Update on the Democratic Republic of the Congo

The political drama that began in the DRC over a year ago over the presidential succession continues to fester, and continues to increase tensions. Six months of negotiations have failed to bring about a solution, but the main opposition political leaders have expressed a willingness to make one last effort at compromise before resorting to outright political warfare. The big question is: Will President Kabila recognize the writing on the wall and agree to leave power peacefully?

The DRC constitution limits the President to two elected terms. It also prohibits the amendment of this two-term limit. President Kabila’s second term expired on December 20, 2016. Unfortunately, he deliberately failed to finance and organize an election, so there was no newly elected president available to take his place. His hand-picked constitutional court ruled that he should remain in power until a successor is elected. Thus, Kabila managed to violate the two-term limit by doing nothing.

Kabila’s illegal action raised tensions among the population, which has become fed up with his administration’s corruption and repression. Unlike in previous periods of political tension, the leading opposition politicians decided to take the path of negotiations rather than street violence. In October 2016, President Kabila accepted the concept of a negotiated settlement. He called upon the Conference of Catholic Bishops (CENCO) to act as a mediator. The opposition accepted.

Negotiations under the CENCO umbrella lasted until December 31, 2016 when a final document was initialed. The opposition leadership, operating under the name “Rassemblement” (United Movement) was pleased because it gave them the authority to choose the transitional Prime Minister; it also gave them the authority to bring about a reorganization of the Independent Electoral Commission; and it called upon the government to free all political prisoners, as well as political persons falsely convicted to crimes.

The opposition, as well as the CENCO, were pleased with these agreements. But deception set in rapidly when the time came for implementation.

Pursuant to the agreement, the opposition named Felix Tshisekedi as the next Prime Minister. President Kabila said he would refuse to consider only one candidate for the position, even though the December 31 agreement gave the opposition the authority to name a single candidate. President Kabila insisted on having the opposition give him a list of three names, from which he would select one. The opposition refused that request, and insisted that their single candidate, Felix Tshisekedi, be selected by the President. He refused.

As for the reform of the independent electoral commission, Kabila totally refuses to make any changes to the present situation in which the electoral commission is the opposite of independent, taking orders directly from the President.

As for political prisoners, a few minor political personalities have been released, but none of the important ones. Also, those who have been fraudulently “convicted” of crimes are not being released. The best example is that of Moise Katumbi, the former Governor of Katanga, and active presidential candidate, who was falsely convicted of committing fraud in a real estate transaction. As a result of this conviction, Katumbi continues to live outside of the Congo to avoid prison.

With these three issues unresolved, the CENCO decided to suspend their mediation in early March 2017, declaring that they saw no hope for further discussions. The CENCO also laid the blame for the impasse on the Kabila regime for “distorting” the December 31, 2016 agreement.

The announcement of the impasse gave rise to a series of “dead city” manifestations in which the Congolese people stayed at home. These “dead city” operations have been successful in that they sent a clear message to the regime that the people are truly fed up. So far, there have not been any street demonstrations, which have turned violent in the recent past, including the use of lethal force by the police.

The two main opposition leaders, Moise Katumbi and Felix Tshisekedi, issued declarations during the week of April 24 2017 calling upon the Kabila regime to make one last effort at adhering to the December 31 agreement. They both issued the same threat: Implement the agreement or we will declare you to be illegitimate, and we will ask the international community to make the same declaration. This could lead to sanctions and other difficulties.

So far, Kabila has reacted to these threats with indifference. He traveled to Egypt to meet with head of state Sisi, who joined him in a joint statement to tell governments to stay out of the Congo’s internal affairs. Kabila also fired Mr. Kanyama, the Chief of Police of the capital city Kinshasa, who has been accused of many human rights violations and extra-judicial killings. Kabila is clearly trying to look like a statesman who is meeting the needs of his people. At the same time, his regime is telling the world that they are busy registering voters for the election that is supposed to take place before the end of 2017. This is hard to verify.

As for the United States, the absence of a new Assistant Secretary of State for Africa under the Trump Administration makes it difficult to articulate a clear policy toward the DRC crisis. Nevertheless, the US Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Ambassador Nikki Haley, has been quite outspoken in her criticism of the Kabila regime. This US view is unlikely to change with the arrival of new senior officials in the Bureau of African Affairs.

My recommendation to the government of President Trump is to keep up the pressure on the Kabila regime to implement their constitution, and for Kabila to prepare to leave power as soon as the election process is complete. If President Trump – and all those officials working for him, and all members of Congress – apply this pressure with enthusiasm, Kabila should not be able to resist.