Free the DRC: The Congolese diaspora organised a march in the streets of Brussels to ask for free elections. Picture: GETTY IMAGES
Free the DRC: The Congolese diaspora organised a march in the streets of Brussels to ask for free elections. Picture: GETTY IMAGES

For six months, tensions have run high in the Democratic Republic of Congo as President Joseph Kabila’s final term nears its end.

Elections have been pushed back to April 2018, which means Kabila will remain in power well beyond his two-term limit (which is reached in December).

The opposition has warned that if Kabila does not step down on December 19, the country is at risk of slipping back into a new civil war. With weeks to go before that deadline is upon them, the Congolese are holding their collective breath.

There is nothing surprising about the situation. What is surprising is how little the international community and opposition parties have done in the years since the previous elections to anticipate and mediate a solution.

In power since 2001, Kabila was first appointed president by parliament to take the reins in a time of crisis, following the murder of his father, Laurent-Désiré Kabila, the leader of the rebellion that ousted Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997.

During his first years in power the country united around him, and rebel groups signed a peace agreement in 2002, putting an end to the worst war on the continent in living memory. He was elected twice, in 2006 and again in 2011, exhausting his constitutional options to remain at the helm.

In a way, the real transition from war to peace and from tyranny to democracy is playing out now. The DRC has never had a peaceful handover of power since its independence from Belgium in 1960, and Kabila is the son of a rebel leader who seized power by force. The Congolese elite has benefited from having Kabila in power, and his reign has enabled some of the corruption and the pillaging of natural resources. Just a couple of weeks ago, a mining company run by Glencore was accused of making a dubious payment of millions of dollars to a company owned by Dan Gertler, the Israeli businessman known for his close friendship with the president.

Kabila and his government did not have to look far for a legitimate argument to delay the election. Since the 2011 presidential and parliamentarian elections, the central African country has not updated its electoral register. Authorities say the complex and costly effort to enrol new voters will take at least until mid-2017, making it impossible to hold the elections before December.

While some Western states have demanded that Kabila stick to the proper schedule, the UN and the AU have supported the government’s initiative for a national dialogue, even though it has been boycotted by the opposition. In doing so, they have legitimised the outcome of the dialogue.

Edem Kodjo, a former prime minister of Togo nominated by the AU to mediate the dialogue, presided over negotiations that even the church refused to take part in. With only a fraction of the opposition present, the agreement reached — to delay the elections until April 2018 and let Kabila remain in power — hardly makes for a consensus that will put the country on a peaceful path.

What lies ahead is anyone’s guess. In September, protests broke out across the country, bringing hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets to demand that elections be held on time — or at the very least that Kabila dégage (get the hell out).

The Congolese authorities’ response was uncompromising. As crowds of protesters descended on Kinshasa’s centre, security forces met them with tear gas, water canons and live bullets. Nearly 50 people died, according to Human Rights Watch.

Since then, dissent has been stifled, and attempts at protests have been reprimanded. Facing a prison sentence for fraud, Moïse Katumbi, the popular former governor of Katanga and presidential hopeful, has been forced into exile abroad. And at 83, Étienne Tshisekedi, the veteran opposition figurehead, is too old to be the catalyst to galvanise people and push them to action.

In this environment, civil war is a genuine and credible fear. The absence of a charismatic and powerful leader to unite people compounds this.

But for Kabila, like his father before him, the real threat is most likely to come from within.

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