Like some other countries in transition, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) once again, finds itself at a crossroads. This time around, the country has to contend with a political imbroglio created by what is alleged to be the current president, Joseph Kabila’s subterfuge to cling to power- by hook or by crook. The D-day for the Congolese president’s second and final term in office was December 19, 2016. Alas, that was not to be the case. This was not the most shocking turn of events after all. This is so because the May 2016 Constitutional Court ruling had already shed some light on what the Congolese should expect on that fateful day.
After fighting side by side with his father, President Laurent Kabila, the young Kabila assumed reigns of power 10 days after his father’s assassination by one of his bodyguards in 2001. Thus, Joseph Kabila became one the youngest African president. Correspondingly, expectations were justifiably high both domestically and internationally. Blame it on his chutzpah, many Congolese became optimistic about the future of their country.
A number of analysts argued convincingly that, unlike the previous lacklustre and turgid presidencies of Mobutu Sese Seko and the senior Kabila that were devoid of legitimacy — Joseph Kabila’s one had all the hallmarks of a good and promising presidency. At the time, it was often argued that, with the young Kabila at the helm, Africa’s richest country would embark on a correct path towards reclaiming its rightful place in the community of nations. His ascendency to the highest office in the land was seen by some as a harbinger for the country’s rebirth.
To his supporters, Joseph Kabila was a God sent by biblical Moses who was to deliver the Congolese from many years of suffering and leveraging on the peace dividend — take the country to new heights of resourcefulness. To staunch Afro-optimists, Joseph Kabila’s presidency signalled an end of an era and the beginning of a new one. It was believed that prebendal politics, venality and rent-seeking practices, which have been the defining feature of the country’s political discourse for some time, would give way to good democratic governance as epitomised by the rule of law, accountability, transparency, strong and independent democratic institutions.
To his credit, the young Kabila is recognised for having played a critical role in ending the internecine armed conflict in the country. In particular, he is credited for working tirelessly to end the atrocities and the world’s most complex humanitarian emergency in Eastern DRC. After assuming power, one of the Kabila administration’s priorities was to end hostilities with Rwanda and Uganda that started when his father fought with the neighbouring countries. In 2003, this culminated in peace agreements and diplomatic rapprochement with these countries.
As Martina Schwikowski points out: “Kabila did manage to put Congo on the map as he worked to strengthen international relations.”
In fact, some people even give him accolades for not only for improving the investor climate in the country after winning the democratic elections in 2006, but also for a semblance of the rule of law and for the governance reforms he introduced. Fast-forward to 2011, Joseph Kabila’s electoral victory accentuated his political mileage and helped him to be elected as president for the second time, albeit amid widespread allegations of electoral irregularities. Opposition leader Étienne Tshisekedi and other opposition parties questioned Kabila’s legitimacy.
But since then, if media reports are anything to go by, his stock of political capital has been declining. And as such, the May 2016 Constitutional Court Ruling and the news of deferral of November 2016 elections did not help the young Kabila either. Instead, even though it can be naively posited that they are not of his own making, they did succeed in denting his political image and integrity. To be sure, they reinforced the perception and/or claims of arbitrary deployment of state power to guarantee a third term for the current president.
In May 2016, responding to a request from 260 pro-Kabila parliamentarians to interpret article 70 of the constitution, the Constitutional Court ruled that that the incumbent is allowed to remain in office until elections are held. The country’s Constitutional Court ruled in May 2016 that according to article 70 of the constitution, the current president remains in office until a newly-elected president is installed. Article 73, states that the ballot for the election of the president must be scheduled by the electoral commission 90 days before the end of the term of the president.
This ruling, which can be viewed as an attempt to avoid a power vacuum, was sternly criticised by Congolese opposition parties and civil society groupings. Those who are critical of this decision argued that that the court failed to interpret the law in an impartial manner — instead, it interpreted it in such a way that allows President Kabila to stay beyond his term. As reported by Elsa Buchanan in the International Business Times, some of the critics went further to even argue that one can reasonably wonder whether the court has interpreted the law or simply added to the law something that wasn’t there as the constitution doesn’t deal with or foresee a situation where elections are not held on time.
But be that as it may, it is without doubt that the May 2016 court ruling, the September 2016 decision of the Independent National Electoral Commission to defer November 2016 presidential elections to a later date and the extension of President Kabila’s term in office after the December 19 deadline triggered the clashes that erupted at the end of 2016. Those who have been closely following the Congolese politics argue that anti-Kabila demonstrations and bloody clashes between protesters and security forces is the manifestation of citizens’ discontent with what they see as arbitrary deployment of state power. The current ruling elite is seen as plunging the country’s political system into creeping dysfunctionality. The demonstrating Congolese at home and in diaspora are convinced that they are expressing their dissatisfaction against those who seem to ride roughshod over their hopes and aspirations.
Now, the country finds itself in a toxic quagmire laced with land mines. Fears are high and people are worried that the country could relapse back to violence, giving the fragile peace no time to sustain itself. To this end, it is proper to ask, what will become of the country’s political future?
Some people are pinning their hopes to the recent December 30, 2016 Comprehensive and Inclusive Political Peace Agreement mediated by Catholic Bishops’ Conference in the country, while other quarters of the Congolese society view it as being aleatory at best. At the moment, it is not clear whether the agreement will manage to assuage the volatility in the country.
Among others, the agreement reached by Congolese political parties provides for the following: A “national transition council” to be in place by March next year to carry out the agreement; the stepping down of President Joseph Kabila after elections to be held before the end of 2017; and the establishment of a commission to look at the plight of political prisoners. According to the United Nations (UN) Security Council, the agreement is a “significant step towards a peacefully managed transition consistent with the democratic principles enshrined in the country’s constitution”.
But not everyone has been optimistic that the agreement will live to see another day. The purveyors of negativity have hastened to point out that uniting all warring parties in a power-sharing arrangements does not always end violence and yield the expected peace dividend. Looking at the tensions between power sharing, justice and human rights in Africa’s “post-conflict” societies (Rwanda, Kenya and the DRC), Sadiki Koko explains that, to the pessimists, power sharing creates an incentive structure would-be leaders can seize upon by embarking on the insurgent path as well and to a certain extent, contributes to the reproduction of insurgent violence.
For Jeremy Levitt, the workability and feasibility of power-sharing in Africa is questionable because where power-sharing has been the only game in town, there is persistence of injustice, violence, weak and un-accountable states bringing it into question. Levitt’s perspective resonates with Ian Spears’ view that power-sharing agreements are difficult to arrive at, even more difficult to implement, and even when implemented, such agreements rarely stand the test of time.
But notwithstanding the pessimistic outlook projected by different scholars, the reality is that every cloud has a silver lining. While the country might find itself at the crossroads, with a political future that is hanging in the balance, the country’s experience in implementing peace agreements might salvage the situation. Despite the country’s mixed record at managing transitional processes, the lessons learnt and/or outcomes of the 2003-2006 power-sharing dispensation (which resulted in the first multi-party democratic elections in four decades and inauguration of Joseph Kabila as the president) offers a glimpse of hope.
What is needed during the transitional period is for the country’s political leadership to guard against undermining the pursuit of justice and the protection and promotion of human rights. They need to strike a good balance between justice and human rights on the one hand, and peace and reconciliation, on the other. More so, if properly followed and implemented, the consociational approach (that is both preventive and built on a long-term perspective) and the conflict management dimension ( that is reactive and temporary) imbued in the current peace agreement might extinguish the flames and bring the country back to a positive political trajectory. DM
Thembani Mbadlanyana is a Cape Town-based researcher working on legislative sector, global governance, peace and security issues.