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Playing for Time and Ultimate Power in Kabila’s Congo

This article was written for Foreign Policy and can be found here

On Sept. 15, a crowd of several thousand rallied in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Organized by opposition parties, the demonstration was protesting what it perceived as President Joseph Kabila’s attempts to postpone the country’s 2016 presidential elections. Albeit small and hardly a threat to Kabila, the protests rankled his increasingly skittish government. Eventually, a band of thugs — reportedly sent by the government — broke up the protests, resulting in a bloodyclash with opposition supporters. This was no isolated instance: In January, government forces brutally repressed opposition demonstrations. Authorities have also arrested prominent youth activists and oppositions leaders over the past year.

The stakes of Congo’s upcoming elections are high. The country’s constitution bars Kabila, who has ruled the country since 2001, from running for a third five-year term. If he stands down in December 2016 at the conclusion of his current term, it would mark the first peaceful transfer of executive power the country has seen in decades. Under his rule, the Congolese economy has quadrupled in size, and the country has largely emerged from a civil war (low-grade violence still affects millions in the east). Senior officials, include some close to the president, have also made a fortune thanks to the privatization of the mining sector.

But the Congolese are bracing themselves for more unrest, as Kabila’s onetime allies break with him and the streets of Kinshasa and other major urban areas grow increasingly restless. Whether or not full-on turmoil breaks out rests largely on the president’s decision about his own political future. And so far, Kabila seems eager to extend that future, indefinitely.

As a prerequisite for the November 2016 presidential election, Kabila’s government has insisted on first holding local elections to select mayors, local councilors, and administrators. But these elections, slated for Oct. 25, will be the most complex the country has ever attempted, with some 8,000 seats up for grabs. Election officials agree, in private, that it will be impossible to hold the polls this year due to their logistical complexity, cost — up to $1.1 billion — and a basic lack of resources. Kabila, however, seems intent on forging ahead. On Aug. 26, he signed a law allocating seats for the upcoming local elections, meaning that the government is determined to proceed with risky polls that have a high likelihood of failure. If they do fail, presidential elections will likely be delayed.

This fits with what Congo-watchers refer to as Kabila’s strategy of glissement, French for slippage: creating a plethora of administrative and political imbroglios requiring precious time and resources to resolve. These imbroglios include the election scheduling issue, as well as the administering of a national census, which has been shelved for the moment. Another part of glissement is découpage, or cutting up: the creation of at least 26 provinces to replace the current 11. While the 2006 constitutioncalled for this change, it was not until last year that Kabila began to treat this as a priority, leaving many to question his timing. Regardless of the rationale behind the process, it will undoubtedly drain further resources from the state budget and further delay the electoral process. Such is glissement.

If Kabila insists on staying on, it will almost certainly stir trouble, both within Congo’s fractious political elite and on Kinshasa’s unpredictable streets. On Sept. 14, seven political parties, all members of the ruling coalition, wrote to the president, denouncing his “unstated intention not to respect the constitution” and suggesting that this was “a suicidal strategy.” The same day, all seven signatories, including the national security advisor, the minister of planning, and the vice president of the national assembly, were promptly fired. According to officials close to this Group of Seven, as these dissidents are now known, they are backed by Moise Katumbi, governor of the mining-rich southern province of Katanga. Katumbi, who has been employing a lobbying firm in Washington, D.C., to promote his presidential ambitions, has deep pockets and is well-connected among the foreign business community. On Sept. 29, Katumbi officially resigned from Kabila’s party, the People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy, a probable precursor to launching his own campaign.

Alongside this political fracturing, Kabila also must manage the mercurial tempers of Kinshasa’s 12 million people, most of whom are desperately poor. Predicting an impending Congolese Spring is a common pastime, but until recently there were few signs of sustained popular mobilization. While the opposition managed to draw hundreds of thousands of people to the streets in the run-up to the last presidential polls in 2011 — an election widely believed to have been rigged in Kabila’s favor — government forces quickly and brutally suppressed unrest.

This time might be different. Under the leadership of Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya, the Catholic Church — one of the largest providers of social services in Congo — has grown increasingly critical of Kabila. In private, senior church officials have told me that they would back popular protests if Kabila tries to hang onto power; the church itself, however, is internally divided over the extent to which it should be involved in politics.

Kabila is preparing himself for the storm to come. In an effort to divide his opponents and placate the streets, he has courted the main opposition party, the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS), led by the octogenarian Étienne Tshisekedi. Representatives from both sides held secretive talks in Venice and Ibiza in recent months, discussing the contours of a potential national dialogue to resolve the dispute over the sequence of elections. The voter register is also contentious, as up to 8 million Congolese who have reached voting age since the last elections do not yet appear on the official rolls — although, according to foreign diplomats, hundreds of thousands of dead people do. On Sept. 13, however, the UDPS announced that talks had broken down. Its leaders claimed that the government was attempting to co-opt the UDPS into a national unity government in order to postpone the presidential elections indefinitely.

Kabila also finds his international support waning. Congo still benefits from the world’s largest peacekeeping mission — around 20,000 blue helmets are deployed there currently, costing $1.3 billion a year — and a fair share of its budget is funded by foreign donors. Nonetheless, U.S. criticism of Kabila has grown increasingly strident. During his tenure as the Obama administration’s special envoy for Africa’s Great Lakes region, Sen. Russ Feingold called for Kabila to step down at the end of his term on several occasions. His Belgian, French, and British counterparts support this stance but have been less outspoken.

But Kabila may be able to pivot away from Western support. Donor contributions to Congo have declined in recent years, going from 42 percent of the country’s budget in 2010 to 19 percent in 2015, as mineral production has increased dramatically. As of last year, Congo is now Africa’s largest copper and cobalt producer, though therecent commodity slump has dampened its ambitions somewhat. Still, though global giants like Glencore have begun shutting down some mines, they have sunk so much money into Congo that they are committed to toughing it out.

As Congo has tried to wean itself off foreign donors, Kabila has asked for a scaling down of the U.N. peacekeeping mission, claiming that violence has decreased and the state security forces have improved, and is looking increasingly toward China for support. While the $6 billion infrastructure-for-minerals deal concluded between the countries in 2007 has been slow to reap dividends for both sides, Kabila’s trip to Beijing in August and the recent sale of lucrative mining concessions in Katanga to two Chinese companies — Zijin Mining Group and Huayou Cobalt — confirm this eastward turn.

Critically, it appears that Kabila can still count on support from influential neighbors on the continent, in particular Angola, which shares (somewhat unequally, according to many Congolese) large offshore oil fields with Congo, and South Africa, whose companies have invested $865 million in Congo since 2006.

In the end, Kabila’s plans are still unclear. He may still try to launch a frontal attack on the constitution to change term limits, and on Sept. 22 members of his coalition submitted a law preparing for a constitutional referendum. Playing for time, however, is a risky strategy, and Kabila has often spoken, in public and private, about not wanting to end up like two of his heroes — his father, Laurent Kabila, and Congo’s first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, both of whom were assassinated in office. The current view from the presidential palace cannot be comforting: The Congolese security forces are riven with internal divisions and patronage networks while the combination of a divided elite, an incensed population, and foreign opprobrium signals troubled waters ahead.

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