Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Dr-CONGO: Kabila's suicidal strategy

President Joseph Kabila has promised that presidential election in Dr-Congo will take place as scheduled in November 2016. If he decides to delay or maneuver for a third term, as seems likely, prospects for the country are ominous and instability will spill over into neighboring countries.

If Kabila chooses to abide by the constitution, he would be the first Congolese president to step down voluntarily for another elected president--arguably making him the ''father of democracy'' in Dr-Congo. That would be a major step forward for a nation that suffered brutal colonial rule under King Leopold II of Belgium, decades of post-colonial dictatorship under Mobutu Sese Seko, and then years of deadly war in which a constellation of rebel groups and armies from nine African states battled on Congolese soil.

Yet, if Kabila chooses to hang on to power, his reputation will be tarnished, not only by the failure to respect the un-amendable constitutional two term limit, but also the likelihood of a violent and abusive chain reaction. To envision how downward spiral of protest and violent repression might unfold in Congo over a disputed extended presidential term, one need to look no further than neighboring Burundi, where President Pierre Nkurunziza's insistence on a constitutionally questionable third term has yielded the deadly suppression of mass protests.

The stakes of Dr-Congo's  upcoming elections are high. The country's constitution bars Kabila, who has ruled the country since 2001, from running for a third five year term. An the Congolese are bracing themselves for more unrest, as Kabila's onetime allies break with him and the streets of Kinshasa and other major urban areas grow increasingly restless. Whether or not full-on turmoil breaks our rests largely on the president's decision about his own political future. And so far, Kabila seems eager to extend that future, indefinitely.

As a prerequisite for the November 2016 presidential election, Kabila's government has insisted on first holding local elections to select mayors, local councilors, and administrators. But these elections, slated for October 25, will be the most complex the country has ever attempted, with 8.000 seats up for grabs. Election officials agree, in private, that it will be impossible to hold the polls this year due to their logistical complexity, cost-up to $1.1 billion- and a basic lack of resources. 

Kabila, however, seems intent on forging ahead. On August 26, he signed a law allocating seats for the upcoming local elections, meaning that government is determined to proceed with risky polls that have a high likelihood of failure. If they do fail, presidential elections will likely be delayed.

On September 14, seven political parties, all members of the ruling coalition, wrote to the president, denouncing his ''un-stated intention not to respect the constitution'' and suggesting that this was ''a suicidal strategy''. The same day, all the seven signatories, including the national security advisor, the minister of planning, and the vice president of the national assembly, where promptly fired.

According to officials close to this Group of Seven, as these dissidents are now known, they are backed by Moise Katumbi, governor of the mining-rich southern province of Katanga. Katumbi, who has been employing a lobbying firm in Washington, D.C, to promote his presidential ambitions, has deep pocket and is well-connected among the foreign business community. On September 29, Katumbi officially resigned from Kabila's party PPRD, a probable precursor to launching his own campaign.

Kabila is preparing himself for the storm to come. In an effort to divide his opponents and placate the streets, he has courted the main opposition party, UDPS (Union for Democracy and Social Progress), led by octogenarian Etienne Tshisekedi. Representatives form both sides held secretive talks in Venice and Ibiza in recent months, discussing the contours of a potential national dialogue to resolve the dispute over the sequence of elections. On September 13, however, the UDPS representatives announced that talks had broken down. Its leaders claimed that the government was attempting to co-opt the UDPS into a national unity government in order to postpone the presidential election indefinitely.

Kabila also finds his international support waning. U.S. criticism of Kabila has grown increasingly strident. During his tenure as the Obama's administration's special envoy for Africa's Great Lakes region, Sen Russ Feingold called for Kabila to step down at the end of his term on several occasions. His Belgian, French, and British counterparts support this stance but have been less outspoken.

But Kabila may be able to pivot away from Western support. Donor contributions to Dr-Congo have declined in recent years, going from 42 percent of the country's budget in 2010 to 19 percent in 2015, as mineral production has increased dramatically. As of last year, Dr-Congo is now Africa's largest Copper and Cobalt producer, though the recent commodity slump has dampened its ambitions somewhat.

As Dr-Congo has tried to wean itself off foreign donors, Kabila has asked for scaling down of the U.N. peacekeeping mission, claiming that violence has decreased and the state security forces have improved, and is looking increasingly toward China for support. While the $6 billion infrastructure for mineral deal concluded between the countries in 2007 has been slow to reap dividends for both sides, Kabila's trip to Beijing in August and the recent sale of lucrative mining concessions in Katanga to two Chinese companies-Zijin Mining Group and Huayou Cobalt-confirm this eastward turn.

In the end, Kabila's plans are still unclear. He may still try to launch a frontal attack on the constitution to change term limits, and on September 22 members of his coalition submitted a law preparing for a constitutional referendum.

Playing for time, however, is a risky strategy, and Kabila has often spoken, in public and private, about not wanting to end up like two of hos heroes-his adoptive father Laurent Kabila, and Dr-Congo's first Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, both of whom were assassinated in office. The Current view form the presidential palace cannot be comforting: The Congolese security forces are riven with internal divisions and patronage networks while the combination of a divided elite, an incensed population and foreign opprobrium signals troubled waters ahead.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Investigative Journalist/Writer
Political Analyst/African Affairs Expert