The Democratic Republic of Congo has erupted in deadly violence following the official announcement that elections that were to be held in November, as stipulated in the country’s constitution, will not take place. As security forces loyal to President Joseph Kabila used guns and clubs against pro-democracy protesters, riots ensued, claiming the lives of as many as 50 people. Kabila is now reiterating his calls for a “national dialogue.” Despite the horrific violence the world must resist Kabila’s cynical overture.
This dialogue is not an initiative of an earnest leader who wants to restore peace, exit the scene and facilitate a democratic transition. It is an attempt by a self-serving despot to stage a monologue. If Kabila was actually committed to political stability and the rule of law, he would not have devoted so much energy to undermining democracy over the last two years.
In September 2014, he was rebuked when he tried to push legislators to approve a constitutional amendment that would have enabled him to remain in office at the conclusion of his second five-year term. In January 2015, he tried to amend election laws to require a census that could take years in advance of the election. Congolese citizens saw through Kabila’s maneuver and took to the streets to protest. Security forces killed at least 42 protesters and a mass grave discovered at that time has never been credibly accounted for. Next, Kabila made local elections a sudden priority, clearly hoping to use up election funds intended for the presidential election. In the summer of 2015, he rammed through a redrawing of political boundaries in a process called “decoupage” that was intended to reduce the influence of popular local and state officials who could one day emerge as opponents and introduce confusion in the election planning process. On top of this, funds appropriated for the country’s election commission, CENI, were not allocated.
Amid growing desertions by former political allies who could no longer abide his tactics, Kabila made a high-profile speech in November 2015 calling a “national dialogue” and laying out priorities the huge and diverse assemblage of stakeholders should discuss. Mindful of the late dictator Mobuto’s tactics, keen observers grasped immediately it was a stunt to make Kabila appear statesmanlike while he, in fact, manipulates his way into a presidency for life.
The dialogue Kabila wants has no legal or political foundation. The country’s constitution is very precise. Kabila is to leave office December 19. If an election to choose his successor could not be held in November, the president of the Senate could serve until the election takes place. Within this Constitutional framework, representatives of the government, opposition parties, CENI and international observers could talk about logistics and how to deploy resources to ensure fair and free elections. This meeting could be held in the course of one afternoon. With Kabila gone, this would be the routine business of democratic governance, not an open-ended vehicle for Kabila to use to say in power.
In the wake of the recent violence, the media have seized on some opposition leaders’ support for the dialogue. It is natural to want to stoke a narrative that could be perceived as advancing the prospects for peace. However, the country’s most prominent and widely-respected opposition leaders, former Prime Minister Etienne Tshisekedi and former Kantanga Governor Moise Katumbi, oppose the dialogue. They certainly want an end to the bloodshed and the restoration of democracy. Both have put their personal safety and freedom on the line over the years in support of democracy. Their insights and experience have convinced them that Kabila’s proposed dialogue would not put democracy back on track but derail it for years. The international community should be guided by their informed and principled stance and not Kabila’s phony gestures.
Kabila’s repeated attempts to bend and break the law and the bodies of dozens, if not hundreds, of pro-democracy protesters provide grim evidence of his true intentions. The global community has a clear choice at this moment. It should not lend legitimacy to a forum Kabila will surely use to strengthen his grip on power. The time has come to thwart Kabila’s backdoor coup d’etat, not enable it.
President Obama has stated that Africa does not need more strongmen, it needs strong institutions. The Democratic Republic of Congo has a constitution and the institutions to see it is faithfully executed. When Kabila exits the presidency, frees political prisoners, and drops fabricated accusations against his opponents, there can be a discussion on the timelines and procedures for elections. The democratic process that too many Congolese people have died defending will not be strengthened by a lecture from a strongman.