31 May 2016

Clashes over constitutional abuse in the Congo


In this week’s installment of sub-Saharan countries in chaos, we turn to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Last Thursday, opposition militia from over 50 different armed groups organised widespread demonstrations against President Joseph Kabila. They are accusing Kabila of trying to delay elections until he can change the constitution to allow him to run for a third term. Kabila was elected president in disputed polls in 2006 and again in 2011.

Although Kabila’s term officially ends on December 19th, the Constitutional Court ruled that he can stay in office if the elections due in November are postponed, as many think they will be.

Although he won his first elections in 2006, Kabila has been in power since 2001, after the assassination of his father Laurent. Constitutionally, he is barred from a third term in office. However, the electoral commission has said preparations for an election, which are yet to start in earnest, could take over a year. Kabila’s supporters claim to need the election delayed for two to four years due to logistical and financial difficulties. But the opposition accuses Kabila of planning to amend the constitution to extend his rule.

Thierry Vircuolon, a researcher with the French Institute of International Affairs, said government officials had told him the election might be delayed until 2018.

This delay tactic is not new in central Africa. Leaders of two other central African countries, President of Rwanda Paul Kagame and President of the Republic of Congo Denis Sassou Nguesso, have both held referendums in recent months to amend their countries’ constitutions and prolong their period in power. International organisations are increasingly concerned that the similarity in patterns of behaviour seen in DRC means the president can only be moving in one direction.

Unlike Kagame and Nguesso, however, Kabila is facing a viable opposition. His government is doing its best to suppress it. Moise Katumbi, as yet the only opposition leader to declare his candidacy for president of the DRC, was indicted by Alexis Thambwe, the justice minister, and accused of recruiting American mercenaries. The timing of the charges laid against Katumbi – almost immediately after he threw his hat in the ring – would indicate this is purely a strategic move from Kabila.

Katumbi resigned as governor of the mineral-rich Katanga state last September when he fell out with Kabila, but he has maintained his business empire including ownership of TP Mazembe football team, based in Lubumbashi. He is causing Kabila particular trouble as he is regarded as one of the few politicians with the support and wealth to stand up to the president. In fact, due to his vast wealth and popularity abroad, he is probably the second most powerful man in DRC already.

Opposition groups reacted furiously to Katumbi’s arrest warrant, and it was this that triggered the announcement of nationwide marches against what one major coalition called the “gravediggers of democracy”. A march was authorised in Kinshasa, the capital, and drew several thousand opposition supporters, but demonstrations in other cities were banned by local authorities.

Organisers of the demonstration admitted there was concern amongst their supporters about potential violence as Congolese security forces are known for their heavy-handed response to protests: this month, police have already violently dispersed several meetings led by Katumbi in his hometown of Lubumbashi using tear gas. “In these cases we don’t negotiate, we disperse,” national police spokesman colonel, Pierre Rombaut Mwanamputu, told the AFP news agency.

It has since been confirmed that at least one protester died during clashes in Goma on Thursday, the largest city in the east, while security forces again used tear gas on the crowds in the capital. Even though this protest actually had permission from the authorities, police said the crowds had deviated from an agreed route. At least 59 people have been arrested, and two had been injured with gunshot wounds.

Katumbi was not present himself this time as he had already left for Johannesburg, South Africa, for medical treatment to injuries sustained in a demonstration earlier this month. He is now currently in London.

International pressure is building for DRC’s president to put a plan in place for elections, with the US state department stating last week it was “reviewing the possibility of imposing sanctions in response to this growing pattern of repression”.

European Union foreign ministers briefly discussed the situation last Monday, after urging DRC’s government to revive the electoral process “as soon as possible”. The EU is the DRC’s second largest trading partner, behind China (which takes 50% of all mineral exports), making 20% of the DRC’s total commerce, so any sanctions by the EU would be felt economically. EU leaders have called on the DRC’s electoral commission to set out a revised election calendar and pressed the government to earmark funding for elections and to update electoral lists. However, senior officials said there was no discussion of sanctions at the meeting.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has also expressed profound concern over reports of increasing political tensions in DRC. The UN chief urged political stakeholders to extend their full cooperation to the African Union Facilitator for the National Dialogue in DRC, Mr. Edem Kodjo, and reiterated the full support of the UN for his efforts.

Oddly, Belgian officials have taken a different approach. Belgian Foreign Minister, Didier Reynders, said it was not productive to publicly discuss sanctions at this stage as that could complicate political progress. He also said that as long as the DRC’s government had a clear calendar for elections in place, the November target date was not critical.

The Democratic Republic of Congo is a resource-rich nation of 80 million people, the size of Western Europe, and subsequently key to continental stability. But it is already home to dozens of militias and has barely recovered from civil war a decade ago. Amnesty International is reporting increased recruitment activities this year from several of these groups.

Since the country won independence from Belgium in 1960, there has never been a peaceful, democratic transition of power. This one seems to be no different. More than 40 people have been killed so far in the crackdown on protests in the suspense of this election announcement.

The imminent delay of the elections has raised fears among DRC’s international allies that ultimately the massive country is moving toward a violent collapse.

Olivia Archdeacon is Assistant Editor of CapX