The possibility of presidential elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in 2017 is extremely unlikely amid mounting political tensions and frustrations over President Joseph Kabila’s ongoing backsliding that has seen him repeatedly renege on commitments and promises. This has included his failure to uphold the Congolese Constitution by staying in power beyond the 20 December 2016 deadline; failing to uphold the conditions of the political accord struck with the opposition (the Rassemblement) on 31 December 2016; and his denial of making promises under such an accord. While Kabila has continued with this near deliberate political regression, he has been able to consolidate his political gains on the back of a fractious Rassemblement, the increase in sporadic yet highly violent conflict, and an under-resourced election body.
Presidential elections were initially meant to be held in 2016, with the 31 December accord stipulating that they occur in 2017. Facilitated by the Conférence Episcopale Nationale du Congo (CENCO) mediators, this accord allowed Kabila to remain in power beyond the end of his term, provided he comply with a set of conditions, which include setting a date for the next elections. The DRC’s National Independent Electoral Commission (CENI) says it is behind on voter registration and is too under-resourced to hold elections this year and, despite United Nations (UN) assistance, election registration is not complete. The process has been slow and was delayed in the Kasai region due to growing unrest, but in late July CENI president, Corneille Nangaa, said the security situation had “normalised to allow for a revision of the electoral register” in Kasai. CENI maintains that 35 million out of 41 million expected voters have already registered.
Violence in the Kasai region flared up in August 2016 when Kamuina Nsapu, a customary chief, was killed by the Congolese army, the Forces Armées de la République démocratique du Congo (FARDC). The Kamuina Nsapu militia retaliated with widespread atrocities and child recruitment. Tensions soared in with the discovery of 42 mass graves by UN groups in April 2017 and this particular conflict has seen over 1.3 million displaced within the DRC, with thousands fleeing across its borders. The complexities of Kasai have a ripple effect on developments in Kinshasa and across the Congo as it is the regional stronghold of late opposition leader Étienne Tshiseki’s political party, the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS). Before his death at 84 in February, Tshisekedi held the political opposition together with his son and successor, Felix, said to be “struggling to unite the opposition parties to rally behind him.”
This weakening has also bolstered Kabila as he has benefited from a divided opposition. With Moise Katumbi in exile (fleeing false criminal charges), Tshisekedi’s death, and ignoring the stipulations of the political accord by appointing two new Prime Ministers in succession during 2017 (when it had been agreed that the Rassemblement would nominate its choice for the role), he has continued to hold the country to political ransom.
Despite the current political disarray, the Rassemblement met in late July and decided to intensify strikes and demonstrations, with a civil disobedience campaign planned for October 2017. It is demanding that Kabila must agree to an election date by the end of September, or it will no longer recognise him as president from October onwards. However, these actions are unlikely to yield results with a heavy-handed security response clearly evident when police arrested over 100 protestors across the DRC after a protest on 31 July. Hence, a cycle of protests and a growing security crackdowns is likely with the CENI’s expressed inability to hold elections by the end of this year effectively buying Kabila more time to strategise on his political survival. Given reports that the DRC government spent US$4 million on an Israeli lobbying firm which, via former US senator Bob Dole, lobbied the Trump administration to end sanctions on high-ranking Congolese officials, it seems that Kabila is playing a long game and that further manipulation of the country’s constitution and electoral processes may be on the cards.
In the meantime, the compound effects of violence and the economy’s regression are hitting the population hard. The Congolese franc has lost half its value in the past year alone, fuel prices have increased, commodity prices have slumped, and food prices have spiked. Some civil servants (teachers, soldiers, doctors) have not been paid in months.
With Kabila due to visit South Africa in early August, as part of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) summit in Pretoria, some are hopeful that SADC member states could persuade him to set a date for the elections, based on a review of the security implications of a potential power vacuum. However, there are serious doubts that Kabila is willing to negotiate on his own ambitions and the bona fides of any of his commitments are highly questionable at present.