Late last year, the Democratic Republic of the Congo approached a constitutional crisis. As President Joseph Kabila's second and final term drew to a close, there was no plan for elections to select his replacement. Fears of an indefinite delay spread. Security forces met peaceful protests with violence, and the country girded for prolonged instability.
Then, at literally the 11th hour on New Year's Eve, the government and opposition struck a deal to avert crisis.
Under the agreement, presidential, legislative, and provincial elections will be held no later than December 2017. President Kabila cannot seek a third term but will remain in office until a successor is in place. In the interim, there can be no amendments to the constitution, and the government will announce a unity government led by a prime minister from the opposition. A new national council, led by opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi, will oversee implementation of the accord.
This agreement paves the way for the DRC's first-ever democratic transition. It is a triumph for the government, opposition, and Congolese people. Yet the deal remains fragile, and all parties must move quickly to honor its terms. Selecting a new prime minister and establishing the oversight council will be essential.
This agreement would not have been possible without Congolese civil society, especially the Council of Catholic Bishops which facilitated months of negotiations between the government and opposition. The Council joined many other organizations, civic leaders, and ordinary citizens in speaking out for a stable, democratic future in the face of harassment, arrest, and intimidation. These voices will remain vital to encourage continued progress, a key test of which will be whether the government makes good on its pledge to respect human rights, restore space for political discussion, and reopen shuttered media outlets.
Congolese actors deserve overwhelming credit for this compromise, but proactive international engagement was also critical. Behind the scenes, the United States, European Union, and regional partners urged DRC officials to seize this opportunity and warned of consequences if they did not. This was no idle threat: both the US and EU sanctioned several DRC officials for undermining democratic processes and perpetrating violence against civilians. This combination of persuasion and pressure helped push all sides to negotiate and make the hard compromises needed for an agreement.
A more stable and democratic future is now in reach for the DRC, but it hinges on implementation by all parties. While the United States hopes new sanctions will prove unnecessary, they remain an option should Congolese parties fail to honor the accord.
Ten years ago this month, Ban-Ki Moon visited Kinshasa on his first trip to Africa as UN Secretary-General. Through years of civil strife, millions of Congolese had perished in the bloodiest conflict since the Second World War. But with support from the international community, the Congolese chartered a different path by holding the country's first democratic elections in a generation. Addressing the parliament, the former Secretary-General declared the DRC a "source of hope" for the continent. Last month, the country stood on the brink of crisis. Again, with support from the international community, the Congolese people defied history by choosing democracy and peace over division and conflict. They continue to give us hope, and the world must support them on their challenging yet hopeful path.
Sarah Sewall is U.S. Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights.