Despite a general strike of more than eight million people, violent clashes with various rebel groups, and a visit from the Deputy Secretary-Genral of the U.N, Joseph Kabila’s strategy of glissement, or ‘slippage’ has worked and there will be no elections in DRC this year. Tom Collins asks how DRC got to this point, and where it is likely to lead?
Attempts at overcoming the DRC’s simmering political crisis are all but dead and buried as President Joseph Kabila declared last month that 2017 elections will not be possible, thereby contradicting a deal he signed last New Year’s Eve that said the opposite.
Corneille Nangaa, head of the Electoral Commission, announced that due to logistical and budgetary complications arising from badly updated registration records, with a possible 7 million young voters not included, holding an election this year is not achievable.
Kabila’s opponents, however, see the move as a continuation of what is fast becoming known as glissement or ‘slippage’, where he finds excuses to cling to power, all the while mobilising and entrenching his patrimonial structures.
Ida Sawyer, Central Africa Director at Human Rights Watch, said: “We’ve seen one excuse after another for why elections haven’t been able to be organised yet.”
Similarly, Félix Tshisekedi, newly appointed leader of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) opposition party, did not mince his words when he said it was: “A declaration of war on the Congolese people.”
Kabila was constitutionally obliged to step down in December 2016 but clung to office by citing electoral roll issues, arguing the election would come; just not yet.
Following widespread violence, particularly in Goma and Lubumbashi, Kabila was pushed into a 31 December deal mediated by the Catholic Church, which stipulated that elections were to be held by the end of 2017 and that he would not run himself or try and change the constitution.
This agreement was widely lauded by the international community in a country which has never seen a peaceful transition of power.
However, a darkening cloud quickly appeared on the horizon as Kabila then backtracked and stated there would be no such election.
In a rare interview with German publication Der Spiegel, Kabila did not deny the possibility of a third term and gave no concrete idea of when or if the next election will come.
Opposition to Kabila ranges from instituted political parties to violent separatist insurgencies on the ground. No consensus has been built and Kabila has – at times – cleverly exploited the space remaining.
A major crack emerged in the largest opposition party, the UDPS, following the death of its fabled leader, Etienne Tshisekedi, earlier this year.
Tshisekedi had co-founded the party in 1982 and it was the first organised opposition movement against Mobotu Sese Seko. His son, Félix Tshisekedi, has now taken command, but in a country blighted by ruling families, many see this move as improper and it is causing the party to splinter.
Some believe that the lack of a strong opposition ultimately led Kabila and his People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy (PPRD) to ignore the December agreement, seeing no need for compromise.
Moreover, Kabila has overtly exploited the fractures by naming a previously high-profile UDPS deserter, Bruno Tshibala, as prime minister in early April. The former deputy secretary general of the UDPS fell out with his party over the appointment of Félix Tshisekedi as leader, and consequently went to work under Kabila. Incorporating opposition rebels into Kabila’s fold is a move that has worked well for Kabila as it delegitimises the opposition party as well as exposing their fissures and weaknesses.
Ida Sawyer of Human Rights Watch said: “Many people in the population are increasingly disenchanted by their political leaders, including the opposition, as they feel that most of them are only interested in their personal position and getting posts. The debate about who would become prime minister was also felt to be a mere distraction from focussing on pushing for elections to happen and to distract from Kabila not showing any real will to step down.”
The only real group left with the weight to oppose Kabila democratically, is the Catholic Church of DRC, which was instrumental in brokering the New Year’s Eve deal in 2016.
However, now that arrangement has been broken, they seem to be at the end of their tether and have recently called on the Congolese to stand up and take their destiny into their own hands, squarely putting the blame for the county’s failures on the continual delay of elections.
Many hope for the return of Moïse Katumbi, one-time governor of the mineral-rich Katanga Province and a popular opposition figure, who was forced into exile in 2016, accused of hiring foreign mercenaries to overthrow Kabila.
The Economist named Katumbi the second most powerful man in the DRC, and like a fireman rushing back into a burning building, he is expected, at some point, to return and provide real opposition to Kabila.
Over 5,000 people have escaped from prison in recent months and Kinshasa is embroiled in long-standing rebellions in both the Kasai and Bas-Congo regions.
In Kasai Province, the death of a local chief known as Kwamina Nsapu or ‘Black Ant’ at the hands of security forces in 2016 has sparked violence, reportedly killing more than 3,300 people and displacing hundreds of thousands.
The rebellion is now known as the Kwamina Nsapu rebellion and encompasses a militia made up of mainly Luba people from the region.
According to the United Nations, the government has responded by creating its own militia known as the Bana Mura, which has wreaked havoc in the region. Mass graves are alleged to have been identified and discussions about investigations are ongoing.
In the Bas-Congo region, a self-styled prophet named Ne Muanda Nsemi, has been leading a separatist movement called the Bundu dia Kongo (BDK). This is much smaller than Kwamina Nsapu and pushes the ideological goal of returning to an ancient African kingdom: the Kingdom of Kongo (see New African, June 2017).
Violence has intensified between supporters and police in the regional Bas-Congo capital of Matadi since 2008, and Ne Muanda Nsemi was sprung from a Kinshasa jail earlier this year.
Commenting on the groups, Saywer said: “We have seen increasing frustration with the political, security and economic crises. There is a lot of frustration, anger and unemployed youth so it’s possible that armed groups and militias could gain more and more support and influence.
“We are likely to see more demonstrations and protests, and unfortunately Congo security forces have brutally repressed these gatherings in the past, so there is a possibility we will see more violence in the coming weeks and months.”
Overcoming the impasse
With Kabila looking increasingly likely to run again, and a large amount of vocal and oftentimes violent opposition, it is very likely that the impasse imposed on DRC through glissement will not last. One way or the other, power will either be cemented, or there will be change.
In terms of a transition of power, Kabila has, broadly, three possible moves ahead of him. The first is to not concede power at all and based on his recent backtracking in respect of the December agreement, this seems the most likely. Changing Article 220 of the Congolese constitution would alter the length of the presidential mandate and allow Kabila to run for a third term; much like East African neighbours Paul Kagame, Yoweri Museveni and Pierre Nkurunziza.
The next option would involve seeking the continuation of the Kabila administration, through giving power to someone in the family, and holding an election.
The last possibility is naming a non-related successor from within the PPRD, and holding an election.This would undoubtedly please international observers and to some extent the local opposition, but care would have to be taken so as not to create a power vacuum.
Naming a successor, however, seems unlikely as he has made no public intimations of such an intent, and has always kept quiet on the subject, leading many to feel sceptical about his commitment to there being any election at all.