Limiting presidential eligibility could drive deep divides in the DRC

2021-08-24

Early in July, Noel Tshiani, a 2018 presidential candidate with the support of some Members of Parliament, proposed amending the legislation governing who is eligible to hold high office in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Tshiani suggests that candidates for presidential elections or leaders of state institutions such as the National Assembly and the Senate should be DRC citizens born of Congolese parents.

Over the past few weeks, the debate around the issue has polarised the country again. Supporters of the proposed law argue that it seeks to protect the presidency and limit access to power by alleged foreigners or Congolese with dual citizenship. They say it will protect the DRC’s sovereignty and limit the risk that bi-nationals might not remain loyal to the country’s interests.

Those who oppose the amendment say that it violates the constitution, which warns against any discriminatory policy. It is also divisive and exclusionary and could ignite conflict and damage national cohesion. For them, the proposed law is an opportunistic move to mobilise support and revive the political ambitions of its promoters.

The DRC joins several other countries whose laws and policies have been tweaked before elections to eliminate political adversaries. Benin and Senegal have been in similar situations. Their governments passed legislation that political opponents said distorted the competitive democratic process. Such amendments can also threaten national security.

DRC joins several countries whose laws have been tweaked before elections to get rid of adversaries

The debate over the proposed law must be seen in the context of DRC’s current political setting, with its newly formed majority in the National Assembly and Senate. Both houses are in favour of the government remaining in control.

At the same time, prominent political actors are starting to position themselves ahead of the 2023 polls. Most are devising strategies to maximise their chances of remaining at the helm of, or close to, power. Those allied to President Félix Tshisekedi might want to help him retain office beyond 2023. Even though he hasn’t made any public statement on the debate, his supporters may believe that he stands to benefit from the new legislation.

However, some civil society organisations and the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) warn that the proposed law threatens DRC’s stability. MONUSCO head Bintou Keita called on political actors to work towards inclusive and peaceful elections and be mindful of the dangerous consequences of the citizenship debate ahead of the 2023 polls.   

Questions about political actors’ nationalities aren’t new in the DRC. Former president Joseph Kabila’s rise to power fuelled speculation over his citizenship. Former prime minister Samy Badibanga and former governor of the mineral-rich province of Katanga, Moise Katumbi, have also been targeted. As it was for Alassane Ouattara in Côte d’Ivoire, Katumbi’s supporters believe their leader is being singled out, and are threatening to quit the ‘sacred union’ if the law is passed.

The political manipulation of communities’ differences is a major cause of violence in DRC

Still, some hold that the DRC is under the threat of infiltration from its neighbours, mainly Rwanda. This has contributed to the flare-up of hate speech against those perceived as being foreigners.

Those promoting the new law must remember that the political manipulation of communities’ differences, including citizenship, is a major cause of hostilities. The DRC is already dealing with community violence in the Tanganyika, Ituri and South and North Kivu provinces. Fears that the Eastern DRC will fragment have contributed to the crisis in Minembwe, South Kivu province, prompting clashes between local communities and the Banyamulenge, who are considered ‘foreigners.’

If passed, the proposed legislation on candidates’ citizenship would add to the existing insecurity in those provinces, and undermine much-needed national cohesion. It would lead to political uncertainty when the government and its external partners are trying to consolidate fragile peacebuilding gains and set the DRC on a sustainable path.

A Congolité law might in the short term have emotional appeal as a mobilising slogan for political advantage. But in the medium to long term, it is a recipe for disaster.

Wrangling over ‘Ivoirité’ in the late 1990s led Côte d’Ivoire into the abyss of political violence

The raging debate on ‘Congolité’ is reminiscent of the same wrangling over ‘Ivoirité’ in Côte d’Ivoire in the late 1990s. It led Côte d’Ivoire into the abyss of political violence and war that claimed the lives of nearly 3 000 people. There are enough examples in Africa – including countries like Somalia, Rwanda and Sudan – where micro-nationalism, or the manipulation of communities and identity, went wrong, leaving these countries devastated.

Regulating access to national high office should ensure leaders’ integrity, competence and ability to deliver. This includes defending the country’s territory and protecting citizens. Once it heads in the direction of perceived political exclusion, it breeds instability, which could have debilitating consequences for the DRC.

Rather than taking this risk – and adding to the DRC’s existing problems – the focus should be on electoral reforms to improve the institutional mechanisms through which leaders are chosen and held accountable. Conditions must be created for a credible, violence-free and transparent election in 2023. The stigma of fraud that hangs over the choice of national leaders must be removed so that elected officials enjoy popular legitimacy.

Peacebuilding and the consolidation of democracy require norms and institutions that promote inclusiveness, respect for human rights, checks and balances, accountability and service delivery. With these ingredients in place, discriminatory laws and policies wouldn’t be necessary.

In considering the proposed legislation, national authorities must think about the long-term impact on peace and stability in the DRC, a country devastated by more than two decades of conflict. Sustainable peacebuilding needs the contribution of all nationals, at home and in the diaspora.

David Zounmenou, ISS Consultant

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