analysisBy Stephanie Wolters
It was a surreal situation at last week's Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) summit in Kinshasa, where several of the continent's most controversial presidents gave Oscar-worthy performances as conscientious heads of state tirelessly dedicated to the development of their countries.
Ugandan leader and outgoing COMESA President Yoweri Museveni - deaf to the outrage following his decision to sign a draconian anti-gay law - handed over the reins of the organisation to the Democratic Republic of Congo's (DRC's) Joseph Kabila, a man whose country has to rely on international military interventions to guarantee its security.
Museveni and Kabila's countries have been at odds for close to two decades. Museveni still harbours anti-Kabila rebels from M23 in his territory, while much of Congo's gold, according to a recent United Nations (UN) report, continues to flow out of the country illegally via mafia-esque networks, much of it to Uganda.
Still, the two presidents discussed regional integration, common markets and relaxing border restrictions as though these were matters of simple policy adjustments.
"Kabila may try to extend his time in office by changing the constitution, or by manipulating the electoral process"
To top off this surreal scene was Omar al-Bashir, the Sudanese president whose movements are restricted by the fact that he faces an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court (ICC) on charges of crimes against humanity for his role in Darfur.
Ninety NGOs signed a letter asking the Congolese government - which is a signatory to the ICC's founding Rome Statute and which has sent five Congolese rebel leaders to trials at The Hague - to arrest Al-Bashir. But the Congolese government retorted that it could not do this as it has commitments to COMESA, and to the African Union (AU), which has made clear its distaste for indictments against and arrests of sitting heads of state.
For Kabila, successfully hosting the COMESA summit and now chairing the organisation is another feather in his cap, however out of step such events and honours are with the lives of the average Congolese citizen or the actual running of the country.
But it is not surprising that Kabila would feel at ease with this disconnect - the recent victory of the Congolese army against the M23 has given his government a new shine and the sense that progress is being made - somewhere, somehow.
This sense of momentum is maintained by the newly launched, UN-supported operations against the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) and the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), along with the continued flurry of international envoys to the region engaged in keeping the peace process on track.
Essential military intelligence, air support, logistical assistance and, crucially, money for much of the ongoing military operations in the east are also coming from the UN and others.
Of course, part of the progress in the east last year can be attributed to organisational changes in the army, which led to its improved performance against the M23. But much of this was also due to leadership of Colonel Mamadou Ndala, who commanded the operations against the M23.
His success prompted jealousy and rivalries and he was quickly cut down, assassinated on 2 January in an ambush allegedly plotted by those close to him with links to senior military and civilian officials. This is a scenario oft repeated in Congolese politics.
The successful operations against the M23, coupled with a recently approved and wide-ranging amnesty law, have also set off a chain reaction of defections from many of the armed groups in the east.
However, the government's disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration programme is insufficiently developed to immediately capitalise on these defections, and most donors have so far withheld financing. This has potential to derail the momentum of the process and to yet again tip the east into a new cycle of violence driven by discontent with the central government.
Back in Kinshasa, the preoccupation seems to be with matters other than peace in the east. For some time now there has been growing concern that Kabila - whose second and last mandate expires in 2016 - may try to extend his time in office, either by changing the constitution or by manipulating other aspects of the electoral process.
"Kabila might argue that his mandate only really begins once this new government of national unity takes office"
The controversy that followed the 2011 presidential and legislative elections led the international community to push for significant reform of the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) as a condition for additional financing.
As the CENI was only re-constituted under new leadership in 2013, provincial elections have now been delayed by three years, and local and municipal elections have never been held at all. The delay in the provincial elections means that provincial MPs have been in office for eight years (instead of five), as have provincial governors and national senators.
Now the CENI has put forward a series of proposals on how to re-align the electoral cycle. One is to hold the local and municipal elections in 2015, and to then have provincial officials elected through indirect elections. This scenario would require a constitutional amendment by parliament.
A second proposal is to have the provincial elections through universal suffrage, but not until 2017 after the presidential elections, which are scheduled for 2016.
Members of the political opposition have rejected both proposals and expressed concern that Kabila will use the changes in the electoral calendar as justification for an extension to his mandate.
Another avenue that the president may use to extend his mandate is the formation of a government of national unity. The 'national concertations' - a political dialogue initiated and heavily stage-managed by Kabila last year, and boycotted by several large opposition groups - recommended the formation of a government of national unity in order to heal the splits that emerged after the contested 2011 presidential election.
Kabila subsequently dissolved his old government in October last year and, to date, a new one has not yet been formed. This is possibly because of the behind-the-scenes machinations involved in co-opting various opposition parties and factions. A possible scenario here is that Kabila will argue that his mandate only really begins once this new government of national unity takes office.
Whatever avenue the president ultimately chooses is less significant than the fact that the Kabila government seems to be on track to follow the likes of Museveni, who has clung to power since 1986, amending the constitution to allow him additional terms.
Like Museveni has for decades, Kabila currently enjoys significant support from the international community, which is investing huge financial and human resources to sort out the mess in eastern DRC, allowing him ample time to plot how to hold on to power.
- Stephanie Wolters, Programme Manager, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division, ISS Pretoria