A moment of waning international attention has led some in President Kabila’s camp to revisit the idea of an internationally-opposed third presidential term. African and Western leaders must maintain unity, redouble efforts to dissuade Kabila from pursuing this course and ensure preparations for elections in 2018 continue apace.
What’s new? Allies of President Joseph Kabila suggest increasingly overtly that he could seek a third term in office; international actors, led by Angola, firmly reject that idea. Meanwhile, preparations for elections scheduled for December continue, but Kabila’s opponents and civil society distrust the voter register and potential use of voter machines.
Why does it matter? A concerted effort by President Kabila to remain in power or significantly delay elections could provoke a major crisis in the DRC, with consequences well beyond its borders. A genuine transition based on a credible election is a prerequisite for stability in the DRC and the region.
What should be done? African and Western powers must hold firm on elections this year without Kabila. They should threaten his isolation and further sanctions should he seek a third term, while offering assurances if he steps down. Critical, too, are measures to level the playing field and overcome distrust in election procedures.
Election preparations in the DRC continue apace, though the playing field remains badly skewed against Congolese president Joseph Kabila’s opponents and they and civil society distrust election modalities, notably the voter register and the potential use of voting machines, and view electoral authorities as partisan. Moreover, in April and early May 2018, Kabila’s allies appeared to exploit a moment of waning international attention to float prospects of Kabila circumventing the constitution and seeking a third term in office. African and Western powers have given the idea short shrift. Indeed, public statements by leaders on the continent and beyond suggest that international consensus remains strong that elections must take place this year and President Kabila must not stand. Maintaining this unified position is critical. Africa and Western leaders should redouble efforts to persuade Kabila not to prolong his rule, while pushing Congolese institutions to take steps to level the playing field and increase confidence in the forthcoming vote.
Diplomatic efforts to nudge President Kabila toward a transition should involve a mix of pressure and incentives. First, African leaders – and the Angolan government in particular – should continue to convey to the president that he would be isolated on the continent were he to pursue a third term. Secondly, Western powers should threaten further sanctions targeting Kabila’s entourage and his financial interests were he to declare his intentions to contest the vote or seek to delay it. Thirdly, the president should receive reassurances that he can retire in dignity, with his security protected.
" That preparations for the vote have got this far is significant, notwithstanding the ever louder hints by Kabila’s allies that he might seek a third term and the disputes around procedures. "
In addition to concerted efforts to persuade Kabila not to seek a third term, African and Western governments should push his government toward a more credible vote. That means taking measures to level the playing field, notably by ensuring opposition parties can campaign freely, allowing protests, releasing political prisoners and ending politically inspired prosecutions. It also means resolving controversial technical issues: taking steps to increase the quality of and confidence in the voter list, making a final decision on whether to use voting machines and if so, clarifying procedures for their use and for scrutiny by opposition representatives and civil society.
That preparations for the vote have got this far is significant, notwithstanding the ever louder hints by Kabila’s allies that he might seek a third term and the disputes around procedures. So, too, is the clear African and Western position that the DRC needs a genuine transition of power. The closer the vote looms and the stronger international consensus appears, the narrower the space Kabila will have in which to manoeuvre. A credible vote is still a long way off, however. Kabila’s intentions can be hard to read but holding onto power has always been his preference. He and his allies will likely exploit any lapse in international attention or unity to make that happen.
II. Kabila’s Allies Float a Third Term
At the start of this year, Kabila appeared to understand that he could neither change the constitution’s two-term limit, nor find another way of staying in power beyond 23 December, the date set for elections by the Electoral Commission back in November 2017.[fn]For details of the move toward elections and preparations thus far, see Crisis Group Africa Report N°259, Electoral Poker in DR Congo, 4 April 2018.Hide Footnote The 31 December 2016 Saint Sylvester agreement – a deal between the government and opposition struck after Kabila’s second term legally expired and which laid out steps toward elections and a series of measures to improve confidence in the process – also bars him from standing again. Thus far, Saint Sylvester remains a firm, commonly accepted reference point, albeit with an adjustment to the election timeframe.[fn]For an analysis of the Saint Sylvester agreement and its implementation, see Crisis Group Africa Report N°257, Time for Concerted Action in DR Congo, 4 December 2017
Under international and domestic pressure, Congolese authorities adopted in November 2017 an electoral calendar, which slated elections for 23 December 2018. Since then, Congolese authorities have continued their technical preparations for the elections, which are now quite advanced. In addition, both Kabila’s majority coalition in parliament and his People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy showed signs of organising for the December polls. As yet, however, these efforts do not include steps to select a successor. Leaving aside the problem of who will eventually be its presidential candidate, the ruling coalition continues to benefit from an enormously skewed playing field, and in particular from control over state resources.
Kabila’s plans can be difficult to decipher. Since he came to power in 2001, the president has operated by keeping his options open. He rarely expresses himself in public while privately saying different things to different people and playing for time. This has served him well in navigating DR Congo’s vast and fractured political landscape. Over the past couple of years, however, his efforts to circumvent the constitutional ban on pursuing a third term in office have run aground; suggestions to amend the constitution to abolish the two-term limit, floated by President Kabila’s political allies since 2013, have met stiff resistance from within the majority and Congolese society at large.[fn]This issue contributed to opposition leader Moïse Katumbi and several other individuals and parties, notably those in the so-called G7 grouping, leaving the majority in 2015. For more, see Crisis Group Africa Report N°225, Congo: Is Democratic Change Possible?, 5 May 2015.Hide Footnote This, combined with increasing international and regional pressure on the president to stand down, means his options for staying in power – which almost certainly remains his preference – appeared to be rapidly narrowing. If he cannot circumvent term limits, his only option for doing so would be to delay the vote.[fn]For details on mounting African pressure over late 2017 and early 2018, see Crisis Group Report, Electoral Poker in DR Congo, op cit.Hide Footnote
" Kabila’s team will seek to exploit any sign of division among international or African governments. "
In April and early May, however, international and African attention seemed to wane and pressure on Kabila to temporarily let up. That period saw no firm international statements on the DRC. Perhaps sensing an opportunity, and aware that time was short, Kabila’s supporters tested the waters by raising the prospect of his standing for a third term. They have invoked a legal technicality, arguing that since the constitution was changed in 2011, amending the system by which the president is elected – switching from a runoff system to a single-round vote decided by plurality – Kabila in fact has served only one term according to the new rules.[fn]“Cyrus Mirindi: “Il reste un mandat a Joseph Kabila pour atteindre le plafond constitutionnel”, Radio Okapi, 21 May 2018. On 24 April 2018, Jean-Cyrus Mirindi, a researcher in Constitutional Law at the University of Kinshasa, organised a debate, presenting an interpretation of the constitution according to which Kabila would have the right to a further term.Hide Footnote Therefore, the claim goes, he can stand for office again. Posters and banners describing Kabila as the man of the moment have sprung up in Kinshasa, almost certainly with senior-level authorisation.
That Kabila and his allies would – and will continue to – look for opportunities to delay the vote or put forward his candidacy should come as no surprise. The apparent lack of progress in the selection of a successor, for which the majority has less than two months, has increased speculation about his intentions. Kabila’s team will seek to exploit any sign of division among international or African governments in their response, as well as the continued weakness of his domestic opponents.
III. A Forceful Western and African Response
African and Western governments have maintained a strong consensus in support of the 2016 Saint Sylvester agreement, notwithstanding delays in its implementation. The departure of presidents previously supportive of Kabila in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Angola and their replacement with leaders far less inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt has further reinforced that consensus.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, diplomats in Kinshasa, Addis Ababa, New York and Pretoria, February-April 2018.Hide Footnote So, too, have statements by both African and Western politicians over the past few weeks that leave little doubt that patience with Kabila is wearing thin.
On 23 May French President Emmanuel Macron – speaking at a Paris press conference flanked by Rwandan President (and current African Union Chair) Paul Kagame – announced his support for the Rwandan and Angolan position on the DRC. This position consists of maintaining continental support for the elections in December and for the Saint Sylvester agreement, and hence for Kabila leaving power. Before this, France had been less outspoken, creating the impression that it was less engaged in supporting the Saint Sylvester agreement’s key principles.
On 28 May, Kinshasa reacted to Macron’s press conference with a strongly worded statement criticising neighbours for interfering in DRC’s internal affairs.[fn]Point de presse du ministre de la communication et des médias, Kinshasa, 28 May 2018 ; “Kinshasa demande des explications à Emmanuel Macron”, Le Monde, 28 May 2018.Hide Footnote Just a few hours later, also during a meeting in Paris, Presidents João Lourenço (of Angola) and Macron unequivocally confirmed their support for the Saint Sylvester deal. According to Lourenço, the DRC’s neighbours “have the right to protect themselves from any destabilisation”, which – he implied – would worsen if Kabila stays in office.[fn]See the video “Déclaration conjointe à la presse du président de la République Emmanuel Macron et de João Lourenço, Président de la République d’Angola”, 28 May 2018 (http://www.elysee.fr/videos/new-video-301/).Hide Footnote Lourenço repeated this clear line in support of the Saint Sylvester agreement in a televised interview in early June.[fn]“Angola’s new president speaks exclusively to Euronews”, Euronews.com, 1 June 2018. Angola is a key regional powerbroker; it helped remove long-time Congolese dictator Mobutu Sese Seko and later intervened in support of Joseph’s father Laurent Kabila from 1998. Earlier in May, Kabila had appointed one of his most trusted associates, Didier Kazadi, ambassador to Luanda, possibly in a bid to persuade Lourenço to take a softer line. Thus far, however, this appears to have yielded no change in Angola’s position.
IV. Election Preparations: Important Technical Fixes Needed
There has been considerable technical progress in preparing for elections, largely in conformity with the electoral calendar announced in November last year. Serious operational hurdles remain, however, and Kabila’s political opponents and Congolese civil society are disputing core operational aspects.
Since early November 2017, the Congolese parliament has adopted laws revising the electoral code and setting the geographical distribution of parliamentary seats; electoral authorities have finalised – and the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie (OIF) audited and validated – the voter register.[fn]“Audit du fichier électoral, conclusions et recommandations préliminaires”, Organisation internationale de la francophonie, 25 May 2018.Hide Footnote But civil society and opposition have criticised each step and have no confidence in the neutrality of the electoral commission.[fn]“Assessment of Electoral Preparations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo”, Strengthening Democracy through Partnership (CEPPS) – USAID, 8 May 2018, pp. 20-25.Hide Footnote Concessions to the opposition, such as allowing the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) party to replace its current supposed representative in the Electoral Commission (whom UDPS leaders do not trust to act in their interests), have been announced but have yet to happen.
" It is vital that the Electoral Commission implement the OIF’s recommendations and other steps to improve confidence in the register. "
The OIF’s assessment of the voter register was cautiously positive. But that has not reassured the opposition and civil society. The opposition wants the register to be purged of millions of voters it presumes fictitious.[fn]“Déclaration commune de l’opposition congolaise en rapport avec l’audit du fichier électoral conduit par l’OIF”, 28 May 2018. The document is signed by the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS)/Tshisekedi, the Union for the Congolese Nation (UNC), the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), the Dynamique de l’Opposition and Ensemble pour le Changement (the platform led by Moïse Katumbi).Hide Footnote The OIF audit identified large numbers of voters on the list with incomplete data; many with missing fingerprints, for example, which indicates problems, but does not necessary prove that those voters are fictitious. It is vital that the Electoral Commission implement the OIF’s recommendations and other steps to improve confidence in the register. In particular, it should:
complete the registration of voters with incomplete data;
adopt measures to stop people with voter cards but who have been removed from the voter list for valid reasons such as their age, or double registration, from casting a vote;
put in place clear and timely procedures to resolve problems with eligible voters who have been omitted from the list (a major issue in the 2011 election);
ensure safeguards are in place to prevent multiple voting; and
make available provisional voter lists in good time before the vote at polling stations to allow a “citizen audit of the register”.
This latter measure would allow people to check for their names, spot fictitious voters and raise complaints with electoral officials. Posting of voter lists in advance has been suggested by civil society organisations and is common practice in elections across Africa.
The voting machines that the Electoral Commission seems determined to use are equally if not more controversial. All major opposition candidates and civil society groups are calling on the commission to abandon their use. The Catholic Church has asked for the machines to be checked by competent national and international bodies. The commission has not budged and time is very short, especially if the paper-only ballot has to be reinstated across some or all of the country. If the machines are used without the independent check recommended by the Church, the elections’ credibility will take a significant hit.
V. A Fraught Political Environment
Even these technical fixes will not guarantee a credible election, given that the political environment is tense. It is likely to grow even more so in the coming months, as electoral preparations continue and candidates put their names forward to contest the vote.
" Since those brutally repressed marches, organised by the Catholic lay organisation, there have been only a few smaller protests. "
The government has only very partially implemented the Saint Sylvester agreement’s provisions for opening up political space and continues to clamp down on protests.[fn]“Appel à la responsabilité”, Press Conference by the Secretary-general of the Congolese Episcopal Conference, Kinshasa, 24 May 2018.Hide Footnote Nor have recommendations made by the human rights minister following investigations into the security forces’ violent repression of political demonstrations in December 2017 and January 2018 been implemented. Since those brutally repressed marches, organised by the Catholic lay organisation (the Comité laïc de coordination, CLC), there have been only a few smaller protests. This de facto truce may soon end, following a CLC conference in Kinshasa on 30 April and 1 May. The country’s Catholic bishops are preparing to evaluate the electoral process and the Saint Sylvester agreement’s implementation by the end of June. Should they judge progress on the latter insufficient, as they likely will, one could expect a renewed unity of purpose and support for further demonstrations across the Church (in particular in Kinshasa) and other denominations.
The registration of candidates, which starts soon, could be another source of friction. Candidates have to register to run for office starting 24 June for the provincial elections and 25 July for the presidential and national parliamentary contests.[fn]Candidates for the provincial elections are to register from 24 June until 8 July. Provisional lists are to be published on 28 July, and the definitive candidate lists will be published on 20 August. For the national legislative and presidential elections, candidates have to register from 25 July until 8 August. A provisional list is to be published on 24 August.Hide Footnote The mostly ill-resourced provincial appeals courts will adjudicate challenges to candidates’ eligibility for provincial elections and the Constitutional Court will adjudicate those for parliamentary and presidential candidates. By 19 September, approximately three months before the election date, all candidate lists should be finalised. The timetable leaves the government but especially opposition parties little time to prepare. Wrangling continues over the recognition of opposition parties, some of which have had their names hijacked by government-backed factions. For example, the recently published list of officially recognised parties includes four different ones that call themselves the UDPS, the name of one of the country’s oldest opposition parties.
Opposition leaders are making attempts to unite and mount a more serious challenge. UDPS leader Felix Tshisekedi and the wealthy former Katanga Governor Moïse Katumbi are discussing a joint program and the possibility of fielding a single candidate.[fn]“Déclaration conjointe de New York”, 25 May 2018 (signed by Moïse Katumbi and Felix Tshisekedi).Hide Footnote Katumbi still faces major hurdles before he could stand as a presidential candidate, including pending legal cases and claims he may have forfeited his Congolese citizenship when he obtained an Italian passport several years ago in exile.[fn]“RDC : Moïse Katumbi a bel et bien eu la nationalite italienne pendant 17 ans”, Jeune Afrique, 22 March 2018.Hide Footnote Even were the two opposition leaders to agree among themselves on a single candidate, whichever of the two backs the other’s presidential bid would still have to persuade his supporters to accept that plan.
VI. Maintaining Pressure on Kinshasa
The next few months will be vital, in terms both of who runs in the elections and the credibility of the vote. At present Kabila still has three options: to run again, to delay elections or to stand aside. He may simply face down international criticism and calculate that the isolation that would come with a third term is worth it. Or he may orchestrate chaos in the country to justify further delays, possibly through the declaration of a state of emergency; continued insecurity in several provinces as well as the possibility of new popular protest in major cities could be used to justify such a step. Pursuing either of these options would be fraught with risk for his country and the region. The good news is that regional leaders seem to understand this and are indicating that the price of isolation will be high. It is critical that they maintain this unity.
Overall, an international and African strategy to pressure Kabila should involve three elements. The first is continued threats of isolation, with an African, and particularly Angolan, lead: President Kabila should understand that he would be shunned on the continent were he to pursue a third term. Second is the threat of further sanctions targeting his entourage and his financial interests, that would be imposed were Kabila’s to declare his intentions to contest the vote or seek major electoral delays. Third are reassurances to the president and his close entourage that he will be able to retire in dignity and that his interests and security would be safe were he to leave power – to the extent that any foreign power can fully guarantee that.
" International actors should seize every opportunity to coordinate their positions and showcase their unity. "
The recent statements by the Angolan and French presidents are welcome; such coordinated messaging will without doubt have a strong influence on Kabila’s personal calculations and on those of his entourage. African and Western leaders need to accompany these signals that Kabila should not stand with greater pressure on the Congolese authorities to implement the confidence-building measures in the Saint Sylvester agreement – particularly opening political space, allowing protests, releasing political prisoners and ending politically inspired prosecutions. They likewise should press the authorities to resolve the main outstanding issues around the elections, which means achieving consensus on the voter list, by adopting the measures detailed in section IV, and deciding whether, and if so how, to use the voter machines.
International actors should seize every opportunity to coordinate their positions and showcase their unity. The proposed joint visit by AU Commission President Moussa Faki and UN Secretary-General António Guterres would be a powerful way of demonstrating common purpose. Equally, a UN Security Council visit in August, when presidential candidates put their names forward, would reinforce vital messages on the need for a peaceful, and credible, transfer of power.
Notwithstanding the controversies, the preparations for elections thus far are significant: as elections loom, Kabila’s room for manoeuvre shrinks. Significant, too, is what appears to be strong African and international consensus that President Kabila must stand down. That said, while some uncertainty remains about Kabila’s intentions, it appears likely that were an opportunity to present itself, he almost certainly would prefer to remain in power. The increasing willingness of his entourage to suggest publicly that he should remain in office illustrates that he and his allies are likely to turn any lapse of international focus or unity to their advantage. African leaders, whose diplomatic efforts have been pivotal in driving elections preparations this far, must keep up the pressure together with their Western allies. Absent that, Kabila is likely to make a play to extend his rule and provoke a crisis that could destabilise the DRC and the wider region.