“We reject any notion of a third dialogue with Kabila!” Was the verdict of Felix Tshisekedi, the leader of the main opposition coalition in the Congo. This is now emerging as the consensus among what is usually a fractious civil society and opposition: no more talking with Kabila. At the end of the year, when the extension of his mandate that was brokered by the Catholic Church on December 31, 2016 expires, he must step down. That was the official position taken by the Rassemblement de l’opposition, which Tshisekedi leads, as well as by a coalition that includes many of the country’s main civil society groups, the Collective for Civil Society Actions (CASC). Yesterday, Human Rights Watch endorsed that view in an opinion piece in Foreign Policy magazine.
The opposition needed to do something, to prove they were still a force to be reckoned with, as their demonstrations have been mostly shut down, often violently, for the past year. Unable to use the streets for leverage, and facing a government that appears increasingly intransigent, activists are now trying to make a show of force simply by coming together and proclaiming: Esili (It’s over)!
But will this be enough? Does the government care what their rivals say in statements and air-conditioned conference rooms?
One litmus test came yesterday, at the meeting organized by the United Nations on elections in the Congo, which including most of the key stakeholders. According to people who attended the meeting, the sentiment expressed by African delegates was almost unanimous: Kabila has engaged in good faith efforts to negotiate with the opposition, the electoral process should be given time. Some speakers were more critical of the opposition, whom they characterized, at least in private, as radical and unconstructive. There was no talk, even by western donors, of Kabila stepping down at the end of 2017, although there was also no talk of another round of negotiations.
The logic, as one western diplomat put it, is: “Saying Kabila must go is a non-starter. As long as he has backing from the region, and there is no major turmoil in the streets, that kind of call will be irrelevant at best, and backfire at worst.” Donors think that Kabila will try to delay elections as much as possible, but that sooner or later he will be forced to hold them, and that that is an approach that everyone––including the African Union and regional states––can get behind. As one UN official said, they must just make sure that in this process he doesn’t change the constitution to run for a third term, and that elections are relatively legitimate. Those are the red lines.
This approach relies, however, on several strong assumptions. First, that the electoral process will be legitimate. While most of the eligible population outside of Kasai provinces has now been registered to vote, it appears that almost nobody has a clear idea of how clean that process was. The Organization of the Francophonie has said it will do an audit, but that the process needs to be completed first, which could take until the end of the year. Some western diplomats suspect that the rigging of the process may have already begun in serious, although there is no hard evidence for that, at least not in public. What is clear, however, is that all of the institutions in charge of the elections––the electoral commission, the courts, the local administration and security forces––are deeply politicized. The hope in some quarters is that Kabila is so unpopular that even massive rigging will not produce a victory for him; other diplomats think that even just forcing Kabila to step down in favor of a successor of his picking is a step forward.
Secondly, the assumption that Kabila will have to hold elections sooner or later. While he has struggled to follow his African peers––Biya, Sassou, Kagame, Museveni to name a few––and change the constitution to run again, and he has said he would not seek reelection, this option has not been discarded by those around him. Some have floated the idea of a referendum, as recently as this week in meetings with diplomats. Others appear to be playing for time, ever the patient tacticians, waiting for an opportunity to present itself to do something that could prolong the incumbent’s term.
For the moment, it appears that Kabila has been able to keep the upper hand. The region has endorsed his approach, the opposition has been unable to mobilize in the face of deadly repression (and, at times, their own disorganization), and even the economy is beginning to look up. Of course, things could change. The Catholic Church could join the opposition in its call for Kabila to step down. Regional states, especially Angola, could be saying one thing in front of its peers, but then put the screws on the Kinshasa government in private. And the opposition, as it has promised, could surprise, as it has promised, by flexing its muscle in the streets of major cities.
In the end, it seems clear that the impetus for change will come from the Congo and not from New York or Addis.