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PSC Interview: 'Without political will, sending a SADC special envoy will be pointless'
4 September 2017

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is sliding towards large-scale political instability, as it now seems increasingly unlikely that presidential elections will be held by the end of this year. Earlier this month the Southern African Development Community (SADC), at its annual summit, ‘took note’ that it would be ‘unrealistic’ for the DRC to hold elections within the timeframe agreed to by stakeholders in December 2016. The PSC Report spoke to Institute for Security Studies (ISS) expert Stephanie Wolters about the latest developments in the DRC crisis.

What do you make of the SADC statement on the DRC election date? What are the implications for stability in the country?

The SADC statement on the DRC is a significant disappointment, but not a surprise. SADC has so far failed to play either an active or a constructive role in addressing the ongoing crisis in the DRC. Last year it rubberstamped the African Union (AU)-led negotiations, which produced a transition arrangement that said elections should be held in 2018, and that did not address two key issues: that Kabila could not stand for a third mandate and that the constitution could not be amended during the transition period. Most observers knew that the arrangement lacked credibility and could not restore stability to the DRC, and so Kabila was forced back to the negotiation table, this time under the CENCO [National Episcopal Conference of Congo] mediation, which culminated in the December 31 accord.

SADC’s decision to state clearly that elections cannot be held in 2017 ‘due to a certain number of problems that have made it unrealistic’ is also very problematic. The December 31 accord stipulates that elections must be held by the end of this year, and SADC’s acceptance of a further delay signals a bias in favour of the Kabila government, which has yet to produce an electoral calendar and has violated the December 31 accord on a number of other levels.

SADC’s decision to state clearly that elections cannot be held in 2017 is very problematic
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SADC again asked the government to publish the ‘revised election calendar’ for elections. It has done so in the past, but the Congolese government simply ignored this. How likely is it that we will see this calendar some time soon?

The head of the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) said this week that the electoral calendar would be published in the coming days, and it remains to be seen whether he will stick to that promise. The voter registration process – which was the reason the government gave last year to delay the election – is completed across the country, with the exception of the Kasai region where registration was suspended due to insecurity.

Depending on the dates that the CENI gives, the publication of the calendar could be another explosive moment in the DRC. If the election date is 2018, or even 2019, as recent leaks have suggested, this will likely spark large-scale protests and a renewed response from the international community.

SADC now plans to send a special envoy to the DRC. Do you think this will make any difference to the current situation?

SADC does not need a special envoy to make a positive contribution to resolving the political tensions and instability caused by the election delay in the DRC. What it needs is the political will to push for credible elections to be held as soon as possible. If it does not have that political will, nominating a special envoy will be pointless.

The opposition in the DRC seems divided, with some important players, like Moise Katumbi, still outside the country. Who is taking the lead in the protests and stay-aways we have witnessed these last few months?

The Congolese opposition was weakened by two factors this year: first by the death of UDPS [Union for Democracy and Social Progress] leader Etienne Tshisekedi in February 2017, and then by the Congolese government’s subsequent refusal to implement the December 31 accord in letter and in spirit. The government took advantage of the disarray in the opposition and encouraged the creation of splinter opposition groups, which it then co-opted into government; however, they lack credibility and a political base.

The opposition has also rallied in the last few months, and now seems to again have a strategy to maintain pressure on Kabila to leave office and hold elections. The Rassemblement de l’opposition – which is made up of the UDPS and various other political parties, including the G7, which is aligned with Katumbi – remains intact for now. The new strategy is to maintain popular momentum – in conjunction with civil society groups – aimed at forcing Kabila to leave power, paving the way for credible elections to take place. The transition period is to be short and to be led by a ‘consensus personality’ who will be barred from running for the presidency.  

The new strategy is to maintain popular momentum aimed at forcing Kabila to leave power
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Does SADC’s rather lacklustre attitude to the DRC indicate regional support for Kabila? Or is the region divided?

SADC as a regional body has rarely spoken out against the head of state of a member country, and takes a very hands-off approach to domestic crises in its member states. It is not surprising that it is doing so again in the DRC, but it does not mean that there is a consensus in the region, or among SADC member states, to support Kabila.

There are regional players who are opposed to Kabila’s staying in power, but I think there is a reluctance to use SADC as a vehicle to criticise him for fear of setting a precedent that other member states would not themselves want to be held to. There are also powerful SADC member states, notably Zimbabwe and South Africa, that have close relations with Kabila and that have expressed their support for him in bilateral settings. This makes it difficult to achieve a consensus position in SADC.

Who are the main role players in the region that could put pressure on the government to resolve the impasse in Kinshasa?

The key player is undoubtedly Angola. It has been a long-time ally of Kabila’s and has helped him out militarily on numerous occasions, but it has grown frustrated with his inability to manage the growing political instability in the country related to the delayed elections. Angola has used several avenues to voice its disapproval, including voting against the DRC at the United Nations (UN) Security Council, and nudging Kabila back to the negotiating table after it judged the AU-brokered agreement too flimsy and exclusive to lead to a stable transition.

More recently, senior officials in the Angolan government have expressed concern about the instability in their giant neighbour, especially in the context of the growing humanitarian and security crisis in the Kasai region, which has displaced over 1 million people and sent over 30 000 refugees into Angola. The message has also been delivered clearly to Kabila himself that it is time for him to go.

Senior officials in the Angolan government have expressed concern about the instability in their giant neighbour
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How do you judge Angola’s actions so far in the DRC crisis?

What drives Angola’s interests in the DRC is the need for stability in its biggest neighbour, with which it shares over 2 000 km of border, and the need for the Congolese head of state to be a close ally, rather than a real interest in upholding constitutional norms.

Now that Kabila has demonstrated that he cannot get the population to simply accept a still indefinite election delay, Angola has decided that it is time for change.

Whatever the nature of Angola’s efforts to get Kabila to go, the real measure of its success for the Congolese population will be whether the DRC has free and fair elections that restore constitutional rule and ensure the credibility of the new government.

What about the wider international community?

The international community has been clear about the need for elections to be held in 2016 since as early as 2014, when doubts first emerged about the Kabila government’s commitment to holding elections in the constitutionally mandated timeframe. Various special envoys from the United States (US), the United Kingdom, Belgium, the European Union (EU) and the UN have repeatedly made this clear. They have also said that they are willing to provide financial support for the elections if a credible electoral calendar is made public. In 2016, when the government’s foot-dragging made it clear that the election would not be held on time, the UN and the EU supported the AU-led negotiation process in the false hope that it could lead to a consensus solution. The same organisations supported the December 31 accord, and continue to reiterate that it must be respected in letter and in spirit. To date none of these measures has been able to prevent Kabila from staying in office or to prevent the Congolese security forces from harassing and arresting human rights and civil society activists, journalists and opposition politicians, or killing innocent civilians during public protests. They have also not been able to prevent Kabila from applying elements of the December 31 accord that suit him while discarding the principle of consensus and inclusivity. Sanctions may help to chip away at the edifice, but the real leverage lies in the region.

The issue of sanctions against certain Congolese individuals is a point of contention. SADC ‘deplored and condemned’ these sanctions. How effective are they?

So far both the US government and the EU have imposed sanctions on members of the DRC government and security forces. The grounds for imposing sanctions are both political and related to concerns about human rights violations committed during crackdowns on political protests in Kinshasa and in the Kasai region. Sanctions are generally aimed at deterring further abuses by demonstrating consequences, while they can also be used as leverage and to divide a ruling elite. There are signs that the US and EU sanctions have, to varying degrees, created a climate of fear among some senior officials that they could be on the next sanctions list. This could eventually lead to splits in the ruling alliance. However, large-scale human rights abuses have continued across the country and there are as yet no tangible signs that the people who have been sanctioned – many of whom are the hardliners in the Kabila government – now feel compelled to change their behaviour.

There are no signs that the people who have been sanctioned feel compelled to change their behaviour
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Do you foresee that the crisis in the Kasais will be resolved some time soon or will it spill over into other parts of the DRC?

A key element driving the escalation of the violence in the Kasais is the disproportionate response that has been meted out by the Congolese security forces against the Kamuina Nsapu [a militia group named after its leader, who died at the hands of security forces in 2016]. This has stoked further violence from the Kamuina Nsapu and dragged in the local population, leading to a cycle of violence, and widespread insecurity and displacement.

One key issue is the government’s lack of credibility and legitimacy one year after the president’s mandate expired. In the current climate of tension and fear, and the ongoing uncertainty about when elections will be held, it is unlikely that the same government that is delaying the elections can restore stability in this area.

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