The internet convulsed briefly over comments made by President Joseph Kabila’s coalition spokesperson and published by Reuters on Saturday. At a press conference called in Lubumbashi by the provincial commissioner for the new province of Lualaba––apparently an occasion to rally the troops behind the president––André Alain Atundu said:
We need to say the truth to the Congolese people that, in the current conditions, we are not able to organise the elections. So, the people must grant us two to four years.
Was this the first official confirmation that Kabila intends to stay on past his legal term, which ends in December 2016? Some people certainly felt so––I began getting text messages and Twitter alerts within minutes, one friend suggesting that, “We finally know what we had always suspected. Glissement.” Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, said:
— Kenneth Roth (@KenRoth) November 2, 2015
Meanwhile, Moise Katumbi, the former governor of Katanga and presumed presidential candidate, reacted with a press statement:
The ruling coalition’s call to delay national elections is troubling but unfortunately not surprising. The people of the Democratic Republic of Congo have spoken through their Constitution that they do not want a president for life – and that they want presidents to be limited to no more than two five-year terms.
(Katumbi’s reaction reveals a well-oiled media machine, but also a sense of drama––he made the statement as his soccer team, TP Mazembe, won the first leg of the African Champion’s League against USM Alger.)
Strangely enough, however, none of the major Congolese newspapers in Kinshasa picked up the story, nor did Radio Okapi in its Monday broadcast. And, according to journalists in the capital, the Congolese government has been quick to walk back Atundu’s statement, saying that it does not represent official policy.
It is possible that Atundu got ahead of himself. But it is not the first time that he has suggested that the government needs to delay the elections by several years. At a televised debate with opposition leader Franck Diongo just two days earlier, he said the same thing. Watch the first ten minutes and you will get a feel for the logic: we don’t have money because the international community has not provided it (although, according to their own budget, they want to finance 90 per cent from domestic revenues); the election commission has resigned, and we need time to replace him (although the electoral calendar was seriously delayed even before that); and we need to register new voters and clean up the voting register, which can take two to four years.
At some point, the government will have to make the delay of elections official. But for now, it seems to be betting that silence is the best weapon: it barely said anything when provincial elections, scheduled for a week ago, did not take place, and Kabila has been adamantly opposed to making any statements about the elections except in the most general terms. And we are soon going to be beyond the point of no return, when it will be impossible to hold credible presidential elections by the end of next year.