In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), last year may be remember best for the election that didn’t happen.
President Joseph Kabila’s second five-year term as president of the DRC ended on December 19. He is constitutionally barred from standing.
Elections for his successor should have been held toward the end of last year. That process had already been compromised in 2015 when the Congolese lower house passed a law to keep Kabila in power until a national census was conducted.
This would clearly take several years, far beyond the planned 2016 elections. Mass protests erupted to prevent the upper house from also passing the law. A compromise was reached – a census would take place but not be tied to the 2016 elections, which would go ahead as planned.
Last October, however, the governing coalition and smaller parties announced they had agreed to delay the elections until April 2018, claiming voter registration difficulties. Kabila said he would respect the constitutional limits but did not rule out attempting to change the term-limit law before 2018.
Opposition groups feared Kabila would emulate the presidents of Rwanda and Congo Republic, who changed their constitutions to allow themselves to stand for a third term.
Protests broke out on December 20, the day following the official end of Kabila’s term in office. Dozens of people were killed and hundreds of protestors arrested.
To calm the situation, the government and opposition parties reached a compromise.
On December 31, in a deal brokered by the Catholic Bishops Conference in the DRC, they agreed that Kabila would leave power after the next election, which would take place before the end of this year.
A transitional body headed by the 84-yearold opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi would be established and a prime minister would be named from opposition ranks. Political prisoners would be freed.
Kabila would be unable to change the constitution to allow him to stay in power for a third term, but he would remain in office until free and fair elections could be safely held.
The DRC is an enormous country, with huge financial and logistic obstacles to holding polls and many fear this agreement is simply a pretext for Kabila to remain in power indefinitely.
In addition, neither Kabila nor Tshisekedi have signed the deal.
Joseph Kabila, 45, has been in power for nearly 16 years. Even if he wants to step down, he seems to lack an exit plan. He may be worried about keeping his wealth and avoiding jail after he leaves office.
Kabila and his family have personally profited from the exploitation of natural resources through dubious land acquisitions and mining rights sales.
Kabila is culpable on the human rights front as well. On his watch, journalists and political opponents have been jailed and tortured. It would be difficult to overthrow him. He made sure that soldiers and intelligence officers have been kept relatively well paid and they are loyal to him.
What are the real chances of peace?
Congo is rich in natural resources. But unemployment is high and people go hungry.
The country has entrenched corruption at all levels. The security forces are brutal and loosely controlled. Dozens of armed groups range the hinterlands. It is one of the poorest, most volatile nations on earth.
There is even nostalgia among older generations for Mobutu Sese Seko, the brutal dictator who ruled the DRC, renaming it Zaire, from 1965 to 1997. He left a legacy of economic ruin and civil war which killed about 5 million people. But he unified the country and provided affordable hospitals and schools according to some. Analysts suggest that if the instability is “transitional” the DRC could create a more legitimate government.
If Kabila and his supporters agree to concessions to buy time until they can manipulate the situation, the resulting urban protests and rebellions elsewhere in the country could undermine the already weak economy so much that the government collapses, leaving the DRC vulnerable to its warring neighbours and renegade militias eager to plunder its resources.
For the sake of the people of the DRC, let’s hope this peace deal sticks and that its next president creates a legacy that will allow him a more pleasant exit.
Tom Wheeler is a commentator and former diplomat