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Kabila sits tight as Congo crumbles

Philip Kleinfeld/IRIN

Violent prison breaks, militiamen attacking the city, a plummeting economy. For the Kinois, residents of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s capital, Kinshasa, they are all symptoms of the same crisis and the fault of the same man: President Joseph Kabila and his refusal to let go of power.


After 16 years at the helm, Kabila was supposed to hold elections and leave office last year when his second and – under the constitution – final term expired. Instead, he stayed put.

On 31 December, with the country on a knife-edge, an agreement was struck between the government and an opposition coalition known as the Rassemblement. It said elections would be held by the end of 2017 and that Kabila would not stand for a third term.

But with three months until the accord expires, a date for elections is yet to be set and Kabila remains in power, hunkered down in his presidential mansion above the Congo River, as the country – wracked by civil wars in the 90s and early 2000s – crumbles around him.

“The Congolese are living like animals in our own country,” said 34-year-old motorbike taxi driver Freddy Mulume, during a recent general strike called by opposition parties. “We are suffering so much.”

Kicking the can down the road (and into the Congo River)

At the heart of Kabila’s current strategy to stay in power is control over the Independent National Electoral Commission, or CENI, the body tasked with organising elections that experts say is independent in name alone.


“CENI is considered a big player in driving delays and executing Kabila’s strategy,” said Stephanie Wolters, Congo analyst at the Institute for Security Studies.


In his office in Kinshasa’s gilded district of Gombe, CENI spokesman Jean-Pierre Kalamba disagreed. “CENI is the independent national electoral commission according to the Congolese constitution,” he said. “Those that doubt it, we put down to ignorance.”


But to date the commission has failed to publish an electoral calendar and faces a truly daunting workload, which several Kinshasa-based election experts and observers – all of whom requested anonymity – told IRIN could keep Kabila in power for years to come.


First, CENI must complete the electoral register. While most voters have now been enrolled, registration has only just begun in the conflict-torn provinces of Kasai and Kasai-Central. Kalamba said this is likely to finish in January, already taking Kabila beyond the 31 December deadline and sending Congo back into the political unknown. 


A plan for how to organise the registration of Congolese voters living abroad is also yet to be decided, despite biometric kits for the diaspora being ready for months. “The kits are just sitting there in boxes,” said one expert. “For CENI, it is an extra way of buying time.”


After the registration process is complete, data must be brought to Kinshasa for analysis. This will involve removing cases where citizens have enrolled on more than one occasion and could take several months, depending on the resources CENI dedicates and the capacity of its servers.


This “should have started at the very beginning of the registration process,” said Cyril Kulenovic, election expert at the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie (OIF), but CENI is yet to procure the software required.

Legal and logistical hurdles

CENI also needs to change Congolese electoral law, including provisions on the organisation and financing of the elections, the allocation of seats, and a new threshold for parliamentary representation. Some of these provisions could prove controversial and take time to pass in the national assembly.


“They are looking to change a lot,” said Kulenovic. “It needs to be reviewed by the national assembly as soon as possible.”


Next CENI will need to print ballots. This could be done in Congo or tendered to a foreign company. The latter could take months, depending on how quickly the procurement process is managed, and will be complicated by the fact that three elections – presidential, national legislative, and local - are being held simultaneously: something never attempted before in Congo.


To get around the cost of printing so much paper, CENI has proposed the introduction of a semi-electronic voting system. Kalamba described this as a “simple” option.


But election experts told IRIN electronic voting will present CENI with a logistical and budgetary nightmare, with voter machines and power supplies required for more than 100,000 polling stations across a country the size of western Europe.


“They are having problems managing the generators for roughly 17,000 registration centres, let alone polling stations,” said one source. “It is so much material to deploy.”


Voter machines would also require significant training for CENI staff and could pose serious technical issues given Congo’s high humidity levels and electricity challenges. “By the time it is introduced, tested, and deployed, Kabila could have had more than his three mandates,” said one election expert. “It could take him to 2020 and beyond.”


With the voter register valid for just five years under existing Congolese law, by that time, a whole new generation of young adults might need enrolling, allowing CENI to go right back to square one, added another expert.


The two experts agreed there was absolutely no limit to how long it could all take. “This is an art, and CENI is mastering it,” one of them added.

Transparency concerns

The credibility of the registration process has also been called into question by opposition politicians and election observers, who claim irregularities in CENI’s initial data.

“In some provinces, enrolment numbers are extremely high, in others extremely low,” said a source who receives regular data updates from CENI. “It is alarming.”

At the centre of the controversy is Sankuru, one of five provinces that make up the conflict-torn Kasai region and a stronghold of government information minister and spokesperson Lambert Mende and the minister of foreign affairs, Leonard She Okitundu.

According to internal CENI data seen by IRIN, the number of registered voters in Sankuru was over two million, 226 percent above its estimate of 886,386. That represents 92 percent of the total population based on population figures from a 2015 report from the Congolese Institute for National Statistics, also seen by IRIN.

“It is simply unbelievable,” said Martin Fayulu, an opposition politician and leader of the Commitment for Citizenship and Development party.                                                                                                 

Kalamba offered numerous explanations to IRIN, emphasising population movements triggered by the conflict in Kasai. “Sankuru Province was a part of Kasai that rebels did not manage to reach,” he said. “Many people who ran away from the war went there.”

But publically available figures from the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, show that just 21,000 IDPs were registered in Sankuru as of June 2017, far fewer than in neighbouring provinces.                                                                         

Given Sankuru was one of the first provinces in the Kasai region to open registration centres, it is possible voters from other parts of Kasai temporarily travelled there, unsure when or if CENI’s operation would reach their hometowns.

A similar phenomenon has been observed in previous elections in Congo. But a UN source with colleagues in nearby Kananga and Mbuji-Mayi said they had received no indication of such a large-scale influx.

Until CENI’s data is cleaned and audited by the OIF it is impossible to draw conclusions.

But with a paltry budget, the UN mission in the Congo has struggled to effectively monitor the registration process, with one staff member often asked to cover multiple provinces.

“We rely fully on CENI’s monitoring,” said one source. “We don’t have our own source of information.”

Chaos reaches Kinshasa

As the crisis rumbles on, violence is on the rise across the country. In Kasai, a new conflict between the government and a militia called Kamuina Nsapu has displaced 1.4 million people and killed thousands.

In the east, a new coalition of armed groups called the National People’s Coalition for the Sovereignty of Congo (CNPSC) is building momentum in the province of South Kivu and has threatened to topple Kabila.

Back in May, members of a long-dormant politico-religious sect called Bundu dia Kongo attacked Kinshasa’s maximum-security Makala prison, freeing 4,200 people, including war criminals, dangerous felons, and the group’s leader, Ne Muanda Nsemi.

On 7 August, Nsemi’s supporters appeared in different parts of Kinshasa carrying crude weapons and calling on Kabila to leave power. At 10am in N’jili commune, 21-year-old Billy Sabwa (name changed) heard the sound of gunfire as members of the group clashed with police.

When Sabwa crept out from his home two hours later, he found dozens of fighters and bystanders lying dead at a nearby petrol station. One person’s head had been divided in two by a bullet; another’s stomach spilt out onto the red-stained dust.

“In Kinshasa there is no security,” Sabwa said. “It has become very painful to live.”

On top of the violence, low global commodity prices have triggered an economic crisis. Inflation is rising and the Congolese franc has lost 30 percent of its value, causing severe hardship for an already impoverished population.                                            

Emmanuel Kambala sells light fittings at Kinshasa’s bustling Central Market. He pointed at a wooden lamp he once bought from China for a single dollar but now costs three times the amount. He raised the price to five dollars to make up for the change, but now nobody can afford it.

Nearby, 44-year-old Mami Bombo held up a red suede shoe that has doubled in price in just 12 months. “People come and ask about my clothes,” she said. “But they never buy anything.”

Opposition gets tough

The main opposition party tasked with unseating Kabila is the Union for Democracy and Social Progress, or UDPS. In February, its founder and leader Etienne Tshisekedi died in Brussels aged 84, depriving the party of its most famous face and triggering a bout of infighting.

With the upper hand, Kabila proceeded to dismantle key tenants of the 31 December agreement, appointing Bruno Tshibala, who had been dismissed by the UDPS, as interim prime minister, and Joseph Olenghankoy, a dissident member of the Rassemblement, as chair of the CNSA, a body created to supervise the accord’s implementation.                                                                        

Faced with an agreement in tatters, the opposition has grown increasingly uncompromising. In an interview with IRIN, Rubens Mikindo, deputy general secretary of the UDPS, ruled out the possibility of any further dialogue with Kabila.

“He has shown that he is not interested in respecting his commitments,” Mikindo said from the party’s headquarters in Kinshasa’s Limete district, festooned with pictures and murals of Tshisekedi. “He is just interested in staying in power.”

The UDPS is also calling for a new bout of civil disobedience that it hopes will render Congo ungovernable. “We are saying: ‘do not pay water or electricity bills, do not pay taxes’,” Mikindo said. “There are many things we can do to weaken Kabila’s power.”

Whether the Congolese population will heed that call remains to be seen. Hundreds were killed on the streets last year by a repressive security apparatus. Kabila’s strategy of co-option has also “confused” the population, with many people “not knowing who is the majority and who is the opposition”, said Kris Berwouts, an independent analyst specialising in central Africa.

Many also wonder if the opposition is really an alternative to the current regime, Berwouts added. “In Kinshasa, people often say it is not enough to change the driver, they want to change the car.”

Who can topple Kabila?

The threat posed by Kamuina Nsapu, Bundu dia Congo, and armed groups from the east also remains unproven. The usual sponsors of rebellion in Congo – Rwanda and Uganda – are unlikely to get “back into the game at this stage and put themselves out for lots of criticism in overthrowing Kabila,’ said Wolters.


However, Angola, a long-time ally of Kabila, is growing increasingly impatient as the Kasai crisis sends tens of thousands of refugees over its northern border. “The main candidate for [sponsoring an armed group] would be Angola,” Wolters said. “They are the real king-maker, and they are not happy.”


Kabila will also have to contend with his own presidential majority, which is far from united, and a poorly trained, badly paid army composed of former rebel groups, some of which have defected in the past. “Soldiers at the grassroots level are very unhappy and aren’t paid most of the time,” said Berwouts. “Kabila cannot count on their loyalty.”


For Berwouts, the most likely scenario is an Arab Spring-style popular uprising triggered by a combination of political and economic grievances. “The government considers its main danger to be the poverty of the people,” he said.


At a busy roundabout in Kinshasa’s Kalamu commune, that was certainly the view of 45-year-old Peter. He rents out a photocopier for a few cents a go but not enough to feed his family or pay his bills.


“With Kabila we get nothing,” he said, raising both fists into the air. “If elections don’t happen, we must get them by force.”



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