As the opposition gather their political forces to resist President Joseph Kabila’s continued stay in office, the dark clouds of another civil war are looming. The mineral- rich Central African nation of DR Congo has never known permanent peace since its independence from Belgium in 1960.
“Joseph Kabila must be stopped or the DR Congo will return totally into war,” was the succinct summary of Désiré Assogbavi, the Head of Oxfam’s International Liaison Office to the African Union (AU) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
But who will stop Kabila? In the Great Lakes region he is surrounded by leaders who are willing to manipulate the constitution and the vulnerable masses to stay in power beyond their term limit. The AU leaders have not been keen to invoke provisions of the Constitutive Act that calls for “non-indifference” in the face of a looming conflict.
President Kabila has been in power since 2001, when parliament overwhelmingly backed him to replace his assassinated father –Laurent Désiré Kabila. He is yet to declare that he wants to stand for an unconstitutional third term, but analysts say that his efforts to sabotage the November polls are signs that he intends to cling to power. The Constitutional Court sitting in Kinshasa on 11 May, ruled that Kabila would stay in power beyond the end of his mandate if the government fails to hold presidential elections in November.
Article 70 says that “At the end of his term, the President stays in office until the President-Elect effectively assumes his functions”. While Article 73 is clear that presidential elections should be organised 90 days before the end of the president’s term, the government is yet to come up with an election calendar, citing lack of financial resources.
That there is neither an election calendar, nor a budget to finance the elections, and the government has not updated the voter register, is a blank cheque to staying in power indefinitely. But most worryingly, Kabila’s body language suggests an almost complete absence of the political will to have the elections in November.
The transfer of power is clearly stipulated in the constitution, says Stephanie Wolters, Head of the Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS). Yet, the electoral commission has also made it clear that updating the voter register and listing new voters will take between 14 to 16 months, despite Article 73 stipulating that presidential elections need to be organised 90 days before the end of the president’s term. The chairman of the electoral commission, Corneille Nangaa, has stated that it would be difficult to hold the election within the remaining time and appealed for national consultations to find ways of organising beyond November.
However, opposition parties and civil society are firm: elections must be held by 29 November 2016, failing which, the government will be in violation of the constitution.
Kabila has continued to crack down on the opposition that is calling for his exit. His biggest rival, Moise Katumbi – the former governor of Katanga Province who has announced his intention to contest the presidential elections – has since been charged with treason for allegedly recruiting mercenaries from the US with the intention of overthrowing Kabila.
But unlike Kagame and Nguesso, Kabila has been unable to push for constitutional changes to enable him to contest for a third term. A controversial bill tabled before the National Assembly in January 2015 was widely perceived as an attempt to delay the legislative and presidential elections by linking them to a time-consuming census process, which would extend beyond the election time in November in the following year. It led to violent protests against the third term in Kinshasa, forcing parliament to withdraw the bill.
Kabila then came up with what he called a National Dialogue, but three main opposition parties have boycotted the talks, arguing that they are a ploy to extend Kabila’s stay in power.
President Kabila’s ruling People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy (PPRD), through its spokesperson, Information Minister, Lambert Mende, maintains that it is only dialogue that can take the country forward.
However, leading opposition parties, such as the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), which is run by former vice-president Jean-Pierre Bemba (currently at the ICC) and the Union for the Congolese Nation (UNC) have maintained that they will not participate in the dialogue because it is a time-buying gimmick.
Only the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) led by veteran opposition leader, Etiene Tshisekedi, has agreed to participate in the dialogue, given promises that Tshisekedi’s son will be given a prominent position in the government.
Christian Rumu, the Great Lakes campaigner at Amnesty International based in Nairobi, says that the opposition is too divided and are not likely to threaten Kabila’s designs to hang on to power. The AU had in January seconded former OAU secretary-general, Edem Kodjo, to facilitate the talks but he has failed to win the confidence of the opposition because he is seen to be too close to the government.
In the meantime, tensions are growing as human rights activists, journalists and opposition politicians are harassed and arrested.
There has been a pattern of arbitrary arrests and detentions by the National Intelligence Agency and trials based on trumped-up or illegitimate charges violating the rights to liberty, freedom of expression and association, and peaceful assembly.
What has raised concerns is that Katumbi was charged with treason only days after declaring his intention to contest the presidency.
Katumbi, a wealthy 51-year-old businessman with big stakes in Congo’s mining industry, is of mixed parentage, with a Congolese mother and an Israeli father. He is believed to enjoy the support of Western powers, with some of President Kabila’s coterie claiming that he has the backing of Mossad – the Israeli spy agency. He owns one of Africa’s top football teams – TP Mazembe.
A former ally of Kabila and a major financier of his previous campaigns, Katumbi resigned from the PPRD in September last year, accusing Kabila of trying to hang on to power, and has since been picked as a compromise presidential candidate by seven political parties commonly known as G-7.
Amnesty International has called upon the UN’s Security Council to assess the pre-election context and the ongoing widespread attack on political opponents and activists in DR Congo, with a view towards taking preventive measures and making recommendations for strengthening safeguards against the recurrence of violations of human rights.
The US government has warned of targeted sanctions against members of the Congolese government if they do not hold elections this year.
US Special Envoy to the Great Lakes, Tom Perriello, said they were considering imposing sanctions “to hold accountable individuals who threaten the peace and security of the DR Congo and undermine its democracy”.
However, Amnesty’s Rumu says that sanctions will only box Kabila into a corner and make him more reluctant to leave power. SADC countries have largely remained quiet on the issue, taking into account that they did not react in regards to President Nguesso of Congo Brazzaville, or Zimbabwe’s president Robert Mugabe, who has defied the world and remains in power as the opposition become weaker by the day.