by Paul Pryce. With degrees in political science from both sides of the pond, Paul Pryce has previously worked as Senior Research Fellow for the Atlantic Council of Canada’s Canadian Armed Forces program, as a Research Fellow for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and as an Associate Fellow at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs. He has also served as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is approaching a crucial turning point. Among the world’s most conflict-prone countries and with the lowest rate of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita, the DRC will (perhabs) hold general elections on December 30, 2018 (instead of December 23). This will only be the sixth time Congolese citizens will go to the polls to elect their President since the DRC gained independence from Belgian rule in 1960, and it will be the first time since 2001 that current President Joseph Kabila Kabange will not be on the ballot. In August 2018, Kabila confirmed that he would not seek re-election, honouring the term limits set out in the constitution he worked to adopt in 2006.
Instead, resorting to what his critics call “Plan Putin”, Mr Kabila appointed a malleable acolyte to succeed him, and hinted that he will run again in 2023, as the constitution seems to permit. “I’m not saying goodbye, just see you later,” he told regional leaders at a recent summit.— Adrian Blomfield, “Congo Delays Election as Kabila Plots to Keep Power Whatever the Result“, The Telegraph, December 20th, 2018.
In September, the Constitutional Court disqualified six candidates, including Jean-Pierre Bemba Gongo, who was Kabila’s main rival in the 2006 election and leads the Movement for the Liberation of the Congo (MLC), a rebel group which disarmed and has become one of the main opposition parties in the DRC. While Bemba’s disqualification can be attributed to corruption charges he has faced in Congolese courts, more worrying is a separate decision disqualifying a seventh presidential candidate, Moïse Katumbi Chapwe, due to charges of real estate fraud, which are widely regarded as politically motivated. Independent polling throughout the summer has shown that Katumbi, who governed the DRC’s prosperous Katanga Province between 2007 and 2015, consistently leads among potential candidates, and that almost two-thirds of the electorate do not trust the National Electoral Commission (NEC) to hold free and fair elections.
If the protests in 2016 and 2017 over the delayed elections are any indication, the security situation in Kinshasa and other communities could rapidly deteriorate if the electorate feels they have been denied an authentic choice in the head of state. Of the 21 candidates in the presidential race, there are only three main contenders including Emmanuel Ramzani Shadary. He has served as Minister of the Interior and Security under Kabila, was endorsed by Kabila as well as the PPRD and its coalition partners, which currently hold 332 out of the 500 seats in the National Assembly (the lower house of the DRC’s bicameral legislature) and 44 of the 108 seats in the Senate (the upper house). In the aforementioned opinion polls, Ramzani trails Katumbi and another opposition candidate, Félix Tshisekedi, but there is a sentiment among many Congolese that Ramzani has effectively been anointed as Kabila’s successor.
The European Union seems to share these apprehensions about the vote. In May 2017, Ramzani was added to an EU sanctions list – banning his entry to the Schengen Area and freezing his financial assets – amid allegations he had ordered the violent repression of several opposition parties, as well as atrocities against the ethnic Luba population in Kasai Province. Whether the EU will also deploy election observers to the DRC remains to be seen; although observers were deployed to monitor the 2005 constitutional referendum and the general elections in 2006 and 2011, the security situation could prevent the deployment of another such mission. Similarly, it is not yet clear whether the African Union (AU), the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), or the Southern African Development Community (SADC) will deploy election observation missions to the DRC. But the presence of independent election observers could help in defusing tensions, as has been emphasized by some of the religious leaders whose mediation was integral to even setting a date for the elections.
While the peaceful exit of Kabila is preferable to the kind of coup that ousted Robert Mugabe from power in Zimbabwe in November 2017, neighbouring countries will need to prepare for the potential for renewed conflict in the DRC and the arrival of new waves of refugees. Angola has gradually withdrawn its military assistance since June 2017, while Rwandan and Congolese forces have occasionally clashed near the eastern DRC city of Goma. Though the nature of their reactions differ, all those that share borders with the DRC seem to be preparing for an upheaval. A coordinated regional response would help to ensure that any conflicts resulting from the vote do not spill across borders but also that the DRC’s territorial integrity and sovereignty are upheld at this time. At the very least, the SADC is on alert, convening in August 2018 a summit in the Angolan capital of Luanda the leaders of 15 of the 16 member states – Kabila did not attend – to discuss the political instability in the DRC. But just as the Congo is at the heart of the African continent, this election should be top of mind for the leadership of the AU.