On Sept, 27, street demonstrations in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) drew significant if not overwhelming large crows. The target of the protesters' ire was President Joseph Kabila, whose loyalists had spent a busy summer testing public opinion on a controversial issue: amending or even replacing the country's constitution to remove presidential term limits.
The subject is of more than academic interest to Kabila, who is fast approaching the end of his final term in office, having assumed the presidency upon the murder of his foster father in 2001 before winning fraudulently elections in 2006 and 2011. On the question of constitutional change, however, the national mood was unequivocal: a loud rejection of the idea, from civil society, opposition politicians and even some members of the ruling coalition, the People's Party for Reconstruction and Democracy(PPRD). Undeterred by this discouraging response, the president's advisers have pushed on regardless.
Ever more convoluted semantics have been deployed to chip away at Article 220 of the Congolese constitution, which states that presidents can only serve a maximum of two five-year terms and for added protection, prohibits any reversal of this clause. The president's cheerleaders acknowledge this inconvenience but argue with a straight face that there is nothing to stop 220 Article or even the constitution itself from being changed or revoke.
Sources in DRC confirm loudly that Joseph Kabila and his cheerleaders have moving toward their secret plan: A Constitutional referendum, to forge through Kabila's third term. Kabila is exploring many political avenues to cling on power beyond this second-term.
According to the same sources, Kabila had first proposed to Moise Katumbi, what would be a new position of vice president and the possibility to run for presidency after Kabila's departure, in exchange of his support for a constitutional reform to guarantee Kabila's third term. Katumbi knowingly what happened to four previous vice presidents, refused and resigned from Kabila's political family, the People's Party for Reconstruction and Democracy (PPRD). Then, drawing inspiration from Denis Sassou Nguesso(Congo), Paul Kagamé(Rwanda) and Pierre Nkurunziza(Burundi), Kabila and his cheerleaders are romancing the notion of a constitutional referendum to materialize Kabila's third term ambitions.
To understand why Kabila would consider a constitutional referendum to cling to power, you have to understand DRC politics and society first-and why Kabila could find himself inadvertently caught in his own traps.
Politics of polarization
One of the issues is that the politics of exclusion being practiced by Kabila tends to polarize the country, dividing the population and antagonist into conflict with one another, his bad associations with some members of M23, his elements police, human rights abuses, extra judicial killings, especially at the hands of those in government and allegations of corruption.
These going-on provide lots of fodder for International Criminal Court. If today Kabila stood down the ICC would probably be swamped with charges against him. It is misleading to suggest that Kabila would just step down at the end of his second-term. Fearing for his safety after leaving the office is one of the incentives for Kabila to cling on to power.
A strangle-hold on the military:
Armies have traditionally belonged to the man in power in DRC, and very lopsided in their composition. In many cases Kabila has used the army to repress the people, especially during protests and campaigns. Kabila has been manipulating the insecurity in eastern-DRC as a leverage to maneuver and control the reigns of power. it would not be surprising, as it has been the case in the past, to witness the rebirth of M23, prior to the elections and use this scenario to postpone or force a constitutional referendum.
Far from reassuring people of his intention to leave, Kabila has taken drastic measure suggesting the opposite. He has reorganised the army, putting his most loyal men in key positions. He is counting of the army to suppress any protests, as it happened in Congo-Brazzaville during constitutional referendum. Yes, Kabila is banking on the armies to repress protests in any event that his secret plan of constitutional referendum is greeted with clashes on the streets.
The Money bags:
Just like it is with the military, in DRC the president owns the money.When Kabila needs to finance his schemes, it is not unheard of for him to have money printed by the central bank to finance these activities.When it comes time to campaign against the opposition Kabila can use this money to gain an unfair advantage, as by bribing the votes. Sources confirm that Parliamentarians, Senators and some parts of the population have been given money to sign a petition that would trigger a constitutional referendum, early next year in DRC.
A poor peasant's vote in DRC goes to the highest bidder. the Majority of the voting population is illiterate and easy to manipulate with token presents, threats and misinformation. Even without rigging the vote it is possible for an ill-intentioned incumbent president to buy the vote and win with a landslide.
An International community that has become weary of DRC's problems:
The international community, it goes without saying, is tired of DRC's problems. If we are tired as Congolese, who blame them? this situation however is exactly what the politically corrupt in DRC want. For any smart and ruthless politician in DRC who wants to rule for life nothing is going to stand in his way, barring the intervention of s super power such as the USA and possibly bad luck.
Kabila even has the luxury to learn from the mistakes of others presidents but also draw inspiration. What happened in Burkina-Faso, where the presidents got deposed for trying to amend the constitution to give himself a third term; the same style of revolution could not be repeated in Burundi, all under very similar circumstances. Furthermore, Rwanda's president and Congo's president have respectively managed to amend the constitution, clearing a way for a third term in the office, despite the protests of the populations.
Mindful of rising doubts about him in the west, Kabila may seek friends elsewhere. Dozens of contracts for oil, hydropower, farming and mining projects worth billions of dollars are in the offing. A Kabila's confidant is in charge of an unaudited minerals-for infrastructure deal with China that includes $12 billion to provide power from the Congo river. Angola wants an agreement over oil off the coastline it shares with DRC. Such things may win friends and give Kabila and his economy some respite, in case of sanctions but they may not bolster DRC's fragile democracy.
Meeting the electoral timetable has become an increasingly unrealistic endeavor, as the necessary legal, logistical, and financial measures are not yet in place. For example, the gubernatorial elections for 16 newly created provinces slated for August 31 were postponed by the electoral commission for an indefinite period due to the failure of provincial assemblies to adopt the necessary political and legal measures.
Moreover, western donors have expressed criticism of the election preparations thus far and remain reluctant to provide financial backing to the government. In the context of rising anti-Kabila sentiment, the announcement of further delays to the electoral timeline will continue to trigger similar backlash. Uncertainty over the feasibility of the electoral process is fuelling wider disquiet and threaten the stability and prosperity of the country.
With Mobutu in mind, DRC's constitution of 2006 was meant to heal the wounds of war and prevent the return of dictatorship. The number and length of the mandates of the president cannot be the object of any constitutional revision or constitutional referendum. But Kabila seems loth to say unequivocally that he will step down. Some of his most senior advisers and the president of Senate have come out against any constitutional change. So has the Catholic church. The American special envoy to the region, Russ Feingold, has told Kabila to move on, while discussing guarantees for his future security.
It would be a sign of political narrow mindedness to envisage that Joseph Kabila is to step down at the end of his second term without trying. It would be a miracle if he does. Kabila is banking on the military, his key faithful cheerleaders, his money and any delay in the electoral process to postpone or push a constitutional referendum to consolidate his grip on the power.
The imperative to preserve the national unity, security in eastern-DRC, stabilizing the economy would be cited as the pretext by Kabila and his cheerleaders to advocate the notion of constitutional referendum that would trigger Kabila's third term. If that happens, there would have equally baleful consequences. Kabila and his clan do not have to look far: Burkina Faso.
By Guylain Gustave Moke
Researcher and Writer
African Affairs Expert