By Hanna Schieve
This is the second in a three-part series on elections in Sub-Saharan Africa
While Rwanda’s recent election result was nothing short of predictable, the same cannot be said for its neighbor to the west. Both countries are led by men determined to maintain their control of power. Paul Kagame of Rwanda did (and does) so by eliminating space for political opposition. Joseph Kabila took a different approach as his second term as President of Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) ended in 2016. Since the constitution caps presidential term limits at two, Kabila circumvented electoral procedures by simply refusing to step down. The move sparked widespread protest in December of 2016 and fears that the onslaught of insecurity could throw the chronically unstable country back on a path to renewed civil war were rampant. In a deal with opposition groups brokered by the Catholic Church, Kabila promised a vote before the end of 2017, but the electoral commission last week announced that a vote won’t be held before April 2019—more than two years overdue.
DRC has never experienced a peaceful transfer of power, a trend unlikely to be broken in the current cycle. Kabila himself ascended to the presidency in 2001 following the assassination of his father and then-president Laurent Kabila. Certainly, preparing for the conduction of elections is no small task in DRC. Infrastructure is very limited and funding inadequate for the level of logistical organization necessary to hold an election. However, this hardly absolves the electoral commission of its complacency in Kabila’s scheming. International response to the conundrum has been relatively limited with sanctions on Congolese officials falling short of pressing Kabila to acquiesce. Opposition groups, too, bear some responsibility for presenting a largely disunited and disjointed front against the government and are unlikely to win concessions from the President at the bargaining table. However, increasing frustration with the government will lead to protests and crackdowns, the severity of which will render one prediction almost certain: if there is a transfer of power, it won’t be peaceful.
The delay tactics may well allow President Kabila to overstay his mandate, but at what cost and for how long? The security situation in eastern DRC is already notoriously precarious. Dozens of armed groups regularly launch attacks and wreak havoc in the mineral-rich northeast, which journalists are keen to point out is something of a ‘tinderbox of ethnic tensions.’ Debate over ethnic conflict aside, it’s undeniable that there are lots of groups with lots of competing interests which leads to lots of insecurity that the state does not have the capacity to control. Point being, distrust and frustration with Kabila over the delays is exacerbating an already tense and uncertain political climate. Violent protests are almost certainly expected to spread across major towns and crackdowns will in turn stoke further insecurity. Should tensions reach a critical threshold, Kabila’s efforts to stay in power could spell his ultimate downfall, with the Congolese people serving as his collateral. In an already volatile state, delay tactics are risky politics.
Hanna Schieve is an MSc candidate in Conflict Studies at the LSE and is currently working as a Sub-Saharan Africa Intern with AKE International in London. She has experience working in electoral, legislative, and international politics in the U.S. and U.K. as well as within the development field for private foundations.