Time for change: The US’s Nikki Haley has told the DRC to hold elections or risk losing US support. Picture: AFP/GETTY IMAGES/ TUTONDELE MIANKEN
Time for change: The US’s Nikki Haley has told the DRC to hold elections or risk losing US support. Picture: AFP/GETTY IMAGES/ TUTONDELE MIANKEN

Elections that are postponed, protests, arrests, and repeat ... It is hard not too feel that things are going in circles in the seemingly unending political crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

As 2017 draws to a close, marking a full year since President Joseph Kabila’s term should have ended, little seems to have changed. Implementation of the political agreement signed in December 2016 stalled after the death of opposition leader Étienne Tshisekedi in February and has not resumed.

The agreement to hold elections next year provides a framework against which the regime can be held accountable.

The regime now controls government, the national oversight committee meant to guide the agreement’s implementation and the electoral commission. With such a tight grip on key institutions, Kabila has had to do little more than wait, and the regime has adopted an irritating “I can’t hear you” stance.

Its delaying tactics have succeeded in disorienting a weak and divided opposition, and left the international community with little leverage.

So could Kabila win the long-term game?

Next year will be decisive. In November, after US pressure, the Congolese electoral commission finally set December 23 2018 as the date for presidential elections. The announcement, which followed a high-level meeting between Kabila and the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, during her visit to Kinshasa, has given the international community a clear time frame, something that had been lacking.

“We have a date, and it is technically feasible to organise elections for the end of next year. Whether it is politically realistic is another question,” says Hans Hoebeke, the International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for the DRC. “It’s not an ideal situation, but it is the result of the regime being given too much space both by the opposition, which was more focused on internal disputes, and the international community, which has been naive and distracted elsewhere.”

The agreement also sets a deadline by which to judge Kabila’s intentions. Though he has shown no sign of stepping down, he has said he will not run for a third term and he has not tried to change the constitution. The 2016 political agreement he signed also clearly stated he would step down.

“Even if the power-sharing deal is dead, the agreement provides a clear framework that we can hold the regime accountable to,” says Hoebeke.

We have a date, and it is technically feasible to organise elections for the end of next year. Whether it is politically realistic is another question
Hans Hoebeke

Above all, the population is losing patience, and is taking the 2018 deadline seriously. Many blame the church for leading political negotiations, saying this only helped Kabila’s delaying tactics by preventing people from demonstrating out of respect for the clergy.

“We missed an opportunity last year,” says Bienvenu Mukonde, a student. “We won’t make the same mistake next year.”

Over the course of 2017, the Congolese franc fell from 900 to the US dollar to 1,500, a dip that has dramatically affected residents of cities such as Kinshasa, where people are already extremely hostile to Kabila.

“This needs to stop. People are dying because they can’t eat or have access to health care. Nongovernmental organisations and the international community don’t see it because they are out in the provinces providing relief, but Kinshasa is hell,” says Jean-Marc Kaseka, a shopkeeper from the Matonge district.

Street protests are not the only threat to Kabila’s rule. Even if the insurrection in Kasai province has been quelled for the moment, rumours that militants are remobilising are circulating in Kananga, the capital of Kasai Central province, and armed groups have increased their activities in the east throughout the year.

Western and African powers will have to work together, and fast, if they want to prevent the crisis from tipping over into something much more violent and destabilising for the region.

Pushing hard for the logistical organisation of the elections, including putting some money on the table, should be accompanied by a real effort to open the political space to allow a credible vote. They should also talk some sense into the opposition, whose refusal to engage with the presidential majority is only playing into Kabila’s hands.

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