Electoral uncertainty threatens Congolese progress

DR Congo is at something of a crossroads - conflict in the east is easing and the economy is improving, but a contentious election could hit progress.


The Democratic Republic of the Congo is at something of a crossroads. The level of conflict in the east of the country continues to fluctuate but is generally decreasing, while economic growth is remarkably high, continuing the steady, slow progress of the past decade.

The country now has the potential to develop both politically and economically, bringing much needed improvements to the lives of its 68m inhabitants. This November’s presidential and legislative elections could be the most important step in turning a failed state into a developing economy, but a peaceful handover from President Joseph Kabila to a new leader in November looks unlikely.

Firstly, it seems unlikely that the election will actually take place in November. The country is still waiting for a national census to generate a more accurate electoral roll, while local elections are also supposed to be held before the presidential poll. The census will be a huge task given the lack of administrative and political organisation, the size of the country and the fact that there is no nationwide road network. Travelling from Kinshasa to Lubumbashi by road, for instance, is virtually impossible in the wet season and very difficult in the dry season. The scale of the undertaking and the experience of other countries in the same position suggest that the election will be postponed. It appears that the government is already paving the way for delaying the election, with officials suggesting that it will take “two to four more years to organise credible elections”.

Secondly, there is a very real possibility that Kabila will not stand down. He has governed since his father was assassinated in 2001, so he will have spent 15 years in power by the end of this year. The President is coming to the end of the second of his maximum permitted two terms in office and there is a real fear that he could press for constitutional change ahead of the election to allow him to stand again. Achieving this will threaten national stability.

Raised in Tanzania, Kabila is happier speaking English and Swahili than French or Lingala. He has always garnered most support in the Swahili-speaking eastern third of the country but is much less popular in the west, including in Kinshasa. Even if he does not seek to overturn the two term limit, or does not manage to do so, he could use the pretext of a delayed census to postpone the election, perhaps for several years.

This brings us to the third potential problem: that the electoral process, whenever it takes place, will not be peaceful. Ensuring that the country does not return to the worst days of civil conflict and dampening the fires of more localised fighting have been DR Congo’s two biggest priorities in recent years. Yet both have been achieved without developing a genuine multi-party democracy and allowing any real challenge to Kabila.

A regional trend

The peaceful transfer of political power from one leader and party to another has become increasingly common in Africa as a whole, but much less so in Central Africa and the Great Lakes, where authoritarian leaders hang on to power or pass it on to their offspring. Uganda set the trend of abolishing term limits in 2005. More recently, neighbouring leaders, including Denis Sassou Nguesso in Brazzaville, just across the River Congo from Kinshasa, and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, have already changed their respective country’s laws to allow them to stand again.

Kinshasa could erupt if Kabila tries to stand again. Indeed, 40 people were killed in January during street protests against plans to change the constitution. The discontent is not just generated by the possible lifting of the term limit but by the continued rule of a leader who is seen as an outsider by many in the capital. As in Rwanda and elsewhere, the international community will probably object if the constitution is changed to extend Kabila’s time in power, but do very little substantive about it, taking a ‘better the devil you know’ attitude. His ability to stay in power will depend on whether the army remains loyal to him, but the longer he hangs on to the presidency, the greater the risks of renewed conflict will become.

Kabila’s motives in trying to hang on to power may not be selfish. He may genuinely feel that the country will collapse if he stands down and that more time is needed to allow multiparty politics to develop, yet the signs are not good. Attempts by civil society to become involved in the political process have been undermined by the government’s decision to jail pro-democracy campaigners, branding them ‘terrorists’. The UN, which has already identified 649 new political prisoners, concluded in a report that “the shrinking of democratic space was likely to impact the electoral process”. In addition, his two previous election victories have been controversial to say the least, while the influential Catholic Church has warned against him trying to stay in power.

Even if Kabila were to decide to accept the two-term limit, the transfer of power will be a huge strain on national cohesion. He has no obvious successor and no big party behind him, as the government is made up of a coalition of smaller parties. Although he may not be universally popular, there is currently no standout alternative with nationwide support. The various challengers for the presidency will have strong backing in their home regions but none are likely to attract nationwide support against either Kabila or each other. Perhaps the most popular alternative leader is Moïse Katumbi, who is the governor of the most economically developed province, Katanga. The province is to be partitioned into four, apparently in an effort to weaken Katumbi’s position.

All this uncertainty will surely deter investment in DR Congo. Many companies with investment plans will wait to see how the political situation develops before committing themselves. A return to more widespread conflict is one big fear but there is also the very real possibility that a new government would seek to challenge the various mining, hydrocarbon and other concessions granted by the Kabila administration. There is therefore likely to be a drop-off in investment, for this year at least, but possibly for much longer if the election is postponed indefinitely.

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