The Democratic Republic of Congo, or DRC, is grappling with a political crisis, following a move by the Constitutional Court affirming the electoral commission’s decision to postpone the date for the next presidential elections by 16 months. This decision effectively extends the current — and supposedly last — mandate of President Joseph Kabila to April 2018, but it has been challenged and described as a “constitutional coup” by civil society organizations and two main political opposition parties.
On the website of the Congolese civil society movement Lutte Pour Le Changement, or LUCHA, is a picture of Kabila, inscribed with the date December 19, 2016, and the caption aurevoir, or goodbye. The picture sends the powerful message that LUCHA, like other civil society groups and citizens, expects the president to bid his farewell when his term officially comes to an end in December. Events over the last two years in the DRC — as well as the Constitutional Court’s recent announcement on the elections — are proof, however, that Kabila intends to stay in power even after his current mandate ends.
As the debate started on the elections in October 2014 — and as the government subsequently made plans to amend the electoral law — the regime targeted, harassed, intimidated, attacked and detained those who opposed plans for an extension of the incumbent’s time in power. In September 2016, 185 civil society organizations from 33 African countries wrote a letter to Kabila urging him to respect the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association of all Congolese. The letter was written after 50 people were killed during peaceful demonstrations denouncing the postponement of the elections.
Kabila has ruled the DRC for 15 years, following the assassination of his father in 2001. The Congolese Constitution states that the electoral commission has a responsibility to organize elections 90 days before the incumbent’s term ends. The deadline was in September 2016. After it was missed, a violent crackdown followed and then the electoral commission announced that — due to technical and logistical constraints — it will not be able to organize elections in 2016. The commission argued that this extension was made to ensure that about 10 million people who are not currently on the country’s electoral register will be able to vote before elections are held.
The next few weeks are crucial for the DRC. Civil society and the political opposition will refuse to participate in any major political process that endorses the postponement of the elections and coordinate “stay-aways” from work, markets, businesses and public activities in an effort to force the incumbent to step down on December 19.
These groups called for protests in early November and the government reacted preemptively by imposing a blanket ban on any demonstrations in Kinshasa and other major cities. Recent attempts to organize public assemblies — a right that is guaranteed by the constitution — against Kabila’s decision to stay in power have been met with repression by the authorities. Fourteen members of the LUCHA movement were arrested and detained as they distributed fliers and prepared for nationwide protests initially scheduled for the end of October. Some of those arrested were physically assaulted while in detention.
For LUCHA and other Congolese, their call for Kabila to step down is driven not just by the need to respect the constitution, but by years of frustration over economic and social challenges that his regime has not been able to address. Unemployment is high, educational standards are falling and few Congolese are able to access social services. The east of the country remains volatile as conflict continues. And the failure to organize much anticipated elections is a missed opportunity to effect a peaceful transfer of power for the first time in Congo and consolidate gains made since the end of the brutal civil war.
The political dynamics in neighboring Burundi and Rwanda are a warning that there is no guarantee that elections will be organized in April 2018 or that Kabila will step aside as the people of Congo expect. Burundi has been blighted by extreme violence and crimes against humanity since President Pierre Nkurunziza began his term in office in 2005. He now plans to amend the constitution by lifting presidential term limits. As Burundi demonstrates, a political solution to its crisis remains elusive, and interventions from regional and international actors have not succeeded in stopping violent attacks against those who call for change.
In the case of the DRC, calls for change from below have been gathering pace for a while. In a recent interview with CIVICUS, a member of the LUCHA movement, who requested anonymity for security reasons, said “we need to save our young democracy” by educating citizens about their rights and continuing the struggle to force the government to implement much needed reforms.