Delaying Democracy in the Democratic Republic of Congo

9 MINS READNov 23, 2016 | 09:00 GMT
Congolese police launch flares during a demonstration in Goma on Sept. 19. The postponement of the country's presidential election has sparked protests and prompted harsh security crackdowns in many cities, including Kinshasa.
Congolese police launch flares during a demonstration in Goma on Sept. 19. The postponement of the country's presidential election has sparked protests and prompted harsh security crackdowns in many cities, including Kinshasa.
Forecast Highlights

  • If the international aid flowing to the Democratic Republic of the Congo dries up, it could upset the precarious political balance the government has worked to maintain.
  • Congolese President Joseph Kabila has intentionally adopted an opaque political strategy toward the approaching presidential election to throw the opposition into disarray.
  • The president's intentions, however, will become clear in the months ahead, informing the reactions of his opponents at home and abroad.

Over the past few years, abolishing constitutional term limits has become a popular tactic among African leaders hoping to stay in office. But Joseph Kabila, the president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, has proved an exception — at least so far. Having held power since the 2001 assassination of his father, Laurent Kabila, the president has reached the maximum number of terms allowed by Congolese law. Faced with the prospect of being forced to relinquish his post, Kabila has chosen to postpone the next presidential election on the pretext of addressing problems with voter registration and funding. On Oct. 17, the country's constitutional court approved a petition to delay the vote, originally slated for November, to April 2018. The measure builds on an earlier ruling that the president could stay in office until the election takes place.

With nearly a year and a half tacked onto his term, it is unclear what Kabila's next move will be. He has not tried to amend the constitution, though he has floated the idea before, and he has studiously avoided the question of whether he will try to stay in office. By all appearances, his strategy appears to be to hide his true intentions to catch his rivals off guard and to avoid upsetting the fragile political balance of his inherently unstable country.

A House of Cards

Even in the best of circumstances, the Congo is a weak country prone to fragmentation. The largely landlocked terrain enclosed within its borders is nearly the same size as Western Europe and is difficult to navigate. Since gaining its independence from Belgium in 1960, the Congo has been plagued by political power struggles and rebellions, and none of its governments have willingly ceded power to their successors. The country's valuable but unexploited natural resources have only exacerbated these problems. Meanwhile, its expansive, far-flung regions and weak central government have yielded a fractious society riven by communal rivalry. As a result, the Congo's neighbors have repeatedly intervened in the country to protect their own security interests, while many Congolese communities have taken security into their own hands by setting up local militias known as the Mai-Mai. Each of these factors has made it difficult for Kinshasa to strengthen its grip over the country. 

A map of the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Kabila, like his predecessors, is no stranger to the challenge of trying to govern the Congo effectively while keeping political rivals at bay. Withholding government resources does little to quash dissent, in part because the country's regions are fairly self-sufficient and in part because the president has few means of enforcing his writ beyond the capital. This has made room for plots and rebellions to fester in the Congo's ungovernable spaces. Instead, Kabila has had to take a different approach, granting more autonomy to the provinces than ever before seen, particularly compared with President Mobutu Sese Seko's reign in 1965-1997. Nevertheless, the Congo's persistent problems have fueled instability in Central Africa, forcing nearby Rwanda, Uganda and Angola to periodically wade into the conflict over the past two decades to safeguard their own security.

Kabila's motives may be rooted, at least in part, in his age. At 45 years old, he is younger than most other African heads of state by several decades (he assumed office at the age of 29). Moreover, political assassinations are not unheard of in the Congo, as evidenced by the killing of Kabila's father in 2001. The president no doubt realizes that political security is physical security and that staying in office increases the safety of himself and those around him from reprisal.

With such a weak hand, the president has worked tirelessly to maintain a balance among the divergent interest groups that put his father in power and that undergird his own political standing.

Laurent Kabila rose to prominence as the rebel leader who managed to capture the capital from the collapsing Mobutu government, and the militant outfits that made up the elder Kabila's forces still form a key component of his son's power base. Kabila has worked to integrate these units and other rebel groups into the Congolese army, but it has proved a challenging endeavor: Several factions have quit the arrangement, only to rejoin when their rebellions fail. The president has responded by shuffling commanders around the country to prevent any single faction from using the military to strengthen itself. The precarious arrangement has left Kabila with a loose grip on the military at best.

The Road Ahead

So far Kabila has managed to keep his position in power, in spite of the opposition to his rule that has mounted throughout the year. But the system underpinning his presidency is fragile, and when he chooses to broadcast his intention to stay in office, it could be put to the test once again. Already, the announcement of his plan to postpone the next election has sparked protests followed by harsh crackdowns in many cities, including Kinshasa. The demonstrations, however, have not been nearly destabilizing enough for him to reconsider his plan, especially since the government still holds a significant advantage over the country's opposition.

At this point, it is difficult to tell whether Kabila aims to hold onto power beyond 2018. He has intentionally hidden his plans for fear of giving the opposition a reason to unite against him. Whatever his true motives are, they will determine not only his actions but also those of his rivals. In all likelihood, the situation will play out in one of four ways. First, Kabila could try to delay the election yet again, with the justification that the electoral commission failed to register enough voters ahead of the April 2018 vote. This would extend his rule indefinitely and deal a serious blow to the country's democratic system. Such a move could compel the country's political factions to realign in order to check Kabila's power, likely leading to even greater instability — especially if Kabila is unable or unwilling to cede some influence in exchange for their support. A realignment of this sort is particularly risky since it could occur within the fractured but influential military, rather than among the opposition. Another possibility is that the president may be trying to shape the political environment in a way that allows him to hand off power to a trusted member of his inner circle. This would give Kabila an exit, but it may not mitigate the long-term threats to his safety if he decides to forgo exile and stay in the country.

A third possibility is that the president may believe his gamble will eventually pay off. To date, his decision to delay the election until April 2018 has had few real repercussions for his government beyond ineffective (if bloody) protests, and the Congolese opposition has struggled to mount a serious challenge to his reign. Kabila could yet try to amend the term limits put forth in the country's constitution; he and his supporters have raised the issue several times before. Though such a move would almost certainly unite the fractured opposition to a level previously unseen, Kabila may be willing to accept the risks associated with a stronger opposition. Alternatively, Kabila may simply have no end game and has delayed the election to buy more time to decide his next move.

In the months ahead, several factors could signal that trouble is brewing for Kabila. The Congo relies heavily on international aid, which amounts to over $2 billion a year. Should frequent and deadly protests continue, they might give donors pause. This would be disastrous for Kabila, who would have trouble funneling patronage to his supporters and keeping basic services running for countless Congolese citizens. (The latter explains why international donors are generally resistant to cutting aid.) The former, in turn, could spur defections and fragmentation, a particularly concerning prospect if military units peel off to form their own rebel outfits. Should the lack of funding undermine the work of the U.N. Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it could also open new power vacuums in the country's hinterlands.

It will be important to monitor the government's progress in registering voters as well. Kabila has relied on the failure of these efforts to rationalize putting off the election. Further registration issues (or a clear lack of effort to address them) might indicate that the president is gearing up to postpone the vote again. By contrast, a genuine attempt to resolve these problems could mean the election will be held in 2018 after all.

Certain actors in the Congo and its surrounding region will also bear watching. The Roman Catholic Church, to which 35 percent of Congolese citizens belong and from which a significant share of the population has received its education, wields a considerable amount of influence in the Congo. If it or the opposition stoke popular anger, protests against Kabila could intensify. Pressure against the president could likewise increase if Moise Katumbi (a young and charismatic opposition candidate) and Etienne Tshisekedi (a longtime opposition figure) join forces. Though the two have struggled to find common ground this year, their alliance could create headaches for the Kabila administration. Farther afield, Rwanda and Uganda have long opposed Kabila's rule by backing rebellions in the Congo's eastern regions, just as Angola and South Africa have long supported it. Signs that any of these actors are renewing their interest in the Congo could herald change to come in the country's political order.

Much still needs to be settled in the months ahead. But regardless of how events unfold, the next year and a half will almost certainly be turbulent for Kabila and his volatile nation.

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