Things may be looking up for the embattled President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Joseph Kabila. Last month, his ruling coalition consolidated control at the local level by winning 16 of 20 gubernatorial elections held among the DRC’s provincial assemblies. And just over a year after a popular uprising forced him to back down on census plans that would have postponed a presidential election, mounting delays have failed to elicit the kind of resistance or large-scale protests that erupted in January 2015.
Kabila is constitutionally mandated to step down after his second term in office, which is set to expire in November 2016, prompting fresh polls. But rather than attempting the politically risky move of removing term limits, which brought down Burkina Faso’s Blaise Compaore in 2014, Kabila has relied on a strategy known as glissement (“slippage”). This is a calculated political move, as Kabila knows full well that the constitution allows the president to remain in office until replaced by another elected president. He is also very aware that the United Nations and African Union retain limited political will and influence over the conduct of African elections. This has been witnessed in neighboring Burundi, where conflict continues to rage over a third-term president, as well as the Republic of the Congo, where an incumbent leader just amended the constitution and easily won re-election for a third consecutive term.
The glissement strategy has taken a number of active and passive forms. On the latter front, no concrete steps have been taken to update voter lists since the 2011 election, making “technical delays” increasingly inevitable. In mid-January, the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) announced that it would need 18 months to update voter lists (as opposed to the six required for the 2006 and 2011 elections), prompting United States Special Envoy Tom Perriello to state that the primary barriers to holding elections before the end of 2016 are “political, not technical.” The Kabila government frequently attempts to deflect criticism by stating that it has no say in CENI’s decisions nor the electoral calendar, although the reality is that CENI lacks the independence, competence, and political power to effectively check Kabila’s ambitions.
Another element of glissement is the redivision of the country’s 11 provinces into 26. The DRC’s 2006 constitution mandated this was to be completed by 2010, however the poorly planned and executed process was only initiated in 2015. This required another set of time-intensive provincial elections, while diluting the power of provinces like resource-rich Katanga, whose governor, Moise Katumbi, had become an increasingly powerful rival to Kabila.
Kabila has also managed to shift the focus from the electoral calendar and term limits to “political dialogue,” the conveniently ambiguous and indefinite process favored by power-hungry leaders across the African continent. The UN and AU, no doubt aware of their limitations, have either explicitly or implicitly backed Kabila’s dialogue process, despite a boycott by most opposition parties and civil society groups in the DRC. Indeed, the AU’s appointment in January of former Togolese Prime Minister Edem Kodjo to facilitate the national dialogue—a move supported by the UN Special Representative for the DRC Maman Sidikou—gives Kabila indirect political backing, with echoes of the AU’s dismal mediation efforts in the neighboring Burundi conflict. DRC analyst Jason Stearns has also pointed to divides over the dialogue process, as well as Katumbi’s focus on uniting behind a single presidential candidate, as reasons for discord in the opposition camp.
Finally, the government’s combination of security crackdowns and exploiting opposition divisions has pre-empted the kind of popular uprising witnessed in January 2015, which forced Kabila to back down on a planned census requirement that would have delayed elections. Notably, CENI’s unofficial announcement that voter lists could only be updated by June 2017 passed without incident. Moreover, attempts by the opposition and civil society to mobilize on the anniversary of the January 2015 protests, which left 40 dead, largely failed in Kinshasa. Police reportedly arrested dozens on that day as a way of pre-empting the protests before they spread. Another intimidation tactic employed by the regime has been to use local thugs to attack protesters, as witnessed in September 2015, rather than risk the international condemnation of crackdowns by Kabila’s security forces.
While the anti-Kabila movement looks down at the moment, it is certainly not out. The US, United Kingdom, and France—key donor countries to the DRC—have all recently insisted on respecting the electoral timetable, although only the US has publicly questioned the 18-month period to update voter lists. Moreover, while representing a more passive form of resistance, opposition calls for a general strike on February 16th were widely followed in the major cities of Kinshasa, Lubumbashi, Goma, and Bukavu, reflecting a strong degree of public dissatisfaction with Kabila’s rule. Lastly, the eventual announcement of a delay to the November elections, which is looking increasingly likely as time goes by, could yet be the catalyst for a renewed popular uprising.
Much will depend on whether the numerous opposition parties, coalitions, and civil society groups can decide on a common plan, take a more assertive approach, and mobilize their supporters to publicly oppose Kabila. As I’ve previously written, the popular, wealthy, and high-profile Katumbi will play a vital role, along with his allies in the “G7” group of political parties, who were kicked out of the ruling coalition after calling on Kabila to step down after his second term. Neither have shown the appetite or ability for street protests, focusing instead on trying to unite the fractious opposition behind a single presidential challenger.
There is still time and practical ways to meet the November 2016 deadline for presidential elections. International technical and financial assistance to CENI for the revision of voter lists could reduce the 18-month timeframe to the six months that were required for the past two elections. The CENI calendar could also be amended to push back the local and provincial elections to 2017 and prioritize the all-important presidential and National Assembly elections to take place by the end of the year. Ongoing access to funding from critical Western donors is also likely to be contingent on greater transparency and accountability by CENI and the political leadership.
However, all of these steps require the kind of political will that has been consistently lacking over the last year of election limbo. As the days of the electoral calendar roll by, Kabila’s inaction appears to be very much an active strategy of sliding his way into a third term, without risking the political backlash of amending the constitution. In the process, he would further erode the DRC’s democracy, undermine the rule of law, alienate Western donors, and increase political instability in the long-suffering central African nation.