Last month, on September 19, protestors descended on the streets of Kinshasa–the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)–and barricaded roads and burned tyres. At issue was forcing the country’s President, Laurent Kabila, to agree to a calendar for the 2016 presidential elections. (In February 2012, the country’s electoral commission scheduled the next presidential elections for November 27 this year, but Kabila has been stalling.)
The following night, some offices of President Kabila’s political party were set on fire, presumably by protestors. The next day, soldiers allegedly set fire to offices belonging to opposition political parties. The government reported 17 deaths as a result of the protests. Opposition political parties estimated that more than 37 people were killed.
The most obvious reading of the ongoing pre-electoral unrest suggest that the DRC is at the brink of another collapse. Pessimism is driven by the fact that in the past 20 years the DRC has been characterized by widespread armed-conflicts and social turmoil. In order to make sense of the current political stalemate we need to consider two important moments in the recent history of DRC: First, the 2005 constitution, and, second, the January 2015 popular outcry over a proposed electoral law that requires a new voters’ roll.
In 2005, following years of political uncertainty, Congolese voted for a new constitution. Two provisions dealt specifically with presidential elections. A key provision in the new constitution is Article 70. It limits presidential terms to two, five years each. In addition, Article 64 of the constitution states that “ [a]ll Congolese have the duty to oppose any individual or group of individuals who seize power by force or who exercise it in violation of the provisions of this constitution.”
Kabila is the second longest ruling Congolese president after Mobutu Sese Seko. In Mobutu’s 32 years of dictatorship, political dissent was heavily repressed until Laurent Kabila, aided by Rwanda and Uganda, took power in 1997. In 2001 Laurent Kabila was mysteriously assassinated by one of his bodyguards and his son, Joseph Kabila, through bizarre political machination, became the fourth Congolese president. Throughout his 15 years in the presidency, Joseph Kabila’s legitimacy has been contested. Since 2005, the DRC has had two presidential elections; in 2006 and 2011. Both presidential elections tested the Congolese democracy. Though both elections were heavily disputed, Kabila emerged victorious. The main losers of the two elections, Jean Pierre Bemba and Étienne Tshisekedi, did not pick up guns,instead choosing instead to wait for the end of Kabila’s presidential term to compete again.
Most Congolese assumed Kabila respected the constitution and wouldn’t run for a third term. Emboldened by Article 64, opposition Congolese political parties and their sympathizers were determined to oppose any attempt to extend Kabila’s presidential bid. Everything would come to a head when, in February 2012, the Congolese Independent National Electoral Commission scheduled the next presidential elections for November 2016.
In January 2015, Kabila’s supporters suddenly argued that a new general census was needed in order to come up with a more accurate voters’ roll. Many in the political opposition interpreted this as a delaying tactic: it would postpone presidential elections by about four years, thus extending Kabila’s presidency. Congolese opposition parties and their followers descended into the streets of Kinshasa and other parts of the country in protest. More than 40 protesters were killed. But the popular uprising forced the government to back down from the proposed electoral law. The only available option left for Kabila to extend his presidency was to delay the elections through political stalemate or other mechanisms, known as glisment électorale or electoral sliding. (In the DRC electoral sliding is an instance in which claims of administrative inadequacies and or political calculations are used to delay the electoral calendar for few months or years.)
However, the sense this time around is that political dialogue will prevail over the language of weapons. Even more significant, is the demand from the ground up for political accountability. This signals two important facts: One, that the people are demanding that institutions, at least the electoral process in this case, function as they ought to, and, two, that the people are basing their political resistance on the law of the nation, as opposed to mere political partisanship.
Undoubtedly the political fate of DRC depends on whether Kabila leaves power peacefully or not. Kabila alone knows where he stands; however, so long as he does not publicly recuse himself from running for a third term many Congolese, including myself, will be suspicious of any dialogue proposed by the government.