The Catholic bishops of DR Congo have ended their mediation efforts between President Kabila and a deeply divided opposition. Amid a backdrop of worsening insecurity in the Kasai provinces, Kabila's agreement to appoint a new prime minister could merely mark the beginning of more protracted in-fighting.
The last ten days have seen important developments in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC): the end of the DR Congo Catholic Church's attempts to implement its 31 December agreement, more violence in the Kasai provinces, a new UN Security Council resolution, and a speech by President Kabila announcing the imminent appointment of a new prime minister. How are all these connected?
On 31 December an inclusive political agreement, mediated by the Catholic bishops of DRC (CENCO) was signed between the government and opposition. The agreement stipulates that elections must be held by the end of 2017, and that a national union government should be formed and tasked with getting there. It is the current framework for all domestic and international deliberations and was strongly supported in UN Security Council Resolution 2348 of 31 March.
But three months in, the new government has not been named. The main stumbling block is how to name a prime minister - the opposition want to present one name for the president to approve, while he wants him to select from a three-name shortlist. When the CENCO ended its mediation and left the initiative to President Kabila, the latter organised consultations with the signatories of the agreement. The Rassemblement, the main group in the opposition, refused to participate in these talks.
On 5 April, a week following the CENCO's exit, Kabila addressed a joint session of parliament. In a speech intended to be reassuring, he said that elections will be organised according to a forthcoming timetable. Claiming a consensus between the parties on how to appoint a prime minister (PM), the president gave the Rassemblement, among whose ranks the prime minister has to be selected, 48 hours to present a list of candidates. He claimed to have established a consensus on the "authority of nomination", a clear sign that he intends to retain full control over the naming, and potential dismissal, of the new PM.
The political standstill has been feeding into already growing unrest throughout the country. Tensions have increased in cities like Kinshasa, Lubumbashi and Goma, and a stay-away protest (a campaign known as villes mortes, or "dead cities") was widely observed on 3 April. Violent conflict at the provincial level has intensified. In addition to the ongoing conflicts in the eastern provinces (Ituri, North and South Kivu) new clashes have been reported in Tanganyika, at the border with South-Sudan and in Kongo-Central province.
Most important is the spreading conflict in the Kasai region where clashes between militia and security forces have killed hundreds since August 2016. The discovery of mass graves is causing international controversy and may lead to a commission to investigate war crimes.
This surge in conflict, often rooted in very local circumstances, is fed by the decreasing legitimacy of the national government as the process of political transition stalls. It is also having severe humanitarian consequences. A further risk if provincial unrest continues is that it drains international attention and resources away from the central issue of organising elections, and even throws into doubt whether they can be achieved.
Both political blockage and provincial violence had an impact on negotiations at the UN on the renewal of the mandate of the peacekeeping and stabilisation force (MONUSCO). The debate was also overshadowed by the murder in Kasai of two members of the UN Panel of Experts on DRC. As the Security Council backed the December agreement, talks aimed at implementing it were unravelling on the ground.
The issue also got embroiled in the new U.S. administration's push for reform at the UN, with a heavy focus on budget cuts and reducing numbers of peacekeepers. There is certainly space to make MONUSCO more effective and efficient, but the emphasis on troop reductions, and their timing, may distract from the more important issue of achieving a more flexible and reactive force.
Who are the main players and how are they now positioned?
Although the international focus has been on rising unrest, for the president and his political coalition (known as "the Majority"), the events of 2017 have been very satisfactory. Although the crisis is mostly attributable to President Kabila's refusal to leave office (the constitution limits him to two terms), he kept the political initiative through control of patronage and of the security apparatus, and the lack of a well-organised opposition.
In the dragged-out talks, the Majority suffered no internal fragmentation (unlike in 2015), and by buying time, it has continued to pull in money, including through mining contracts. Furthermore, President Kabila, following his usual approach of staying above the fray and then intervening as the peacemaker between squabbling parties, has kept the upper hand in negotiations despite his lack of popular support. In his 5 April speech, he squarely put responsibility for the delay, and for solving it, with the opposition.
The opposition, in particular the Rassemblement, rely on popular dissatisfaction and international pressure to maintain their structures and squeeze concessions from the government. The 31 December agreement opened the way for them to enter office, where they believe they will be able to supervise the preparation of elections, boost their internal structures, and box in President Kabila and his majority. But the Congolese opposition tend to splinter when offered the prospect of entering government. Their coherence has been recently challenged by the death of historic leader Etienne Tshisekedi on 1 February. He was the opposition's uncontested leader and was to be the chair of the agreement's follow-up mechanism.
The main opposition group, the Rassemblement, is now pushing for his son Felix to be named prime minister, but he does not have the support his father enjoyed within opposition ranks or among the population, and he will be less able to provide legitimacy to an eventual compromise with the regime. The other big figure in the opposition, Moïse Katumbi, remains in exile where he is trying to sustain his popularity, but his ability to mobilise political support in-country remains untested. The Rassemblement was not prepared for the end of the CENCO mediation and has refused to meet with President Kabila, insisting on a continued role for the CENCO and good-offices by the UN. It has not accepted that Kabila can be both party and mediator, and is calling for demonstrations, a potentially dangerous move, as it is likely to result in violence but could also expose the oppositions' possibly limited capacity for mobilisation.
Prior to 2016, the Catholic bishops of CENCO used their legitimacy and unique national networks to push for respect of the constitution, denouncing the regime's plans to remain in power. But in 2016 they softened, and took on a mediating role when the African Union (AU)-brokered agreement of October proved impossible to follow through. The 31 December agreement is a solid achievement, getting far greater buy-in from opposition and the population. But events since have shown that the Church's very strength - its capillary-like network of local representation - has become its weakness, both because it is hard to negotiate consensus across the whole national church, and because its very presence has recently exposed it to pressure and even violence from the population.
Having struggled to get agreement on how to name a new prime minister, the first step to implementing its December agreement, the Church withdrew from its mediation role. In its declaration of 27 March, the CENCO president criticised Majority and opposition alike for failing to compromise. Clearly, the Church fears that prolonged wrangling may impact its own credibility. Faced with political actors obsessed with short-term gain, it has found that its moral authority can only take it so far. Church leaders met with President Kabila, and effectively handed over responsibility for moving things forward.
How is the population of DR Congo reacting?
The population remains the great unknown factor in this. It is under great pressure as prices rise, and is generally frustrated at the political class as a whole. The December agreement brought some hope, but this has disappeared slowly. The end of the mediation by the Church has led to some protest and incidents in several cities including Kinshasa, Lubumbashi and Goma, although the scope was limited.
More important was the general strike of 3 April which was widely followed, although as it was the first day of school holidays this may not necessarily signal a strong willingness to engage in political protest. A more important, further set of protests has been called by the opposition for 10 April. As happened in the past, there is a serious risk such protest could turn violent.
More than the political crisis, the people are preoccupied with the social impact of the economic crisis. Already dire conditions are worsening as the Congolese franc steadily loses value and prices of basic foodstuffs and transport are starting to rise. With organised political and social forces incapable of channelling the frustration, outburst of urban violence or people joining ill-defined insurgencies - as is the case in Kasai - is increasingly likely.
Can the 31 December agreement be salvaged, and what are the immediate challenges ahead?
Despite the end of the Church's mediation, there is at present no obvious alternative to the 31 December agreement, which continues to have broad support. In his 5 April speech, the president said he was moving forward with its implementation, part of an effort to demonstrate a degree of "business as usual". But buoyed by divisions in the opposition that lacks strategic or long-term thinking, his camp will feel it can call the shots. In that sense, while the agreement may remain intact, its spirit is fading. Once a prime minister is named, both sides will fight hard and long over the most powerful, and lucrative, ministerial posts. Every inch of real power will be fought for and naming a new government, with an agreed size of 54 ministers, will be anything but smooth.
Once formed, the government's biggest challenge will be financial. Despite the country's wealth, its government budget is wholly inadequate. Political uncertainty is taking its toll on the economy and undermining the currency. Paying for elections will be an additional challenge and donors, even those who have helped in the past, are reluctant to step in for fear of not being able to ensure that they will occur, while becoming a convenient scapegoat if funding falls short of requirements.
Finally, the new government will have to deal with growing insecurity across the country, and do so with minimal real authority over the security forces, which tend to answer directly to the president or be fairly free of political control.
Are elections in 2017 realistic, and what are the longer term prospects?
At the technical level, some progress has been made. Voter registration has now reached approximately 50 per cent of its target nationwide. Even in provinces affected by violence, such as North Kivu, where Crisis Group recently did research, people are registering in large numbers. The electoral commission has significant capacity at local level built up over the last two polls (2006 and 2011), and there is a strong popular desire to see elections happen.
But technical competence is not enough without political will. The cash-strapped commission is at the mercy of central government and there is no reason to believe that the Majority will renounce attempts to delay elections as long as possible. A weakened opposition will be hard pressed to counter them, even if in government. Growing social unrest, and especially large-scale displacement, could make the process much harder.
In such conditions, elections in 2017 will be difficult to achieve. Fresh mediation will then be required, and the risk of longer term stagnation will grow. But the momentum generated by voter registration and the strong will of the population are important factors, and maintaining progress, including the publication of a realistic and consensual electoral calendar is more important than meeting the December deadline. The hope is that, little by little, irreversible progress can be made, ultimately making elections inevitable. In his remarks on 5 April, President Kabila underlined forcefully that he will accept no foreign interference in the management or conduct of upcoming elections. This is a clear shot in the direction of the international community and the UN who foresee an important support role.
What can the UN and other major powers, including in the region, do now?
Although the 31 December agreement has united international powers in its support, the immediate prospects for international mediation to move it forward are poor. The AU tried in 2016, but its mediation, led by Edem Kodjo, a former Togolese prime minister and member of the AU's Panel of the Wise, was rejected by the opposition. Regional powers to the south (Angola, South Africa) are also seen in a negative light by the opposition. The latest regional Southern African Development Community (SADC) summit was seen to favour the regime. The AU has however indicated it remains engaged and African mediation may be called on again to unblock progress, possibly after some months of internal manoeuvring. The government will try its utmost to keep the process in sub-regional and African hands.
On the ground, the UN force (MONUSCO) faces huge challenges. Its troops, nearly all stationed in the Kivu provinces, find it hard to react to violent flare-ups elsewhere. The UN's "force transformation" agenda, intended to create a more flexible and reactive force, is making slow progress. It did manage to deploy troops and police to the Kasais, but there as elsewhere it suffers from a highly restrictive environment, as the government does not want UN forces and human rights units looking too closely into provincial unrest. The political good offices of the UN special representative remain important and logistical support to the Electoral Commission remains vital.
Negotiations at the UN Security Council in March reduced its troop numbers, though by less than had been feared. A proposed new police component was rejected, despite the fact that such a reform - switching some troops for police - would have been sensible, given the changing nature of the challenges MONUSCO faces, particularly deterring violence against civilians in urban areas.
The reduction, which came despite the violence in the Kasais, was the result of strong desire for UN peacekeeping reform by the new U.S. administration. While questions can certainly be asked about force effectiveness, the timing was unfortunate. In Kinshasa, it is perceived as a concession to the government, which has long pushed for a reduction, at a time when strong international pressure is needed to avoid further electoral delays. More broadly, since the change of administration, the U.S. has gone from being at the forefront of international pressure on the regime to largely retreating into silence.
The European Union, a major donor and possible source of funding for the vote, is highly unlikely to play a mediation role, having recently threatened further sanctions against any people who obstruct elections, it is currently seen as being quite hostile to the government. International positions are therefore in a state of flux just at a time when a dose of firmness is needed to avoid further drift.
International pressure was instrumental in getting to the 31 December agreement. Dates now have to be set for each stage of the polls preparation, and potential donors will have to prepare financial support for the electoral process and the economy. The Security Council and the AU Peace and Security Council will also have to show unwavering political support to MONUSCO and the UN Human Rights community. Quiet diplomacy and a more active engagement by African powers and organisations with opposition leaders are needed to prepare the way for any future mediation.