- The mass protests in Kinshasa on 31 July in support of opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi’s new anti-government platform mark a new stage in the effort to prevent President Joseph Kabila from staying in power beyond his second term.
- Despite the growing popular opposition, Kabila has shown little willingness to compromise and a number of scenarios are possible that will ensure the continuation of his rule, including the indefinite delay of elections or change to the constitution.
- As opposition to Kabila’s rule continues to grow, so too will the frequency of protests and risk of mutinies and coup attempts, particularly after his constitutional mandate ends on 19 December.
The Rassemblement (rally) alliance of 83-year-old veteran opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi and exiled former Katanga governor Moise Katumbi represents the most significant political threat to Kabila’s presidency since he took office in 2001. Tshisekedi leads the DRC’s largest opposition party, the Union pour la Democratie et le Progres Social (UDPS), which enjoys strong support in the western Kasai provinces and the capital Kinshasa. After claiming to have won the disputed 2011 election, Tshisekedi stepped back from Congolese politics and moved to Belgium in 2014, until his return to the country on 27 July to lead mass protests in Kinshasa on 31 July.
Tshisekedi’s decision to return to the DRC comes as political tensions grow over widely held suspicions that Kabila plans to remain in power beyond the end of his constitutional term limit on 19 December 2016. In an attempt to build a coherent opposition movement, representatives from most of the main opposition parties met in Belgium in June and launched the Rassemblement anti-Kabila platform with Tshisekedi as its president. Unlike many previous attempts to form an opposition coalition, Rassemblement managed to secure the backing of all the main anti-government factions, including the UDPS, the Group of Seven (G-7) and Alternance pour la République (AR), representing the broadest political challenge to Kabila yet.
Importantly, the movement also secured the support of Katumbi, who broke from Kabila’s ruling Parti du peuple pour la reconstruction et la démocratie (PPRD) in September 2015 and subsequently declared his own plans to run for president. Although Katumbi enjoys broad popular appeal, particularly in Katanga, doubts surround his electoral prospects after state prosecutors issued an arrest warrant against him in May for allegedly hiring American mercenaries, as well as separate charges relating to the illegal sale of property in Lubumbashi. Katumbi subsequently travelled abroad for medical treatment after inhaling teargas during a rally in Lubumbashi and in June was sentenced in absentia to three years in prison. Katumbi has pledged to return to the DRC to challenge his sentence and to campaign for Rassemblement, though it is unclear when he will return.
Despite the growing momentum behind Rassemblement, the legal challenges against Katumbi and residual divisions among the opposition place significant pressure on the coalition. As yet, the movement is focused on forcing the elections to take place on schedule, but it is unclear who would represent the alliance in the presidential election. Although Tshisekedi is the president of Rassemblement, his poor health and advanced age do not necessarily make him the most likely candidate, while Katumbi’s candidacy had already secured the backing of the G-7 and AR coalitions before he went into exile. Another leading voice in the movement is Vital Kamerhe, who came third in the 2011 election and leads the Union pour la Nation Congolaise (UNC), which is popular in the eastern Kivu provinces. Kamerhe is reportedly wary of the Tshisekedi-Katumbi alliance and did not attend Rassemblement’s founding conference, leading to media speculation that his defection remains a possibility.
Irrespective of the renewed opposition offensive, the elections are extremely unlikely to take place before mid-2017 at the very earliest. The electoral commission has said revising the electoral register alone will take 16-17 months from July 2016, reflecting the huge logistical challenge of holding a vote in the DRC. Kabila is likely to further complicate the electoral process by employing a number of strategies to remain in power, the most obvious being pushing back the election even further. This was already attempted in January 2015, when the government attempted to pass an electoral law that would have required a popular census before the vote could take place, a process that could have taken years to complete. The law was widely seen as a delaying tactic and triggered widespread violent protests supported by the influential Catholic Church that eventually led to the bill’s amendment.
Despite the failure of the census initiative, other delaying tactics remain at the president’s disposal. Logistical and security challenges, particularly in the event of a constitutional crisis, could provide further justifications for delays and emergency provisions that could allow the president to remain in power indefinitely. PPRD leaders also continue to voice the possibility of removing term limits through constitutional change, which would likely be the most controversial course of action and risk triggering widespread unrest. In recent months both the party’s secretary-general, Henri Mova Sakanyi, and his deputy, Ramazani Shadari, have voiced the possibility of a constitutional referendum that could allow the president to remain in office.
Any delays to the election or effort to change the constitution raise the significant risk of violent protests that are likely to grow in size and intensity over the next six months. The opposition has already indicated it will look to mobilise tens of thousands of supporters on key electoral and political dates, including 19 September (the date the constitution dictates an election should be held), 27 November (the latest possible date a vote could take place), and 19 December (the date Kabila is meant to have vacated office under the constitution).
The support of the Catholic Church in protests, which is likely in the event of protracted unrest or a widening constitutional crisis, would add further momentum to the demonstrations. The church has traditionally attempted to remain neutral in political disputes but has intervened in the past in an attempt to prevent major crises. A further flashpoint is Katumbi’s return to the DRC, particularly in the event he is arrested, with the potential for significant violence from his supporters in Katanga. The mining hub of Lubumbashi is likely to be at the centre of violent opposition protests in Katanga, and mining companies should monitor the government’s efforts to contain Katumbi as an indication of the potential for disruption to operations.
Some form of dialogue is likely over the coming months, with both the opposition and government under pressure from foreign donors to engage with one another. The opposition will use these talks to argue that, if the elections must be delayed, then power should be handed to Senate President Léon Kengo wa Dondo, who would rule as interim head of state from 20 December until elections can be organised, as per the constitution. Kabila’s reluctance to offer concessions to date, however, suggests it is highly unlikely that he would relinquish his position and will look to stay in power well into 2017 and beyond.
During this period there will be a high risk of sporadic unrest, including major protests in key cities, such as Kinshasa and Lubumbashi, and mutinies within the armed forces, particularly after Kabila’s constitutional mandate ends on 19 December. The fractious Congolese military contains a number of former rebel movements that were integrated into the armed forces under earlier peace deals and there is little evident support for the president’s efforts to remain in power. The risk of mutinies, including coup attempts, is particularly likely if weak state finances - as a result of depressed mining revenues - mean the government is unable to pay military salaries during periods of unrest.
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