The death in Brussels of Etienne Tshisekedi wa Mulumba, the iconic figure of democracy in the Democratic Republic of Congo, combined with a stalemate in the implementation of the agreement on governing until elections later this year, could plunge the country again into a constitutional abyss.
This could destabilise the eastern Congo even further, potentially reverberating throughout the Great Lakes Region. But these developments could also be turned into an opportunity for democratising and stabilising the nation in the long term.
On the night of December 31, 2016, President Joseph Kabila's political camp - called the Presidential Majority (PM) - and the group of political parties (named Rassemblement) gathered around Etienne Tshisekedi, reached an eleventh-hour agreement to stop the country from descending into a constitutional abyss created by the failure of the Kabila government to organise general elections and step down at the end of his second term of office.
In lieu of President Kabila peacefully transferring power to an elected successor on December 20, political negotiations facilitated by the National Episcopal Conference of Congo (CENCO) reached an agreement on five points:
1. Kabila will remain in power throughout a transitional period which will end in December 2017 with a transfer of power to a democratically elected president. A determining parameter of the transitional period is that the constitution will not be altered, notably its provisions limiting presidential terms;
2. There will be a transitional government led by a prime minister designated by the Rassemblement and appointed by President Kabila. The transitional government's main tasks will be to organise credible, transparent and peaceful elections by December 2017;
3. Swift electoral reforms will be implemented to ensure that presidential, legislative and provincial elections are organized no later than December 2017, including the establishment of a new electoral roll and the restructuring of the membership of the National Independent Electoral Commission (CENI);
4. A body will be created - the National Council for the Monitoring of the Agreement - with the power to monitor the implementation of the political agreement; and
5. Confidence-building measures will be implemented, mainly aimed at ensuring the exercise of civil and political rights, the release of political prisoners and the return of exiled activists and politicians such as Floribert Anzuluni of Filimbi ("the whistle") and Moise Katumbi, former governor of the Katanga region and former member of the presidential majority, whose sins were to announce his availability as President Kabila's successor.
What was hailed as a political breakthrough is proving to be a complicated agreement to implement.
Two main trends of thinking are pitched against one another: one holds that the agreement should be implemented strictly in terms of the DRC constitution of February 2006; the other says the Constitution is the basis of the agreement, but that it has been violated by the Presidential Majority and it ought to be adjusted by the terms of the December 31 agreement.
In between these two schools of thought, the Presidential Majority is distorting the process by partly respecting the Constitution when it serves their purpose to block negotiations and frustrate the opposition.
These obstacles are illustrated principally by the resistance of the Presidential Majority to allowing the Rassemblement to present the name of one individual to be appointed as Prime Minister by President Kabila. The Rassemblement has named Felix Antoine Tshisekedi as their designate as the agreement suggests, but the Presidential Majority is adamant that the Rassemblement needs to present at least three names from which the president will choose.
While the DRC constitution provides that the prime minister is appointed within the majority group in parliament, this provision cannot hold in the light of the fact that the agreement granted the position of the Prime Minister to the Rassemblement and also that there will be no legitimate parliament from end of February 2017, when the elective mandate of members of Parliament will lapse. Other blockages include the determination of ministerial posts and their allocations to the Presidential Majority and the Rassemblement.
While the December 31 agreement is being implemented, the executive is run by a government led by an opposition defector, Samy Badibanga, who participated in a non-inclusive negotiation process led by an African Union mediator. The agreement that came out of that process on October 18 2016 was discussed in Luanda on October 26, during the Seventh High-Level Meeting of the Regional Oversight Mechanism of the Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework for the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the region. While the high-level meeting recognized the agreement as a step towards national dialogue, it encouraged the leaders of the DRC to extend the reach of the dialogue to include the Rassemblement. Hence the political negotiations under CENCO's facilitation.
During the uncertainty of 2016 over whether President Kabila would hand over power, the international community called for a peaceful settlement but also applied sanctions. As people took to the streets in Kinshasa last September, galvanized by Etienne Tshisekedi, to demonstrate against CENI's decision to postpone presidential elections, the United States and the European Union imposed targeted sanctions against securocrats and a close political aide to Kabila. The sanctions however did not prevent the deaths of 50 or more protesters, nor the illegal detention of members of citizen resistance groups such as Filimbi and LUCHA.
Meanwhile, security continued to deteriorate in the notorious eastern part of the DRC. Especially on the periphery of the town of Beni in Northern Kivu province, where civilians have been abandoned to the cruelty of armed groups, either local militias or foreign groups, which have committed inhumane acts of violence, including machete-type executions.
In the middle of January, allegations emerged that there has been a resurgence of activities of the M-23 armed group around the Virunga Park. The Rwandan-aligned group had been defeated in November 2013 by a coalition of the DRC's armed forces and a United Nations special force, but they were reported missing from the detention centres in Kampala where they sought shelter after the 2013 debacle. Insecurity also spread in the Kasai Central province, where fighters from the militia group Kamwina Nsapu are wreaking havoc. In the Central Kongo province, supporters of the politico-mystic party Bundu Dia Kongo have been readying for war.
Now, a month after the signing of the 31 December political agreement, the passing of Etienne Tshisekedi, the deteriorating security situation and the devaluation of the franc congolais, what can be done?
The power-sharing agreement of December 31 is the way to stop DRC from bleeding its people and economy. A matter of priority is the establishment of a transitional government that will take stock of interim measures to stabilize the country economically and secure its people, and become credible interlocutors to DRC neighbours and the international community.
Moreover, it is in the interests of anyone who cares about the DRC that a prime minister is appointed without further delay. President Kabila should take a bold move and appoint Felix Antoine Tshisekedi as prime minister. The international community, particularly African leaders - learning from the outstanding handling by ECOWAS of the Gambian post-electoral crisis - should step in to prevent further deterioration in the DRC.
On the eve of the signing of the 31 December agreement, and as the Presidential Majority was putting in jeopardy the prospect of an agreement, Angola decided to withdraw its 1,500 soldiers deployed in the DRC and within hours, the agreement between political actors was reached. An undeniable economic and political power in the continent, South Africa should swiftly support the implementation of the 31 December agreement and depart from the image of being a die-hard supporter of the Kabila regime. A timeframe for the implementation of that agreement should be agreed upon without delays and all friends of DRC should pledge their support, particularly in the preparation of general elections by December 2017.
Africa and the world cannot afford to have another Congo crisis. The Congolese people, despite their willingness to defend their civil rights and liberties, do not deserve to go through trying times that they have already endured. The democratic struggle of Dr. Etienne Tshisekedi wa Mulumba will be honored if peace, stability and democratic change of power happen swiftly in DRC.
Olivier Kambala wa Kambala is a rule of law and transitional justice expert and the founder of the Congo Memory Institute (www.memorycongo.org)