KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of Congo, January 30, 2018–A rare press conference by President Joseph Kabila on Friday signaled that the Democratic Republic of Congo’s political crisis was far from resolved and that further repression and restrictions on free expression and assembly may be in store.
As concern has grown over the deadly consequences of Kabila’s efforts to remain in power beyond his constitutionally mandated two-term limit, which ended in December 2016, there have been increasing calls domestically and internationally for Kabila to state explicitly he will not be a candidate in proposed December 2018 elections, and not seek to amend the constitution, and that he will step down by the end of 2018. Among those weighing in was a bipartisan group of United States senators in a letter sent to Kabila last week.
In the press conference – his first in five years – Kabila made none of those commitments. While claiming the electoral process was “resolutely under way,” he said only the national electoral commission (CENI) is empowered to decide when exactly the poll will be held. When a journalist asked Kabila whether he would run again, he didn’t say no but asked that a copy of the constitution be given to her.
Despite the rights of Congolese to demonstrate peacefully under the constitution and international law, Kabila said a new law is needed to “reframe” the legality around such demonstrations, noting that “democracy isn’t a fairground.” He claimed to have “burst out in laughter” when he sees those who “pretend to defend the constitution.” Unfortunately, what Kabila considers to be a laughing matter has been the security forces shooting dead, wounding, and jailing hundreds of people peacefully calling for the constitution to be respected.
Kabila also questioned the price tag on the electoral process, which he said could come at the cost of the country’s development: “Should we be cited as the most democratic country in the world, or is development what matters?” he said. “When the time comes,” he added, “courageous decisions” will need to be made. Was this a veiled reference to an upcoming referendum or change to the electoral process that would allow Kabila to stay in power?
Kabila’s remarks came two days after the United Nations human rights office in Congo reported that some 1,176 people were extrajudicially executed by Congolese “state agents” in 2017, representing a threefold increase over two years.
On January 21, thousands of Catholic worshipers and other Congolese protested in several cities and towns, calling for Kabila to step down and allow for the organization of elections. Security forces responded with unnecessary or excessive force, firing teargas and live ammunition to disperse crowds. At least seven people were killed, according to Human Rights Watch’s research, including a 24-year-old woman studying to be a nun, shot dead right outside her church. The January 21 crackdown followed similar protests called by Congo’s Catholic Church lay leaders after Sunday Mass on December 31, when security forces killed at least eight people and injured or arrested scores of others, including many Catholic priests.
Over the past three years, Kabila and those around him have used one delaying tactic after another to postpone elections and entrench their hold on power through brutal repression, largescale violence and human rights abuses, backed by systemic corruption. A Catholic Church-mediated power sharing agreement signed on New Year’s Eve 2016 provided Kabila another year in power – beyond the end of his constitutional term limit – to implement a series of confidence building measures and organize elections by the end of 2017. But instead, these commitments were largely flouted. Despite CENI’s publication of the electoral calendar on November 5 – which set December 23, 2018 as the new date for elections, with the caveat that numerous “constraints” could push the date back even further – Kabila has not demonstrated that he is preparing to step down, or create a climate conducive to the organization of free, fair, and credible elections.
While some of Congo’s international partners have increased pressure on Kabila’s government, more needs to be done to show that there will be real consequences for further attempts to delay elections and entrench his presidency through repression. Belgium recently announced it is suspending all direct bilateral support to the Congolese government and redirecting its aid to humanitarian and civil society organizations. Other donors should follow suit. In December the US sanctioned Israeli billionaire Dan Gertler, one of Kabila’s close friends and financial associates who “amassed his fortune through hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of opaque and corrupt mining and oil deals” in Congo, as well as a number of individuals and companies associated with Gertler. Yet the impact of these actions would be much greater if the UN Security Council, the European Union, and the US work together to expand targeted sanctions against those most responsible for serious human rights abuses in Congo and those providing financial or political support to the repressive tactics.
Ultimately, Congo’s partners are going to need to decide whether their interests lie with supporting an abusive, dictatorial government, or with respecting and advancing the rights of the Congolese people – and what that means in terms of concrete action.