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Dialogue or what?

On Wednesday this week, opposition members and civil society activists crowded into the CEPAS conference room in downtown Kinshasa to denounce, yet again, any attempt by President Kabila to change the constitution or to try to delay national elections past 2016. The same day, the spokesperson for the UDPS opposition party said that if Kabila does not hold the promised national dialogue by the end of the month––a date set by the president himself––then “the UDPS will enter into a different logic.”

The question Kabila must be asking himself is: What logic is that? For as much as Kabila has been unable to simply change the constitution, as his peers Sassou Nguesso in Brazzaville and Paul Kagame in Kigali appear to be doing, he does not seem to be intimidated by the violent scenarios that have played out in Ouagadougou and Bujumbura. Indeed, he seems to be saying to the opposition: bring it on.

First, on November 12, Atundu Liongo, the spokesperson for Kabila’s ruling coalition, said the country should organize a census of the population before national elections––the same proposed census that provoked protests and violence in Kinshasa in January and that would probably delay elections by years. Then, the same day, President Kabila flew to Harare for meetings with his Zimbabwean counterpart Robert Mugabe; Kabila intends to take over as chair of the African Union from Mugabe next year. Coming out of the meeting, Mugabe told the press that Kabila still wants to hold local elections before national elections. Did he misspeak? For if this is true, it will be impossible to hold national elections by the end of 2016, when Kabila’s legal mandate runs out. In private, this is what senior officials in government are already saying.

So what would the reaction be is Kabila runs out the clock and plays for time? Despite the perception in Kinshasa, the international community has relatively few cards to play. Western financial aid to the Congo has declined and what remains is in areas the government does not need for its survival: health, education, agriculture, administrative reforms, and infrastructure. Donors can significantly ratchet up pressure by imposing travel bans and assets freezes on select individuals around President Kabila. Nobody wants to be a pariah––but I am sure he had an interesting talk with Mugabe about that.

But the key constraints that Kabila is under are domestic, not international. He has been hemmed in by a strident Catholic Church, a cantankerous opposition, and an apparently hostile public opinion. Critically, his own political coalition has fractured, with some of its most prominent members flocking to the opposition: Olivier Kamitatu, the former minister of planning, was a donor favorite who helped negotiate debt relief and aid packages for the country; and Pierre Lumbi, the former national security advisor, was one of architects of the Chinese infrastructure-for-minerals deal, as well as the head of the second largest party in the presidential coalition. Here the key question––as we saw in Egypt, Syria, and Burkina Faso––will be whether these fractures will spread to the military elites, as well.

In response to these challenges, Kabila has been able to co-opt parts of civil society and even members of the opposition. During the nomination of the new head of the electoral commission, for example, we saw all religious groups except the Catholic Church throw their weight behind the president’s apparent choice. Last year,  the head of the largest protestant group of churches, the Église du Christ au Congo, even said he was favorable toward a constitutional revision. And in response to the defection of his political allies, the president has been able to co-opt some of their own members and bring them back into the fold, or foment divisions within their parties.

It would obviously be preferable if the two sides––the opposition and the ruling coalition––could come to an amicable agreement about the way forward: the election calendar, the voter register (which currently excludes over 7 million new voters), the financing of the polls, the composition of the electoral commission, and the order of the elections. But, while Kabila has said that he wants discuss these same issues, the opposition seems to feel that any forum convened by Kabila and dominated by him will end up becoming a step toward delaying the election, or worse.

But what are the options? It seems that both sides are eager to test the Congolese’s ability to mobilize in the streets.

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