Back on the DRC Slip’n’Slide

The recent civil unrest in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which seems to lurch from one political crisis to another, will come as no surprise to veteran analysts of the country. The current electoral crisis there follows a trend led by DRC’s neighbors, which is especially troubling given history’s warning that the breakdown of law and order in the DRC is rarely contained by its borders.

President Joseph Kabila (right) meeting with Maman Sambo Sidikou, the United Nations Special Representative for the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Despite being term-limited from running for a third term by his country’s constitution, President Kabila has precipitated an electoral crisis in the DRC by repeatedly delaying the upcoming presidential elections. Photo courtesy of MONUSCO/Michael Ali.

Like his peers in Burundi, Rwanda, and the Republic of Congo, DRC President Laurent Kabila has precipitated an electoral crisis in his country by refusing to leave office despite being term-limited by the country’s constitution. Perhaps in recognition of his government’s precarious political position, Kabila has not tried to reform the DRC constitution through the courts or by holding sham referendums. Instead he has invoked a series of excuses to postpone the presidential elections indefinitely. His continuous delays have become popularly known as “Le Glissement”, which translates to “sliding,” as into a third term by delaying elections.

Kabila’s excuses have become a running joke to many Congolese. Despite the DRC’s significant GDP growth, the National Electoral Commission has cited a lack of funding as the reason for not organizing the presidential election of Kabila’s successor, which was slated to happen in November. The Congolese government has redrawn the provincial map—conveniently eliminating the Province of Katanga, where Kabila’s most prominent political rival Moise Katumbi was governor. It has also announced plans to conduct an 18-month voter registration drive to address the concerns of human rights organizations,  whose major complaint has been the more than 30 million Congolese youth that cannot partake in the political process. Updating the voter rolls may seem like a pro-democracy maneuver, but it was a government-created problem that it is now being used as an excuse to postpone the election.

While the DRC’s current government may be corrupt, the main political opposition parties have not been much better historically. Unorganized and prone to soap operatic internal power struggles, they have served more as vehicles of self-promotion for individual politicians than coordinated, issue-driven political operations. The fractured state of the opposition has long prevented it from being an effective opposition to the government on important issues or from being able to pressure the government to enact democratic reforms.

However, it appears that politics as usual is about to change. After Kabila and the Congolese government forced popular opposition politician Moises Katumbi into exile by attempting to have him arrested on a trumped-up charges of tax evasion, the major opposition political alliance (the UDPS, the Dynamic Alliance and the G7) formed a coalition called “Le Rassemblement”, headed by veteran opposition politician Etienne Tshishikedi.  This coalition has rejected “dialogue” with Kabila’s government and launched mass protests across the country.

The response of the government has been brutal. The Human Rights Watch reported that at least 44 people were killed and dozens more injured during protests in Kinshasa over a single weekend in September. The government has arrested hundreds of opposition activists and the offices of 5 opposition parties in the capital were burnt to the ground. Le Rassemblement appears unbowed by the government crackdown and has called daily for anti-Kabila “mass mobilization” for three months. With both sides prepared to dig in for the foreseeable future, it is likely that violence will continue to grow.

Previous episodes of violence in DRC have spiraled out of control. When Congo essentially fell into anarchy during the 1990s and early 2000s, neighboring countries intervened. Uganda and Rwanda backed rebel groups, and Angola and Namibia invaded as the chaos in their backyards grew. Internationally brokered peace agreements officially ended the fighting in 2003, but the UN still maintains more than 20,000 peacekeepers in eastern Congo today to prevent a return of fighting. If the prospect of a humanitarian disaster weren’t bad enough, an extended period of political unrest in the DRC would be a welcome environment for both domestic rebel militias and regional terrorist groups seeking new territorial openings, including Boko Haram and the Anti-Balaka and Seleka militias.

Until management of the electoral process is removed from control of Kabila’s government, it is unlikely that a peaceful compromise can be achieved. Any solution to the crisis will likely require an electoral calendar with fixed election dates overseen by a UN mission. It should also include a plan to register the tens of millions of citizens Kabila’s government has deliberately disenfranchised by excluding them from the voter registry.

Kabila is gambling that the UN will react to his flouting of constitutional term limits in the same way it has reacted to President Nkurunziza disregarding Burundi’s constitutionally mandated term limits: a lot of criticism, economic sanctions, but no actual military intervention. Unless the international community decides to act, history shows that the crisis in the DRC could ignite into a humanitarian crisis of tragic proportions.


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