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The UN’s Congolese Pickle

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon has a Congolese dilemma. After having been marginalized politically for years in the Congo, the UN now has the opportunity to play a critical role in navigating the upcoming battle over President Joseph Kabila’s succession.

For months now, President Kabila has been preparing a national dialogue to forge a consensus around the upcoming elections. He says that the country needs the dialogue in order to solve contentious issues regarding the elections––the electoral calendar needs to be amended, the voter register needs to be cleaned up, and the country needs to figure out how to finance the whole mess of elections. Detractors say that these decisions do not require a dialogue, that all the electoral commission needs to do is to carry out its job and to place national elections before the local ones.

Now, despite the hysteria provoked by the meeting of the opposition and civil society in Dakar last week, it seems likely that there will be some sort of dialogue in the coming weeks. And according to the presidential decree of November 28, the dialogue will be co-moderated by the ruling coalition and the opposition, with international facilitation.

That facilitation will apparently come from the United Nations, and UN Special Envoy for the Great Lakes Said Djinnit spent several days in Kinshasa at the beginning of the month, evaluating the possibility of a dialogue. Late in the evening of December 8, the Congolese national TV announced that the preparatory committee, which was supposed to have been created by then, was « in the process of being set up, » and that Djinnit was playing a role in this process.

On the one hand, this is a boon for a UN mission that has been largely deprived of an overt political role in recent years, both in terms of the electoral process and with armed groups. While under Security Council Resolution 2098, MONUSCO has the mandate to provide its « good offices » to broker dialogue between political parties, as well as between the Congolese government and armed groups, it has not been allowed to do so. Last year, the head of MONUSCO Martin Kobler was told explicitly by Kabila to refrain from hosting such a dialogue; Kobler offered his assistance again in April and June, with no response.

So the UN should be happy to be invited back in as a peace broker. But there are several reasons Turtle Bay should be wary:

  • TORs: The UN’s role as outlined by the President Kabila is potentially minimal. While the decree itself simply says that the bureau of the dialogue is assisted by an international facilitator, without any details about his terms of reference, in a speech on November 28, President Kabila said that the facilitation would offer « its good offices in case of major difficulties. » While this is still sufficiently vague, the UN would want to make sure that it would be able to play a substantial role;
  • Inclusivity: The UN cannot be seen to lend its legitimacy to a dialogue that ends up violating the constitution or allowing Kabila to co-opt his rivals. For the moment, only the UDPS and several very small opposition parties have expressed interest in a dialogue, and to broker talks that exclude a large part of the opposition would be very risky.  Nonetheless, there seems to be a convergence among the opposition following the Dakar meeting, and in private other opposition leaders say they could accept talks under certain conditions (respecting the constitution and holding elections on time seem to be the most important);
  • The facilitator: According to international media, Kabila had initially floated four names (Moustapha Niasse, Kofi Annan, Eduardo dos Santos, and Said Djinnit) on November 24. However, three senior UN officials told Congo Research Group that the Kabila has specifically asked for Djinnit, and the December 8 communiqué from the presidency also points to Djinnit as their choice. But the opposition is not comfortable with the Algerian diplomat. Today, several UDPS leaders contacted Ban Ki Moon’s office, expressing their dissatisfaction with Djinnit, and the party will apparently write an official letter tomorrow. Several opposition leaders suspect that Djinnit could be favorable toward the incumbent, given his role in mediating conflicts in Guinea and Burundi in the past, and have gone so far to suggest that Kabila’s cabinet has been in touch with the Algerian government to curry favor. If Djinnit is not an acceptable broker––and President dos Santos would be even less acceptable to the opposition––then Kofi Annan would become a leading contender.

The UN is supposed to respond to Kabila’s request in the coming days. If the dialogue falls through, then the Catholic Church has provided the plot line for the next phase: a mass march in Kinshasa on February 16, 2016.

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