The Democratic Republic of the Congo is at a crucial turning point. Among the world’s most conflict-prone countries and with one of the lowest rates of gross domestic product (GDP) per capita, the DR Congo will hold general elections on December 23. Congolese citizens will go to the polls to elect their president, and it will be the first time since President Joseph Kabila took over in 2001 that he will not be on the ballot. In August 2018, Kabila at last confirmed that he would not seek re-election, honouring the term limits set out in the Constitution he worked to adopt in 2006.
Originally scheduled to take place in November 2016, these elections have been repeatedly delayed due to security concerns, prompting several violent clashes between police and protesters in the DR Congo capital of Kinshasa over the past two years. As such, these elections could present an opportunity for the country to move forward from a legacy of civil wars that have left more than five million people dead and undermined governance in many regions of the country. That opportunity may have already been squandered, however, as the People’s Party for Reconstruction and Development (PPRD), Kabila’s party and support base, worked to limit the options available when Congolese citizens go to the polls.
In September, the Constitutional Court disqualified six candidates including Jean-Pierre Bemba, who was Kabila’s main rival in the 2006 election and leads the Movement for the Liberation of the Congo (MLC), a rebel group that disarmed and has become one of the main opposition parties in the DR Congo. While Bemba’s disqualification can be attributed to corruption charges he has faced in Congolese courts, more worrying is a separate decision disqualifying presidential candidate Moïse Katumbi, based on real estate fraud charges widely regarded as politically motivated. Independent polling throughout the summer showed Katumbi, who governed the DR Congo’s prosperous Katanga Province between 2007 and 2015, consistently leading among potential candidates, and that almost two-thirds of the electorate did not trust the National Electoral Commission (CENI) to hold free and fair elections.
If the protests in 2016 and 2017 over the delayed elections are any indication, the security situation in Kinshasa and other communities could rapidly deteriorate if the electorate feels they have been denied an authentic choice in head of state. Emmanuel Ramzani Shadary, who has served as deputy prime minister and security minister under Kabila, was endorsed by the president as well as the PPRD and its coalition partners.
Ramzani trailed Katumbi and Félix Tshisekedi of the main Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) opposition party, but there is a sentiment among many Congolese that Ramzani has effectively been anointed as Kabila’s successor. It remains to be seen how the Tshisekedi alliance with Vital Kamerhe of the Union for the Congolese Nation (UNC) will perform at the polls, or how coalition candidate Martin Fayulu of the Engagement for Citizenship and Development (ECiDé) party will hold up.
The European Union seems to share these apprehensions about the vote. In May 2017, Ramzani was added to an EU sanctions list – banning his entry to the Schengen Area and freezing his financial assets – amid allegations he had ordered the violent repression of several opposition parties, as well as atrocities against the ethnic Luba population in Kasaï Province. The EU announced Monday that those sanctions have been extended through December 2019. Kabila also has refused to accredit EU elections observers, despite their presence during a 2005 constitutional referendum and general elections in 2006 and 2011.
The presence of independent election observers could help in defusing tensions, as has been urged by DR Congo’s influential leaders from the National Episcopal Conference of Congo (CENCO). Their mediation helped to establish a deal on elections, and they have appealed to the 16-member Southern African Development Community (SADC) for assistance. The SADC opened a field office in Kinshasa in April to help support the election process, while the African Union and others remain key stakeholders.
The SADC remains on alert, convening in August 2018 a summit in the Angolan capital of Luanda to discuss the political instability in the DR Congo. Just as the Congolese are at the heart of the African continent, this election should be top of mind for the leadership of the AU – and AU Commission Chairman Moussa Faki Mahamat has called on Africans to ensure DR Congo’s elections are successful.
While the peaceful exit of Kabila is preferable to the kind of coup that ousted Robert Mugabe from power in Zimbabwe in November 2017, it’s not a given. As recently as Sunday, Kabila said he has not ruled out a return to power – perhaps in 2023 – and it’s not entirely clear he’s left it all behind now.
As a result of all these factors, neighbouring countries will need to prepare for the potential for renewed conflict in the DR Congo and the arrival of new waves of refugees. Angola has gradually withdrawn its military assistance since June 2017 and again rejected Congolese migrants in October. Rwandan and Congolese forces have occasionally clashed near the eastern DR Congo city of Goma. The Ebola crisis in the North Kivu and Ituri provinces are creating new border challenges for Uganda and South Sudan.
Yet above all, it’s the Congolese people, seeking a secure and prosperous country when heading to the polls on December 23, that need to be prepared for what will happen next.