In less than one year (November 2016), the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is scheduled to hold presidential and legislative elections. However, a tremendous amount of uncertainty surrounds the organizing of the elections, which would ostensibly usher in a new president and mark the first peaceful transition of power in the history of the country. Congo's main opposition party, the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) has been in talks with the Kabila regime to organize a national dialogue that would hopefully, help to avoid a worsening of the current electoral crisis (one that is being orchestrated by the Kabila regime).
President Kabila spoke to the nation on Saturday, November 28th to address the matter of the national dialogue. Earlier on the same day, Kabila's government arrested about a dozen activists in Goma. They were marching peacefully to bring attention to the unconscionable loss of life in the city of Beni.
Kabila outlined five priorities for the planned national dialogue in his speech to the nation: a credible voters roll, an electoral calendar, a secure electoral process, the financing of the elections and the role of international partners.
Kabila's speech was marked mostly by what he did not say. He was silent on the question of whether he would step down in December 2016 upon the completion of his second five-year term per Congo's constitution. Kabila did not specify a date for the dialogue, he merely referenced the organizing of a preparatory committee. He did not assume any responsibility whatsoever for the current state of affairs. It is in fact, Kabila and his majority coalition that have driven the country into the current political crisis, which many describe as a path toward glissement 1.
President Kabila's speech was more in alignment with recent moves he has made to consolidate power in the presidency. He said that the dialogue should take into consideration less costly methods of electing leaders. For many, this is a signal of Kabila's intentions to have the president of the country elected indirectly as opposed to the constitutionally mandated direct popular vote. A sober look at Kabila's history reveals a consistent perversion of the country's laws and constitution to preserve and consolidate power. The quintessential example is the constitutional reform of 2011, that changed the presidential elections from two rounds to a single round winner take all, which allowed a candidate to win the presidency with less than 50 percent of the vote.
Kabila rarely speaks to the Congolese people; this speech is one of the few times he has spoken directly to the nation in the past year. He may have been prompted to address the people and the question of the national dialogue due to pressure from the UDPS. The UDPS leadership issued a November 30th deadline for organizing a national dialogue otherwise they would withdraw their participation.
The lens through which one must view Kabila's address to the nation is in the context of his dogged pursuit to remain in power by any means necessary. The organizing of a national dialogue is the latest and probably weakest attempt to secure a modicum of legitimacy for his holding on to power. Some of the schemes that Kabila has attempted to legitimize remaining in power include:
1. Amendment of the constitution
During the first nine months of 2014, it appeared that this was Mr. Kabila's main path for remaining in power. His majority coalition even tried to force a constitutional amendment through parliament in September 2014 but failed. Consistent and strong push back from forces within the Congo (civil society, Catholic Church, Opposition, youth) and the international community forced Mr. Kabila to table the goal of outright changing the constitution in order to extend his stay in office. The ousting of Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore by a popular uprising in October 2014 when he tried to change his country's constitution, most likely sent a signal to Kabila that such a path would be an arduous and dangerous one.
2. Delay via census & electoral law
With the constitutional change path blocked, Mr. Kabila then attempted to change Congo's electoral law so that a census (many experts contend that it would take three to four years to organize a census, hence, pushing the elections to at earliest 2018) would be required before organizing elections. A popular uprising dubbed #Telema, from January 19 - 22, 2015 that resulted in at least 42 dead at that hands of Kabila's security forces succeeded in pushing back on this effort. The government was forced to withdraw the law that would require a census before holding of elections.
3. Stacking the electoral calendar
Under increasing internal and external pressure to establish a calendar for the elections, the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI in French) published an unrealistic calendar for elections ranging from local to presidential, prioritizing the local and provincial elections before the end of 2015. None of the scheduled local and provincial elections have been held. Many opposition figures have argued that the local and provincial elections should be shelved until after the presidential and legislative elections in 2016, hence freeing up the electoral schedule to competently and effectively organize the elections.
4. Implementation of new provinces (découpage)
In the midst of scheduling elections, Kabila's majority coalition rammed through a law requiring the installation of new provinces (from 11 to 26) per the 2006 constitution. The law had not been acted upon in over eight years since Kabila had been in power under the current constitution (The current constitution was ratified in February 2006, five years after Joseph Kabila had been in power, after taking over after the assassination of Laurent Desire Kabila in 2001). Many observers saw this as yet another attempt to ultimately delay the 2016 elections, especially considering that the electoral commission was not in a position to organize elections in these new provinces. In the final analysis, elections were not held in the new provinces, however, through a controversial ruling from the Constitutional Court, Kabila was able to appoint commissioners to run the new provinces.
5. Underfunding the National Electoral Commission
The CENI recently declared that it did not have the means to organize elections and later claimed that the government had only funded a small percentage of the budget for organizing the elections. The CENI says that the government only funded 24% of the budget in 2014 and 22% so far in 2015. The lack of government support for the CENI is regarded as a part of the strategy on the part of the Kabila regime to slow the process and make a delay in the elections a fait accompli.
6. National dialogue
After failing to arrive at a national consensus from the national consultations of 2013, Kabila has returned to a similar playbook under the guise of a national dialogue. This represents his latest attempt to establish legitimacy for staying in power beyond December 2016. An unlikely partner in this dialogue is leading opposition party UDPS. A coalition of opposition forces under the name "Dynamic for Unified Action of the Opposition"(Dynamique pour l'unité d'actions de l'opposition in French) and the Group of Seven or G7 (a breakaway group of political parties within Kabila's majority coalition) have boycotted the dialogue as they rightly see it as the latest scheme on the part of the Kabila regime to hold on to power. In fact, both the G7 and the "Dynamique de l'opposition" have called for demonstrations and increased pressure on the Kabila regime to respect the constitution.
Vital to understanding the roots of the current political uncertainty and instability in the DRC, is to be clear that the central aim of Joseph Kabila is to remain in power. He knows that he cannot hold on to power solely by force, hence he is in a mad pursuit to establish any form of legitimacy to justify holding on to the presidency. His options are increasingly limited and in the end, his schemes are likely to fail. A major reason why Kabila's options are limited is due in large part to the pressure being put on him by the population. Congolese across the board are unified in their determination to assure that the constitution is respected and that President Kabila steps down in December 2016. There is near total dissatisfaction with the leadership of his government and widespread agreement that he must respect the constitution and step down from the presidency.
The Catholic Church (see November 24th declaration), the political opposition, the G7, civil society organizations, youth formations, and former member of Kabila's political party and governor of the old Katanga province, Moise Katumbi, have all called on President Kabila to respect the constitution and step down at the end of his term.
The youth have paid a particularly dear price in blood and loss of life. Young people have been gunned down in the streets, arrested, driven into exile and deprived of their constitutional right to peacefully assemble. Even when students assemble for benign aims such as a protest against a hike in school fees, the security forces are called out to tear gas them as was done recently with the students from the Superior Institute for Architecture and Urbanism in Kinshasa.
As Joseph Kabila enters the final year of his presidency, the pressure will increase on him to respect the constitution and step down in December 2016. Congolese are united in the defense of the constitution and the protection of the nascent democratic advances that have occurred during the post-war period of the country. If elections are in fact held in 2016, it will be due to the vigilance and pressure coming from the sons and daughters of the Congo.
1. Glissement - (French word which means to stretch out, slide, slip or shift. In the context of the political situation in the DRC, it appears that President Kabila would like to stretch out the electoral process beyond his constitutional mandate, which ends in December 2016.