The AU must resume its leadership role; taking a back seat to SADC is a recipe for inaction.
The fight between the Congolese government and the political opposition over who is right and wrong continues to drive the Democratic Republic of the Congo's (DRC) electoral crisis, now entering its third year. This has been an important aspect of the battle to win the support of international, regional and continental forces - and has contributed to drawing the crisis out.
The Congolese population has borne the cost of this dilly-dallying. By late 2017, the United Nations (UN) had elevated the DRC to the status of a category 3 humanitarian emergency. This category includes only three other countries - Yemen, Iraq and Syria - all of them in a state of full-blown war. The DRC has the highest rate of internal displacement globally, at 5 500 people a day.
While the country's numerous simmering conflicts aggravate the humanitarian situation, the electoral crisis has paralysed the policy space and distracted much-needed resources and attention.
In the early days of the crisis, the opposition was often asked to be reasonable; it was asked not to call for protest marches in which civilians would be killed, and to consider discussions with the government. Placing much faith in the international community, and knowing that a move seen as too aggressive could shift the balance of forces against it, it played along for much of 2016.
The government meanwhile hoped that the African Union (AU)-sponsored talks led by former Togolese prime minister Edem Kodjo in 2016, boycotted by the opposition, would lead to an outcome favourable to its own agenda - which they did. It won points just for being around the table, even though it was clear that the talks would not lead to a real solution.
While at that table, the government engaged its security forces in crackdowns on political freedoms, arresting dozens of people during demonstrations in Kinshasa and elsewhere. Still, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the AU and the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) lauded the outcome of the AU negotiations.
But a new and more inclusive round of talks was necessary - and the Catholic Church-led process in late 2016 inspired confidence from the opposition, who agreed to participate. The process culminated in a workable road map towards elections - the 31 December Accord. Both the government and the opposition looked good after signing it.
But this didn't last, and opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi's death early last year opened the door for political manipulation by the government. It co-opted opportunistic opposition leaders and appointed them to positions which the accord had reserved for the opposition. Then government spent the latter half of 2017 on a continental and international charm offensive aimed at getting key players to buy this ruse. Many did.
The tussle over who is right and wrong has fuelled a lengthy public relations battle, and many players have been confused into believing the DRC is only stable with President Joseph Kabila in charge. In November 2017, South Africa, SADC and the AU all lauded the publication of the long-awaited electoral calendar, which set presidential elections for December 2018 - two years after Kabila's mandate has run out, and a year later than the date set by the December 2016 accord.
African actors with leverage such as South Africa, SADC and the AU have ignored the bigger picture: that there has been no progress on any of the key confidence-building measures in the December 2016 accord. Notable among these is the release of political prisoners and the review of trumped-up legal judgments against key opposition politicians such as Moïse Katumbi. Throughout 2017, opposition politicians were routinely harassed, activists were arrested, and others disappeared.
In his report to the UN Security Council this week, UN Secretary-General António Guterres noted that there were 482 violations of fundamental freedoms in the last three months of 2017, double the number in the previous three-month period. According to the UN, all these violations were committed by state security agents; 98% have gone unpunished. A general ban on demonstrations is now in place. The right to the freedom of expression is routinely suppressed. Political manifestations are met with violence, and civilians are punished for their political opinions with death. In 2015-16, 171 people were killed in crackdowns by security forces.
During the 31 December 2017 protests, security forces tear-gassed churches and dragged congregants into the streets, arresting priests, civilians and activists alike. Eight people were shot and killed.
It's now January 2018, and the DRC grows more unstable every day. Kabila and his government have violated the constitution, and already delayed elections by two years. Judging by their refusal to allow freedom of expression, to take action on key confidence building measures and to allow a level political playing field ahead of elections, there is little reason to trust that the president and the government intend to hold elections any time soon. At this stage, there is also little reason to believe that when those elections are held, they will be free and fair.
It is time for concrete and sustained action by African actors, notably the AU. After initially taking a strong lead with the mediation in 2016, the AU now seems to have been taking a back seat to SADC on the DRC - a recipe for inaction, as SADC has consistently sided with Kabila.
AU Commission chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat has become more critical on the DRC crisis over the past year. The AU should encourage Kabila to publicly declare that he is not standing for a third term and insist that the confidence-building measures in the accord be implemented immediately.
It should also push the Kabila government to allow the independent opposition to appoint its representatives to key institutions such as the follow-up committee to the accord in order to revitalise the independence, credibility and neutrality of those structures. This would be an important first step towards the restoration of confidence in the electoral preparations.
The opposition should be urged to again take a more cooperative approach. Although the Congolese political opposition previously perceived the AU as biased, a new chairperson and concerted and constructive action from the AU can make it a voice that is also heard by this camp. The AU could lead negotiations if it appointed an unbiased mediator.
Finally, real electoral transparency in the DRC hinges on the reform of the electoral commission. The AU should push ahead with the creation of the supervisory body which it agreed to constitute along with the UN, SADC, the International Organisation of la Francophonie (OIF) and the ICGLR.
The AU's voice in the DRC crisis has been absent for too long. Along with other continental actors, it can make a difference in the DRC if it chooses to.
Stephanie Wolters is an ISS consultant.