The Democratic Republic of the Congo is Becoming Quite Tense: There Could Be Trouble in the Weeks Ahead

A growing number of observers are really worried about the possibility of instability in the Democratic Republic of the Congo [DRC] in the coming weeks.

The DRC, once known as the Belgian Congo and more recently for a time as Zaire, is Africa's biggest country, and one of the world's major sources of strategic minerals. During the period 1998-2002, it was the scene of the bloodiest war since World War II, with five million people killed. Today the country remains badly governed, plagued by corruption, and the focus of the largest UN peacekeeping operation in recent history.

The DRC constitution requires that a presidential election be held every five years, and that the president can serve a maximum of two terms. This year, 2016, DRC President Joseph Kabila is in the fifth year of his second term.  Kabila has deliberately starved the electoral commission of funds in order to prolong his stay in power.

A presidential election should be held no later than November 16, 2016.  Unfortunately, there has been virtually no preparation for an election on November 16, and many Congolese citizens are angry about it. They feel that President Kabila has decided to prolong his stay in power unconstitutionally. The so-called National Independent Electoral Commission claims that there are insufficient funds available to prepare an election by November 16, especially an update of the voters’ rolls to include the large numbers of young people who have reached age 18 since 2011. 

Opposition political leaders are speaking in menacing tones about the possibility of mass action if the government does not take immediate steps to hold an election. There is precedent for this type of mass action. In early 2015, when the presidency started talking about delaying the election in order to do a new population census, mass demonstrations caused him to withdraw the idea. 

Some opposition leaders are saying that as of December 20, 2016, President Kabila’s second and last term in office will officially expire. At that point, the Congolese people will no longer recognize him as President. They say that the President of the Senate, Leon Kengo wa Dondo will automatically become interim president, as prescribed by the constitution, until an election is held.  Needless to say, this could lead to all sorts of problems in a very volatile situation. 

In an effort to stave off a clash between the government and the opposition, the President Kabila has proposed a “National Dialogue” that will discuss a procedure for holding a free and fair election. He requested the African Union to name an impartial mediator to conduct the dialogue. The African Union named Ambassador Efrem Kodjo of Togo, a former Secretary General of the African Union. Ambassador Kodjo has already convened political leaders from both the majority and the opposition to a preliminary meeting to set the agenda. 

Some of the main opposition leaders are boycotting the dialogue because they feel it is rigged in favor of Kabila’s ambition to remain in power. They do not trust Kodjo who has, nevertheless, invited outside observers to join him in doing the mediation.

The next trip-wire date is September 16, 2016 because the constitution requires that the election be officially proclaimed sixty days before the official election date of November 16.  Opposition leaders are saying that if the election is not officially proclaimed by September 16, the President and his government will effectively be in violation of the constitution, and that anything will be possible. 

The “national dialogue” is supposed to be concluded before September 16.  It is hoped that the consensus of the dialogue will be acceptable to all parties.  The best outcome would be an agreement on a specific delay in the election, with President Kabila remaining in power until the election, accompanied by a firm statement by Kabila that he will definitely depart the presidency immediately after the new president is elected. This could work only if the delay is limited to a maximum of six months. Such a consensus could attract international support to eliminate the so-called deficit in funding.  

Without such a compromise consensus, the playing field could easily be taken over by mass action, and more suffering for a long-suffering Congolese population.