There is a nervous crescendo building up on the streets of Kinshasa ahead of December 19, the day President Joseph Kabila is supposed to step down. Diplomats are sending their families on early Christmas vacations and the Congolese franc has depreciated by about 25 per cent against the US dollar. On social media and even in the streets, signs of “Bye Bye Kabila” and “Eloko Nini Esilaka Te?” (What thing never ends?) denounce what is increasingly looking like a power grab: Although scheduled to leave office after 15 years at the helm, Kabila and his administration have created artificial delays in the electoral process, making it impossible to hold presidential elections on time. Public protest in response to these delays has been suppressed often violently. In September, police and presidential guards cracked down on protests in the poor northwestern neighborhoods of Limete, Masina, and Matete, with tear gas and live bullets, killing at least 53.
It would be easy to look at the streets of Kinshasa and think that we’ve seen this before: A president clinging to power, restive and frustrated youth, streets barricaded with burning tires, and abusive soldiers cuffing, beating, and taking what they want. The Congo is a generous purveyor of African stereotypes, often making it difficult to see the politics through the thickets of hyperbole.
But there is something new afoot, making this uncharted territory. The country has never seen a peaceful, democratic transfer of executive power in its history. There is no Léopold Senghor or Julius Nyerere – leaders who were in power for over twenty years but eventually stepped down peacefully – to serve as a model or blueprint for how to navigate this turbulence.
At the core of the impasse is the political future of Kabila. Parachuted into power following his father Laurent’s assassination in January 2001, Kabila cuts an enigmatic figure. A reclusive president who dislikes the public stage, he presided over the reunification of the country after the war and has overseen an average GDP growth of more than 6% since 2010. Notwithstanding, he has done little to reform an abusive state apparatus or spread economic growth – which is largely driven by industrial mining – more evenly.
Only 45 years old, Kabila now faces an extremely uncertain political future. At times over the past two years, various members of his inner circle have floated the idea of changing the constitution to allow him to run for a third term; after all, this is what Presidents Denis Sassou Nguesso and Paul Kagame did last year, and what Yoweri Museveni, Sam Nujoma, and Paul Biya did in years past. These ideas have been met with fierce opposition from the Catholic Church, the international community, and civil society. In a nationwide opinion poll conducted jointly by the Congo Research Group, where I work, and the Congolese polling firm BERCI, 81% of respondents said they were against a constitutional revision. Kabila seems to have abandoned this approach for now.
He does not have many other options. Having used political fragmentation and weakness as a means of rule for more than a decade, Kabila has become a victim of his own strategy. He is now confronted with an extremely fractious inner circle, in which no one is both popular and loyal enough to be a viable successor. Advisors say that he is worried that if he names someone, his coterie will erupt in infighting. In our poll, when asked whom they would vote for if elections were held this year, only 7.8% named Kabila. And only 17.5% said they would vote for an individual who is currently in the ruling coalition.
This leaves Kabila dead-ended. Unable to change the constitution and lacking a dauphin, he is forced to play for time – a strategy known as glissement (slippage). Members of government are experts at stalling. The government only disbursed 15% of the election budget in 2012, and 25% in 2013 and 2014, making it difficult for the electoral commission to do its job. Several rounds of negotiations have also been a means of co-opting opponents and playing for time, first in the wake of the deeply flawed 2011 elections and most recently with the dialogue politique, which culminated in a deal with opposition politicians that offered them the prime ministry in return for postponing elections until April 2018.
However, the two most popular politicians in the country have boycotted this deal. In our poll, Moise Katumbi, the wealthy former governor of Katanga province won 33% of the potential vote and Etienne Tshisekedi, the veteran opposition leader, 17%. They are now planning a series of nationwide protests aimed at unseating Kabila.
A resolution of this crisis is not likely soon. Katumbi, who left for exile when the government issued a dubious arrest warrant for him in May 2016, is barred from negotiations, and Tshisekedi is not known for compromise. They are bolstered by an energized donor community, which has threatened sanctions – the US has already imposed a travel ban and asset freezes on three security officials – and has been uncharacteristically united. On the other hand, Kabila appears to believe that he can muddle his way through by repressing street protests and hiving off opponents with money and positions in government. Last month he named a former Tshisekedi loyalist prime minister, and diplomats suspect that part of the drop in the Congolese franc has to do with “patronage inflation” – the premium Kabila has to pay for loyalty during this crisis. There do not seem to be any divisions within the security services that could present a physical threat to himself or his government.
Meanwhile, his African peers, after some wavering, appear also to be grudgingly backing him. A summit of regional leaders met in Luanda this week and endorsed the deal that Kabila had hashed out with the opposition. South Africa has been particularly feckless: though it brokered the historic 2002 peace deal, its current leadership has remained silent in face of the turmoil in Kinshasa.
Over the next two years, the Congolese political system will enter a new phase, with a new relationship between the population and its elites. The framework of the past 13 years was defined by a peace process that culminated in a new constitution, the Third Republic, which forged new democratic institutions and set the terms for political competition. The current impasse is testing that document to its core. It will either be jettisoned, or maimed to such a degree that it will be nothing more than a series of laws, or will survive as a stronger, sturdier foundation.