Political uncertainty and increasing polarisation between government and opposition, combined with escalating violence in many provinces, have set the DRC on a dangerous trajectory. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2017 - Third Update early warning report for European policy makers, Crisis Group urges the European Union and its member states to denounce attempts by the DRC government to further delay the polls and offer technical electoral support to the Electoral Commission.
This commentary is part of our Watch List 2017 - Third Update.
Political uncertainty and instability in the DRC are growing as the one-sided implementation of the 31 December 2016 (Saint Sylvester) agreement has deepened the gulf between a newly invigorated regime and a weakened opposition and civil society. The Electoral Commission (CENI) still has not published a new calendar for polls promised by the end of the year, although, speaking at the UN General Assembly on 23 September, President Joseph Kabila indicated it was imminent. Recent comments by the CENI president indicate that the elections would not be organised before 2019. In this context of political uncertainty, opposition and civil society are renewing efforts to bring people out onto the streets; whether they can do so is unclear, as is whether they could control any protests that do occur. The grave socio-economic crisis, harsh repression by security forces and lack of confidence in political elites make for a potentially explosive cocktail of resentment and frustration. Beyond urban centres, violence is escalating in many provinces, adding to concerns for regional stability.
An increasingly confident regime that lacks a clear strategy
Few, if any, of the 31 December agreement's signatories sincerely believed in the agreement's stipulation that elections would be held by the end of 2017. The government has since controlled implementation of that deal and interpreted its provisions to suit its agenda of delay. Meanwhile, domestic pressure to stick to the timeline has diminished, in particular following the February death of Etienne Tshisekedi, the charismatic opposition leader, and in March, after the Catholic Church withdrew from its direct mediation role.
For its part, Kabila's government has engaged in a two-pronged strategy: violent repression and closure of political space at home on the one hand, intensive regional diplomacy to defuse U.S. and European Union (EU) pressure on the other. The latter track appears to have been particularly successful. African and especially Southern African powers now largely accept the government's interpretation of the agreement (notably its unilateral choice of prime minister). While they have been more critical behind closed doors and acknowledge that the political manoeuvring and delay tactics increase the risk of violence, their public positioning has given the regime vital breathing space.
A weakened opposition focused on Kabila leaving power
Faced with the regime's hijacking of the 31 December agreement, opposition and civil society are trying to regain the initiative. In July, Felix Tshisekedi, president of the main opposition coalition, the Rassemblement, suggested a six-month transition if the vote were not held in December, but without Kabila (whose constitutional mandate expired in 2016) retaining the presidency. In August, representatives of civil society platforms (including the youth protest movements Lucha and Filimbi as well as the "Debout Congolais" recently launched by Congolese businessman Sindika Dokolo) adopted a manifesto with a similar proposal. Moïse Katumbi, a prominent opponent in exile, added his name to this manifesto in September. It calls for non-violent actions to pressure the government, reminding the population of its duty, enshrined in Article 64, to defend the constitution against anyone seeking to exercise power by violating its provisions. It hopes such actions will force President Kabila out, with a national conference held afterwards to designate a transitional mechanism.
This approach has scant chance of success. The opposition, weakened by the exile and imprisonment of several of its leaders, is riven by distrust among its factions and lacks internal cohesion. Struggling to organise street demonstrations, or control them when they do take place, its leaders appear for now to be resting their hopes on greater international (particularly Western) engagement. But the opposition faces a paradox: international actors are unlikely to take a more robust position in the absence of a credible domestic dynamic.
Worrying security developments
Meanwhile, several provinces - including the Kasais, Tanganyika, North and South Kivu - are experiencing violent conflict, fuelled by both local tensions and the national political stalemate. Playing the role of pompier-pyromane, the government thus far has contained the fighting while people close to the regime have simultaneously stoked unrest and used it to justify election delays. But this dangerous strategy has increased tensions with several neighbours, notably Angola, which hosts thousands of refugees from the troubled Kasai region. As one of the world's gravest humanitarian crises, with 3.8 million internally displaced and more than 600.000 refugees, humanitarian support remains under-funded despite some EU and member states contributions, and the recent additional amounts announced this year.
A recent small rebound in copper prices has allowed the government to promise better and more regular salaries as well as to ease currency depreciation pressures. But economic fundamentals remain poor. With families squeezed by rising prices and growing petty corruption, popular discontent is rising along with prospects for urban unrest.
International actors need to step up support for the 31 December agreement
The EU, UN, the African Union (AU), relevant sub-regional organisations and the Chinese, French, Russian and UK governments, together with the DRC government, met on 19 September on the margins of the UN General Assembly in New York. The chair's summary of that meeting reaffirmed broad support for the Saint Sylvester agreement, despite the inevitability that its electoral timetable will now slip. This is welcome news insofar as the agreement's core principle - the need to hold elections without amending the constitution - deserves strong support in the face of the regime's attempts to kill it with a thousand cuts.
But international actors need to turn this support into concrete action that pressures the government and electoral commission to move forward with election preparations. While the EU should offer technical electoral support, as envisaged at the New York meeting, it should denounce attempts by the DRC government to further delay the polls (including through publishing unnecessarily long timetables). It also should condemn, of course, any attempt by Kabila to change the constitution's presidential two-term limit. International reaction to the soon-to-be-announced electoral calendar will be an initial test - if the timetable stretches too far into the future, as recent communications from the CENI indicate it may, the EU, in concert with other relevant international actors, should make this clear, stressing that elections could be held sooner and offering technical support to reach that goal while actively criticising delay tactics. Alongside this, EU and member states should continue work that supports Congolese civil society and internal voices calling for democracy and constitutionalism.
Effective pressure on President Kabila to move toward elections and stick to term limits requires better international cooperation. Western powers - notably the EU and its member states - should reach out to African leaders to hear their concerns and try to iron out differences. At present, African powers tend to acquiesce in Kabila's interpretation of the agreement and refrain from criticising (at least publicly) his efforts to remain in power, while the West has adopted a more critical stance. Disagreement thus far has revolved around how best to push Kinshasa toward elections. African leaders are hostile to Western sanctions on DRC leaders put in place over the last fifteen months. While those sanctions may have had some impact in 2016 in deterring violence and helping forge the December agreement, they increasingly have diminishing returns as Kabila's regime uses them to portray pressure on it as a form of Western imperialism. They ought not be reinforced while efforts are made to align international views.