Congo Leader Seeks Creative Ploys to Hold Onto Power

DRC head hopes to hold on to power as election—and mandatory retirement—nears

Joseph Kabila
Joseph Kabila / AP
July 13, 2015

One year before the Democratic Republic of Congo’s scheduled presidential election, its president has been trying to quietly implement a series of policies that could allow him to overstep the Congo constitution and hold onto power, prompting concerns from Africa observers and human rights advocates.

President Joseph Kabila’s leadership record has been marred by human rights abuses and the 44-year-old faces the prospect of international criminal charges when his second term expires in 2016. That nation’s constitution also bars him from serving more than two terms and explicitly prohibits any amendments to the term-limit clause.

Experts say Kabila now appears to be trying to delay the election and weaken his political rivals by hastily instituting a policy known as découpage, which would divide the DRC into smaller and more governable provinces. But the timing of the découpage plan could end up pushing the elections well past the 2016 schedule.

"The poor nature of [Kabila’s] governance for the last decade and a half leaves him very few good options," said Dr. J. Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center. "The only way he can hold on is to figure out a way without violating the constitution to make the elections impossible, or at least to delay them. That's the game plan."

The potential power-grab could have implications for other emerging democracies in the region. Over a dozen other African countries have elections scheduled for 2016, but the DRC is the largest and the only one with a constitution that explicitly prohibits revisions to its term limit laws.

Earlier this year, Kabila tried to pass a law that would require a national census to be taken before the election could go forward. The DRC, which has an estimated population of 67 million, is around a quarter of the size of the United States, and much of it is inaccessible by road.

Critics noted a census would likely take years to complete, delaying the election past 2016. The proposal prompted mass protests against Kabila—resulting in at least 40 demonstrators’ deaths, many being killed by security forces—and the plan was eventually rejected by the legislature.

But there has been relatively little backlash against Kabila’s latest push for découpage, a policy that some experts say is a similar but much subtler attempt to postpone the election.

The plan, which would split up the DRC’s 11 provinces into 26, was mandated in the nation’s 2006 Constitution, but Kabila has not attempted to implement it until now. In March, he announced a 120-day deadline for installing the new system.

The process would consume the country’s already-limited financial resources and upend the current local political infrastructure, making it difficult to hold an election by 2016.

"It's a very clever little strategy because if you look at it purely in the abstract as someone who's interested in local accountability, grassroots governance ... it sounds like a great idea that can be sold as such," said Pham.

"But the reality is it's a cynical game being played. It's not being done for good governance purposes. What it's being done for is to run the clock, and spend the money, and this time next year we're going to realize there's no way to hold any election in this country."

The plan would also quarter the province of Katanga, which is governed by Moise Katumbi, a successful businessman who is seen as a likely presidential candidate in 2016. The owner of the popular TZ Mazembe soccer team, Katumbi has overseen improvements in Katanga’s educational system and mining sector.

"If implemented, découpage could allow Kabila to marginalize such power brokers and defectors," wrote Christoph Wille, an Africa analyst at Control Risks, in Foreign Affairs in May. "Katumbi and many others would be replaced once their provinces were dissolved and reconfigured into smaller ones.

Last month, the Kabila government slapped Katumbi with corruption charges, which Katumbi suggested were politically motivated.

Amnesty International said it is keeping a close watch on the case.

"We need to see if due process of law is followed," said Delly Mawazo, Amnesty International’s DRC researcher. "The way the prosecution and the prospective trial will be carried out will inform our reaction as Amnesty International."

Mawazo said the group was also closely following the lead-up to the election.

"Amnesty’s recommendation to the international community is that they pressure the Congolese authorities to abide by their constitutional and international human rights obligations," said Mawazo, calling Kabila’s human rights record "concerning."

"The main issues of the records are large scale impunity for crimes under international law, lack of protection for civilians against attacks by armed groups, and shrinking space of opposition and civil society militants," he said.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry recently called on Kabila to abide by the constitution and step aside in 2016.

"Clearly the United States of America believes that a country is strengthened, that people have respect for their nation and their government, when a constitutional process is properly implemented and upheld by that government," said Kerry in May.

Pham said leaders around the region would be watching the international response to Kabila, and it could guide their own behavior.

"If the international community lets the DRC get away with some sort of shenanigans then our ability to positively influence outcomes throughout Africa certainly diminishes considerably," he said.

Fifteen African countries are scheduled to hold elections in 2016, and many face similar problems as young democracies.

In neighboring Guinea, where President Alpha Conde is seeking a second term in October, there have been growing concerns about the administration’s violent crackdowns on protestors and meddling in the election process. Recently, several foreign mining ventures have cut ties with Guinea—which, like the DRC, has significant mineral resources—due to clashes with the government.

The failure of a democratic transition in the DRC would also be a setback after the success of Nigeria’s presidential election in April, in which the opposition party beat the ruling party for the first time in the nation’s history.

"Given all this, if Kabila manages to stay on after his term expires, then it's certainly a signal that almost anyone else can get away with it," said Pham. "The good momentum that came out of the smooth democratic transition in Nigeria will simply have been a blip rather than a start of a new trend."