Fear and loathing in the DRC

President Joseph Kabila's hope of a third term is being dealt a blow by violent protests and decreasing support from his home province.

It’s been the primary topic of political talk in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for at least two years: the question of how President Joseph Kabila will engineer a third mandate for himself. The constitution that he and his party championed in 2006 clearly limits presidents to two terms and Article 221, which states this, is expressly reserved from any kind of constitutional review.

Last year Évariste Boshab, a constitutional law professor and one of Kabila’s long-standing close advisors who became minister of the interior in late 2014, penned a book examining the possibility of a constitutional review, arguing that it was not impossible to do so. He has since become the poster boy for a third mandate, although the government angrily bats away suggestions that Kabila is planning on clinging to power.

This week, Boshab’s offices at the University of Kinshasa became the target of public fury about a new electoral code, and were thoroughly ransacked by angry students as large-scale protests rocked the Congolese capital for two days. Similar protests erupted in the eastern city of Goma.

Many see the census clause as the avenue Kabila will use to cling to power

At the heart of this week’s events is the new electoral code, which was tabled in the Senate last week and which is now being deliberated in Parliament. The new code stipulates that a national census must be conducted before presidential elections – now scheduled for 2016 – can be held. But the country faces a number of important realities that make a census a massive, and lengthy, undertaking.

The size of the country, the fact that it has very little transport infrastructure, a weak civil service and large pockets that are still no-go zones due to ongoing rebel activity all mean that such an exercise will likely delay the presidential election beyond 2016. Many have interpreted the census clause as the avenue Kabila will use to cling to power – perhaps indefinitely – without having to change the constitution.

Anyone who knows Congo knows that large public protests are few and far between. Four decades of violent repression under Mobutu Sésé Seko wore people down, and the Kabila years have done little to restore the public’s sense that it can protest freely and without threat to the lives of Congolese citizens.

That is precisely why the events of this week are so significant: it takes a lot to get people out into the streets where they are more likely than not to meet violence at the hands of the government security forces, as they did this week. Estimates of the number of people killed vary depending on the source. The government says it is four, including two police officers, while estimates by the opposition and human rights groups are significantly higher.

The four days of protests this week show just how angry people are

Since last year, the United States (US), United Kingdom (UK), France and others have been vocally opposed to any attempt to extend Kabila’s time in office, and they have reacted strongly to the census proposal. Russ Feingold, the US Special Envoy to the Great Lakes Region said this week that the census cannot act as an excuse to delay the elections that have to take place before the end of 2016, a stance that has been echoed by France and the European Union.

In the DRC, critical voices are led by opposition parties and the Catholic Church under veteran leader Archbishop Laurent Monsengwo. This week, Monsengwo said that the electoral code was an illegal attempt to delay the electoral contest scheduled for 2016.

The four days of protests this week have provided a measure of just how angry people are and how far they are willing to go to oppose a prolonged Kabila regime. Kabila emerges from these incidents looking decidedly weaker. His government’s response to the protest – shutting down text messaging and Internet communications for days and shooting at unarmed civilians – shows the early hallmarks of a teetering ship.

While the Congolese opposition can rejoice in the fact that it has helped to engineer this public humiliation of the government, others closer to the president will also be taking note. For some time now, the question about whether or not Kabila will go in 2016 has been dividing his own followers into new political camps. There are the hardcore supporters such as Boshab, who know that their political future is tied to Kabila’s and who will go to great lengths to make sure that he stays in power. Kabila’s own biological family is also a force pushing for him to stay on.

His government’s response to the protest shows the early hallmarks of a teetering ship

But there are others who may be more willing to consider an alternative political future. For some time now, growing opposition to a push for a third term has been coming from an unlikely camp: Katanga province. This is where Kabila’s father was from, and which he has always claimed as his own. Congolese political tradition has it that you lavish your home base with attention and resources, in exchange for which you get undivided political support. But Katanga is disappointed in Kabila, saying he has not done enough for the province even though it helped to elect him twice.

There is particular anger over the fact that the central government never made good on its promises to send 40% of provincial revenue back to Katanga, whose mineral exports have always been a driver of the Congolese economy. Key provincial figures like Gabriel Kyungu wa Kumwanza, President of the Katanga provincial assembly, and Moise Katumbi have made it increasingly clear that they are opposed to an extended mandate, although they have stopped short of saying so outright.

Katumbi is a particular thorn in Kabila’s side. Independently rich from mining and the owner of the country’s best soccer club, he enjoys national popularity and is a viable rival to Kabila in every way. Katumbi returned to the country in December following an unexplained absence of three months, during which the rumour mill went into overdrive. Upon his return he made a public address in which he implied that he did not support Kabila.

The latter responded by flying to Katanga to convene the province’s elders and drum up support. Losing support in Katanga would be a massive blow to the president. The very telling events of this week could easily push more former Kabila allies to start looking for alternatives.

Stephanie Wolters, Division Head, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis, ISS Pretoria

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