Political tensions in the Democratic Republic of Congo are growing amid concerns that President Joseph Kabila may postpone presidential elections scheduled for November, when he’s due to step down – a move that could spark mass unrest and deal a blow to the country’s economy.
Speculation is mounting over Kabila’s willingness to make way for a successor at the end of his second term in office. Although he’s reluctant to be drawn on the subject, aides have repeatedly insisted that he will respect the constitution, which limits a president to two mandates. But the omens are not good – there has not been a peaceful political transition in DRC since independence in 1960.
Kabila came to power in 2001 following the assassination of his father, Laurent. He led his country out of the darkness of the second Congolese civil war, in which 5 million people are believed to have died, and prepared the ground for the DRC’s first democratic elections. He has sought to quell the continuing insurgency in the east, cooperated with the International Criminal Court on bringing war crimes suspects to justice and prosecuted members of his own security forces for abuses against civilians.
But while he deserves credit for these endeavours, his democratic and economic record leaves a lot to be desired. The Kabila regime has been accused of rigging the 2011 presidential elections, significantly restricting freedom of the press, intimidating opposition parties and undermining the rule of law. While the President has opened up the country to investment, economic progress has been slowed by allegedly high levels of corruption in the government, the security forces and the extractive industries, so much so that the DRC remains one of the least developed countries in Africa, despite its huge mineral wealth.
Now there are concerns that the country’s fragile democracy and economy could be further undermined by Kabila’s apparent attempt to delay presidential elections due in November. Bowing to public pressure, the government withdrew plans to a hold a national census before the poll. But the complex division of DRC’s 11 administrative provinces into 26 smaller ones and a packed election calendar may make a postponement of the vote inevitable, as preparations are well behind schedule. Kabila’s recent call for a national dialogue on the elections has been dismissed as yet another attempt to buy him time.
The President, meanwhile, has cracked down on those who have challenged him on the election issue. In January last year, 42 people died in clashes with security forces in Kinshasa over the national census proposals. In September, human rights campaigners accused government officials of hiring thugs to attack a peaceful anti-Kabila demonstration in the capital. In the first nine months of 2015, the UN said nearly 650 people had been arbitrarily detained in connection with the electoral process, many of them journalists, activists and political opponents, including leading opposition figures.
Kabila’s apparent determination to cling on to power has caused ructions within his government coalition and galvanised the opposition. In September, leaders of seven parties in the ruling coalition, which hold 13 out of 47 cabinet posts, were expelled for signing a letter demanding that Kabila stands down once his term ends. Moise Katumbi, the popular, longtime governor of copper-rich Katanga province, subsequently resigned from the President’s People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy over election delays. In December, Katumbi, tipped as a presidential candidate, joined 27 other leading political figures to form an anti-Kabila alliance called ‘Citizen Front 2016’, which in February organised a one-day nationwide strike that was observed across the country, including Goma, Kabila’s stronghold.
With the opposition gaining confidence, there’s a very real possibility that a postponement of the elections could lead to widespread unrest and violence. In neighbouring Burundi, Pierre Nkurunziza’s move to extend his presidential term beyond the constitutional limit provoked mass protests that were brutally suppressed by the military, leaving at least 400 people dead and forcing 220,000 to flee the country.
The prospect of renewed instability concerns investors, especially struggling mining companies which form the backbone of the DRC economy. Falling copper prices and power shortages have led to a downturn in the industry. In September, the commodity giant Glencore, the second-biggest copper producer in the DRC, suspended operations at its Katanga site for eighteen months. The authorities recently cancelled plans to increase mining royalties and taxes, after companies warned it would curb new investment. Election-related violence is likely to exacerbate their troubles by disrupting supply chains.
Those close to Kabila say he believes the country will implode if he leaves office. But while he has managed to maintain some semblance of stability, mounting opposition to his rule suggests that if he genuinely has the DRC’s interests in mind, ensuring a peaceful transition of power would be the best way of holding the country together.