In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), outgoing president Joseph Kabila has set off a political crisis by refusing to hold elections that would choose his successor. Last month, teargas filled the air in Kinshasa as young men took to the streets to demand Kabila leave office in December, when his second and final term is supposed to end: according to Human Rights Watch, 37 civilians and six police officers died. Now, with revelations the Congolese election commission funneled millions to a Kabila-linked bank and then pled poverty to justify delaying the presidential vote, public outrage is set to spike still further.
Kabila, who has occupied the presidency since his father (and predecessor) Laurent-Désiré Kabila was assassinated in 2001, is in no hurry to leave his post. The elections have been postponed until April 2018, with the national electoral body claiming it needs extra time in order to complete “voter registration” in light of infrastructural challenges and funding limitations. That funding claim, at least, seems to have been discredited by the embezzlement allegations. While a small number of opposition parties signed off on the delay, the main opposition coalition is holding out—and has the public behind them.
A demonstration in front of the opposition Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) headquarters earlier this week, featuring the bodies of six of those killed in September, was a dramatic rejection of Kabila’s maneuvering. Of course, the likelihood of Kabila giving in to pressure from the street so easily is slim, and democratic concepts like popular sovereignty still have little precedent in Congolese politics.
While Africans as a whole strongly support term limits for their presidents and prime ministers, many African leaders do not. Joseph Kabila is no exception. Like his presidential stablemates in neighboring Burundi and Rwanda, he has even used his allies to suggest that constitutional tinkering might take place in order to ensure he can enjoy another term in office, much like neighbors Paul Kagame and Pierre Nkurunziza.
However much Kabila would like to stay president, the sentiment is shared by neither the rest of the world nor the citizens he was elected to represent. The United States, for example, has made its feelings known by imposing sanctions on two senior security officials allied to Kabila. General Gabriel Amisi Kumba and John Numbi, an ex-police chief, are accused of threatening the country’s stability by suppressing the opposition. Further calls to stand down (and threats of sanctions) have come from Britain and the European Union.
Public opinion inside Congo is even more strongly opposed. According to a survey by the Congo Research Group at New York University, the president’s popularity has “evaporated” since he was re-elected in 2011, with only 7.8% of people saying that they would vote for him again and more than 81% of respondents opposing changing the constitution to allow Kabila to stand for a third term. Even the Catholic Church has waded in, urging politicians to ensure the election is held next year and that Kabila is forbidden from standing for a third term.
As the public mood has soured on Kabila, opposition figures such as Moise Katumbi and Etienne Tshisekedi have enjoyed a surge in popularity. Could one of them seem poised to take the outgoing president’s place? Tshisekedi, well-established as a ”thorn in the side of power,“ confirmed his status as a main pillar of the opposition with his triumphant return to Kinshasa this past July. Tshisekedi, however, is already 83 years old; his advanced age and ill health cast doubts as to whether he could to confer stability on the notoriously unstable Central African country for a significant period of time. Tshisekedi failed to unseat Kabila as an opposition candidate in Congo’s 2011 elections, and his current surge in popularity has likely come several years too late.
Moise Katumbi, in contrast, is a young, dynamic businessman who served as governor of Congo’s Katanga Province for seven years and enjoys his own popularity dating back to his successful stewardship of the TP Mazembe football team. Kabila’s regime clearly considers the onetime ally a threat, with a Congolese court sentenced him to 36 months in jail in absentia and a $6 million fine on trumped up charges after he declared his intentions of running for the presidency. Currently residing in Belgium, an undeterred Katumbi has promised to go home for the elections, saying: ‘‘I am a Congolese citizen, I will go home and I am running for president. The charges of plotting against the government are a distraction.”
For now, the pair share the common goal of pushing Kabila out and have joined together to call for general strikes. In October, the streets of Kinshasa went quiet as the populace set their work aside to show their president “the yellow card” in the face of his “flagrant violation” of the constitution, as one opposition leader put it.
Thus far, Kabila remains un-moved. The government has obfuscated, continuing to blame various logistical and financial difficulties (the infamous “glissement” strategy) as reasons why the elections must be delayed. Will Kabila’s machinations bring him the result he wants? Given his control of the organs of the state, he will likely be able stall for a while.
The question that remains is for how long. Peaceful transfers of power remain an untested concept in the DRC. If Kabila refuses to allow leadership to change hands democratically, there is always the possibility that he, like his former counterpart Blaise Compaoré, might find himself forced out instead. Were Kabila to find his position forced and his rule reliant on more than administrative sleights of hand, neither the regular Congolese military nor his meticulously honed elite units will have the wherewithal or the unity to keep him in power by force.
The hope, of course, is that events do not come to that. After 19 years of the father-son Kabila dynasty, the country is clearly ready to move on.