular, the Union pour la démocratie et le progress social (UPDS), led by the veteran Etienne Tshisekedi. He was to become prime minister and chair a National Council to implement the agreement. Elections were to be held by the end of 2017, at which Kabila would stand down.
Kabila regains the initiative
For the first time in many months, it looked as if a feasible way forward had been found. But it did not take long for serious problems to emerge.
Observers noted that Kabila had taken care not to sign the agreement himself, raising concerns about his commitment to it. His room for manoeuvre expanded further when the 84 year-old Etienne Tshisekedi died on 1 February 2017.
Without his authority, the Rassemblement hegan to fracture. A declaration in March 2017 that Tshisekedi’s son, Félix, had been appointed a co-president of the Rassemblement and its candidate for prime minister, was rejected by a minority faction. In the same month, the Bishops’ ended their mediation effort.
In May 2017 Kabila appointed one of the most prominent members of the minority opposition faction, Bruno Tshibala, as his new prime minister. Tshibala was able to bring some allies of Tshisekedi père with him into the transitional government. However, Africa Confidential asserted that Kabila loyalists dominated its ranks.
Also creating opposition divisions was the fact that Etienne Tshisekedi had done a deal with exiled opposition politician Moise Katumbi, the former Governor of Katanga Province, which involved backing Katumbi to be the next president. Katumbi was a former ally of Kabila’s who fell out with him and was subsequently convicted in absentia on what are widely viewed to be trumped-up charges. With Tshisekedi père gone, hostility to this arrangement resurfaced.
Meanwhile, Kabila and his backers returned to their refrain that holding elections by the end of 2017 was unrealistic, announcing eventually that they would now take place on 23 December 2018.
Street protests reduced in scale and number during the second half of 2017, but never completely died down. Attempts by political opposition figures to rejuvenate protest proved a bit of a damp squib. However, when the Catholic Church took the lead in November, abandoning its previous role as mediatior, the response was bigger.
At least six people were killed in Kinshasa on 21 January during street protests there, reigniting popular anger. Demonstrations have also spread to other towns and cities and hundreds of protestors have been detained. There have been reports of detainees being mistreated in custody. The UN has called for restraint, while international rights groups are demanding action against those responsible for the crackdown.
Violence and instability continues in other parts of the country
DRC remains riven by internal conflict in several parts of the country, most notably the centre and east.
The troubles in the east are long-standing and relatively well-known. The region remains extremely volatile. There are reports that militia there are combining to form larger anti-Kabila coalitions.
Newer is the major outbreak of unrest in the central Kasai region, where the Kamuina Nsapu insurgency has escalated rapidly since late-2016 (see also below). Around 3000 people have reportedly been killed and 1.7 million people displaced.
A conflict which started when the government refused to recognise a local chief, who established a militia but was killed in clashes in August 2016, quickly spread across the whole central Kasai region. Both the insurgents and the security forces have been accused of serious rights abuses. There have been calls for a UN inquiry into massacres there. In recent months, central Kasai has been calmer but there are reports of a growing food crisis as a result of agricultural disruption.
The stance of the international community
The DRC’s international partners backed the December 2016 agreement but have accepted the extension of the deadline by which elections must be held to the end of 2018. There have been significant differences between the approaches taken by Western and African governments to Kabila’s manoeuvrings.
Since December 2016, the EU has designated 16 government officials as subject to sanctions for obstructing the electoral process and violating human rights. They include the head of intelligence and two government ministers. The US has also tightened sanctions. But it seems unlikely that such steps will be enough to change President Kabila’s course.
The mandate of the UN’s peacekeeping and stabilisation force MONUSCO was renewed by the Security Council in March 2017. However, under US pressure, its troop ceiling was significantly reduced to 16,215. The DRC government has been pressing for some time for an ‘exit strategy’ for MONUSCO.
Two members of a UN Panel of Experts on the DRC were murdered in Kasai in the same month. There have been criticisms of the UN’s investigation into their deaths, which has pointed the finger at fighters linked to Kamuina Nsapu.
In December 2017, 15 Tanzanian peacekeepers were killed by armed insurgents in eastern DRC.
The UN and its relief partners recently launched a US$1.7 billion aid appeal for the DRC.
While it may seem that Kabila has been calling the tune over the last year or so, it is important to remember that his survival strategy is borne of vulnerability as much as strength. Above all, he fears that, regardless of who succeeds him as president and whatever guarantees are made beforehand, he will face prosecution once he leaves office.
The scale of the challenge is illustrated by the fact that there has never been a successful electoral transfer of power between presidential administrations in the Democratic Republic of Congo since the country’s independence in 1960.
While the International Crisis Group has called on all stakeholders to put their shoulders to the wheel to bring about a “peaceful transition” over the next twelve months, others are more sceptical. Felix Tshisekedi has claimed that Kabila “does not have any intention to leave power… his strategy is to spread chaos across the country and then delay elections because he’ll claim that there is too much violence.”
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