For nearly two years, President Joseph Kabila’s regime has managed to cling to power in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) despite pressure from the country's opposition and the international community. Now, to prevent a crisis, these groups are pushing the president to accept the holding of presidential elections. Under the 2006 constitution, the President is directly elected to a five-year term – renewable only once. The first President to have been elected under these provisions is incumbent president Joseph Kabila in the 2006 elections. Elections should have been held since 2016 but Kabila has pushed back on organizing them.
Kabila's refusal to step down has numerous analysts concerned that the situation in the DRC could degenerate. The mounting opposition has denounced the state of political stagnation and continued its mobilization efforts. On February 25, a march in the streets of the capital Kinshasa was organized by the Lay Coordination Committee (“Comité laïc de coordination”, or CLC in French). Leading opposition politician Moîse Katumbi, currently in exile in Brussels, called on Congolese “lovers of justice and peace” to join the movement.
Authorities cracked down hard on the peaceful, multi-religious march; three people were shot and killed by the forces of order. An infant is on the brink of death after inhaling tear gas. For Women’s Day on March 8, women dressed in black to “honor the martyrs of democracy, fallen under the bullets of Kabila's police.”
Stalling for time?
The opposition is multiplying their protests. Their spokesperson, Lambert Mende, claimed not long ago that the ruling party would announce a candidate would be designated in July 2018. Kabila, however, proved to be rather imprecise. In early February, Lambert Mende went back on his statement and explained to a journalist:
Je n'ai pas dit qu'au mois de juillet le président Kabila va se choisir un dauphin. J'ai plutôt déclaré que conformément au calendrier électoral, au mois de juillet, nous allons connaître les différents candidats.
I didn’t say that President Kabila would choose a successor in July. What I meant was that in July, in conformity with the electoral calendar, we would learn who the candidates are.
Questioned numerous times at official outings, Kabila has systematically refused to answer queries regarding his possible candidacy and even seems to enjoy keeping it a secret.
In a revealing and comical scene, the president mysteriously placed his index finger on his mouth while a journalist from Radio France Internationale pressed him on the question.
However, his support abroad is progressively weakening while the pressure on him is intensifying. NGOs are now calling for the French and other foreign governments to suspend cooperation with his government. Belgium, a historic ally of the DR of Congo (and its neighbor the Republic of Congo), recently cut off bilateral relations with the regime. In mid-January, the European Parliament approved a resolution demanding that Kabila organize democratic elections. Numerous associations, with the support of the European Parliament, have come together to submit a petition to the International Criminal Court to open an investigation into the acts of violence committed by the regime in the region of Kasaî.
Could elections happen without fraud?
More recently, the American ambassador to the DRC reported on the potential risk of electoral fraud associated with electronic voting machines. The diplomat explained that:
Utiliser ces nouvelles technologies pour une élection aussi cruciale constitue un risque énorme
Using these new technologies in such a crucial election would constitute an enormous risk
Many observers worry that the regime could try to influence the election. Jean-Pierre Lacroix, the head of peacekeeping operations at the UN, declared that:
Le gouvernement doit prendre des mesures pour ouvrir un espace de discussion politique et créer un environnement qui permettra une élection crédible, libre, honnête, et transparente
The government has to take measures to create space for political discussion as well as a suitable environment for credible, free, honest, and transparent elections
In its annual report on cyber-crime, the CLUSIF described a global increase in fraud and election hacking in 2017 and informed international institutions of the necessity of developing watchdog organizations for electronic voting.
The risk that the election could fail is very real, especially since the regime has often employed tactics to this end. Eight NGOs situated in the Haut-Katanga province say they were the victims of such machinations. They accuse telephone operators of colluding with the government to conduct regular Internet outages “for political purposes.” For example, on January 20, the day before an anti-Kabila protest organized by the Lay Coordination Committee was to take place, both Internet access and SMS messaging were cut off.
Moîse Katumbi under pressure
Authorities do not only violently repress protests, as seen with the six protesters who were killed by police fire in Kinshasa on January 21. They also make regular attacks on the leaders of the opposition, and Moîse Katumbi is at the head of that list.
After being wounded in police violence during a political trial, he was sentenced to 36 months of prison and made ineligible to run for office on what he and his supporters say are trumped-up charges of real estate despoilment. He now lives in political exile in Europe.
According to the judge who sentenced him, Ramazani Wazuri, the president himself orchestrated this judicial persecution. She also confirmed having been harassed and physically threatened. The culprits? Representatives of the regime, notably Kalev Mutond, the all-powerful chief of intelligence services. Today, the judge is an exile in Europe and is under the protection of the International Federation for Human Rights.
Katumbi, who is the former governor of the province of Katanga, is the favorite in election polls. He is popular and was made the candidate for a group of seven opposition parties. He has been attempting to escalate international pressure on Kabila with the support of London, Paris, and Brussels.
The coming months should, therefore, prove critical. Will Kabila respect the established electoral calendar? Will a real democratic election be allowed to take place? Will Katumbi be able to safely run for office? The answers to these questions will determine the future of the DRC over the next few years.