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Why Kabila’s bid to remain in power is bad news for the Democratic Republic of the Congo

The DRC says presidential elections would probably not happen this year as President Joseph Kabila holds on to power. Nic Bothma/EPA

President Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of the Congo has barely five months to save his 17-year regime from a cataclysmic ending. According to the 31 December 2016 all-inclusive political agreement, Kabila should organise elections and hand over power.

But in a recent interview, Kabila said he wasn’t going to “promise anything” on when he would leave office. This stand is in violation of the political agreement brokered by the Conférence Episcopale Nationale du Congo (CENCO).

The agreement sets clear terms for Kabila’s exit. His second presidential term ended on 19 December 2016. The agreement allowed him an extension of one year on condition that he would neither seek a third term, nor attempt to amend the constitution to remain in power beyond December 2017.

But Kabila has not implemented the reforms that would pave way for an election. In addition, the country’s national elections commission shows no momentum. The country’s national elections commissioner, Corneille Nangaa, stated recently that presidential elections would probably not take place this year because of the conflict in the Kasai region and the fact that there isn’t a comprehensive electoral register.

The opposition called Nangaa’s statement a declaration of war.

Read together, the president’s unwillingness to give a clear indication that he will step down, and Nangaa’s projection that there might not be a 2017 election, point towards a well orchestrated plan to delay the vote.

This has deeply polarised the country which is on the brink of increased violence. With just five months before Kabila’s one-year grace period expires, a number of warning bells have gone off from various corners of the globe.

Delay tactics

Even before the expiry of his constitutional mandate in 2016 Kabila employed various strategies to prolong his stay in power. His game plan dates back to early 2011 when he amended the constitution to establish a single-round, simple-majority election system.

Since then he has made numerous other attempts to manipulate the system to his advantage. Three stand out.

In January 2015, the National Assembly passed a law that called for a national census as a precursor to national elections. The opposition parties and the public saw this as a ploy to enable Kabila to stay in power indefinitely – a national census exercise had the potential to go on for years.

After mass demonstrations across the country the senate was forced to renounce the move.

The second attempt came in May 2016 when the DRC’s constitutional court ruled that if the election did not take place by the end of his second term, Kabila could stay in office until a new president was elected. This ruling exploited a constitutional loophole which states that,

“ …if for whatever reason, there is not a new president or a president-elect in place at the time when the current president’s term ends, then the sitting president stays in place, until there is a new president elect.”

The court ruling triggered mass demonstrations particularly in the capital Kinshasa.

In a third attempt, Kabila set out to placate the opposition and to convince them that organising an election within the required time frame would be impractical. In November 2015 he announced that the country would engage in national, all inclusive political dialogue bringing together the opposition, civil society and religious groups.

He highlighted five key areas of discussion. They included creating a credible voters roll, agreeing on the election calendar, securing the election process, financing the poll, and the role of international partners in the elections.

Many in the country were sceptical about Kabila’s proposal and by June 2016 it hadn’t gained support. This was despite the African Union appointing Edem Kodjo to mediate the process.

A MONUSCO (the United Nations Mission in the Congo) report stated that the main opposition groupings – Dynamique de l’opposition, and the Groupe des sept (G7) - were describing the call for dialogue as a ‘trap’ set by Kabila.

Kodjo’s facilitation finally culminated in a political agreement between Kabila’s coalition and the Union pour la Nation Congolaise, an opposition party led by Vital Kamerhe. Among other controversial decisions, the agreement stipulated that the current president would remain in power until elections were held and his successor assumed office, in line with the May 2016 constitutional court ruling.

The rest of the opposition, which had boycotted Kodjos’s mediation, denounced the AU-led agreement. The effect was to split the country in two.

In an effort to break the impasse, a mediation led by CENCO organised consultations between the signatories and non-signatories to the AU-led agreement leading to the all inclusive political agreement of 31 December 2016. As mentioned above, Kabila seems to be ignoring its implementation.

Unheeded warnings

The UN has warned that the political impasse, rising insecurity across the country, and the worsening human rights and humanitarian situation could easily plunge the country into total chaos. In particular, it has pointed to the ongoing inter-ethnic violence in the Kasai region.

The world body has called for a successful political transition underpinned by free, fair and inclusive elections.

The UK has also cautioned that unless Kabila holds elections within the agreed time lines, the political uncertainty and instability in Kinshasa will spread across the country.

And the UN Under Secretary General for Peacekeeping Operations Jean-Pierre Lacroix, has also warned that there’s a risk that the gains of the last 17 years will be reversed if Kabila fails to arrange a successful transition.

A change of heart by Kabila could see him go down in history as the first Congolese president to hand over power democratically. The decisions he makes in the next five months will determine whether his 17-year rule will be worthy a legacy.

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