Is Kabila Finally Preparing to Step Down?

DRC flagSurrounded by accusations of wanting to alter the constitution of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in order to remove presidential terms limits, President Joseph Kabila has refused to stand down since the end of his second term in December 2016. Although Kabila has had to contend with anti-government protests since then, it appears that regional, rather than domestic, pressure may be what finally convinces him to step down and allow a democratic transition to take place.  

Since the violent suppression of anti-government protests in January 2018, there have been signs that Kabila is inclining towards a more conciliatory position. On 26th January 2018, Kabila held his first press conference in five years and reiterated his commitment to holding elections by December this year. Although he refused to accept responsibility for the violence and took a swipe at the opposition, such a public proclamation is a rare occurrence and indicates that Kabila recognises that the electoral process cannot be delayed further. While Kabila did not address the ever-increasing calls for him to stand-down, his Minister of Communications – Lambert Mende – addressed this issue in an interview in early February. In the interview, Mende asserted that Kabila does not intend to stand in this year’s election or to choose a successor and rule by proxy. He said that “this is not a kingdom […], it is a democratic republic”. Although Mende’s comments have received significant attention in international media, it should be noted that he reportedly backtracked on them later, when speaking to Congolese media. Nevertheless, such confusion at least suggests that Kabila is unsure about running again.

Despite criticising the opposition during his press conference and insinuating that they will cause the DRC to descend into “chaos”, there are signs that Kabila is willing to re-open negotiations with opposition figures and adopt a more placatory stance. This is demonstrated by the proposed release of two prominent political prisoners – Jean Claude Muyambo and Eugène Diomi Ndongala. At the time of writing, both prisoners are expected to be released on 20th February 2018. There is an expectation that this could lead to the release of more political prisoners and maybe even the dropping of charges against Moïse Katumbi, the former governor of Katanga, who announced his presidential candidacy on 2nd January 2018. Although there is little indication of this happening in the short-term, Africa Integrity has been informed that Kabila has offered an olive branch to Archbishop Laurent Monsengwo – a figurehead of the protests in January, which were backed by the Catholic Church in the DRC. According to our sources, Monsengwo has been invited by Kabila to discuss ways to “revive” the December 31st Saint-Sylvestre Agreement between the government and opposition. This readiness to reengage with the opposition is a radical change in approach from Kabila, which could be an indication of his willingness to step aside.

The Catholic Church’s support for anti-government protests is undoubtedly significant, given that around 50 percent of the DRC’s population is Catholic. Moreover, Africa Integrity understands that other religious groups have been following the Catholic Church’s example. Nevertheless, according to our sources, it is Kabila’s loss of regional support that has had a greater effect on his apparent change in approach. It is understood that Kabila has had to reassess his position since the fall of two of his powerful regional allies: Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe; and Jacob Zuma in South Africa. In spite of international pressure, both of these individuals were unwavering in their support of Kabila since December 2016. For example, in June 2017, Zuma invited Kabila to South Africa and publicly pledged his support for the embattled president. We have been informed that since Mugabe and Zuma resigned, Kabila has started to feel increasingly “isolated” and has begun to re-evaluate his future.

Although Kabila can still count on the support of President Yoweri Museveni in Uganda, Paul Kagame in Rwanda and Edgar Lungu in Zambia, Museveni and Kagame are facing increasing criticism for their alleged support of rebel groups in the DRC and Lungu is preoccupied by an opposition which aims to prevent him from standing in the next election in Zambia. Furthermore, Kabila’s close ties with Congo-Brazzaville and Angola seem to be weakening. The pressure put on these countries, especially Angola, by the influx of refugees from the DRC, has put strain on their governments’ relationships with Kabila. It has been reported that the ruling MPLA in Angola, which has previously provided much needed military support to Kabila, will no longer be willing to intervene directly in the country, particularly under its new president – João Lourenço. Similarly, given the current instability in Congo-Brazzaville, it is highly unlikely that President Denis Sassou Nguesso will be in a position to support his neighbour. Senior political sources in Congo-Brazzaville and Angola have confirmed that both Lourenço and Sassou Nguesso have recently informed Kabila that they will not intervene on his behalf and that they support elections going ahead this year.

Along with the fall of Mugabe and Zuma, this constitutes a loss of regional backing for Kabila, leaving him increasingly exposed. It appears that Kabila has begun to realise that, without regional support, elections cannot be delayed any further, and it will be extremely difficult for him to stand again. After his motorcade was involved in two accidents in February, suspicions of assassination plots are rife, and it seems that Kabila sees a more conciliatory approach towards the opposition as his best means of protection. While Kabila may still try to put his name forward for the election, there are strong indications that he has realised that a third term will not be possible and that he is finally preparing to stand down.

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Instability and Insecurity: a DRC without Etienne Tshisekedi

On 1st February 2017, long-term opposition leader – Etienne Tshisekedi – passed away while receiving medical treatment in Belgium. Three-time former Prime Minister and founder of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS), Tshisekedi was the leading opposition figure in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) for the last 30 years. His death would have been highly significant for Congolese politics at any time during this period but, given the recent unrest and Tshisekedi’s vital role in negotiations between the government and the opposition, the timing of his passing may have extremely important repercussions for politics and security in the DRC.

Although, as an octogenarian, Tshisekedi had begun to take on a largely figurehead role in the opposition, he was a respected and unifying figure amongst the DRC’s different opposition groups. On 31st December 2016, Conférence Episcopale Nationale du Congo (CENCO) brokered a deal between the government and a nine-party opposition coalition – Rassemblement – on a peaceful political transition. The two parties agreed that President Joseph Kabila would not seek an unconstitutional third term but would remain in office until elections in December 2017, while sharing power with a transitional government consisting of opposition politicians. Rassemblement’s leader -Tshisekedi – was chosen to lead the transitional council, which would negotiate with the Kabila administration ahead of the formation of the transitional government, and would have been the opposition’s choice for Prime Minister (PM). However, his death created a power vacuum in the opposition and the negotiations with the Kabila administration have stalled.

There was no clear successor to Tshisekedi in Rassemblement so the majority of the coalition decided to change the organisation’s structure and create two positions: Political President; and Strategic President. In addition to this, three Vice President roles were created. This was a compromise in order to prevent competition between the UDPS and the G7 – a coalition centred around seven party leaders who were expelled from government after calling for Kabila to step down in 2016. Tshisekedi’s son, Felix Tshisekedi, was chosen as the group’s Political President and Pierre Lumbi, a former special advisor to President Kabila, was selected as the Strategic President. Although the majority of the coalition supported these appointments, including key figures such as Moise Katumbi, there was opposition from certain sections of Rassemblement, particularly regarding the appointment of Tshisekedi’s son.

Three of the nine parties that make up Rassemblement opposed the selection of Felix Tshisekedi and the Deputy Secretary General of UDPS – Bruno Tshibala – publicly criticised his appointment citing his lack of experience. In an interview with the BBC, he stated “where else in the World would someone be put in charge of such an important process…who has only been in the opposition for seven months?” Tshibala was subsequently dismissed from UDPS for voicing his opposition. Although Felix Tshisekedi was elected as an MP in 2011, he respected his father’s call for a parliamentary boycott and did not serve in this position, and has not held any other political office. It appears that he was primarily selected because of his family’s name, which seemingly contradicts with Rassemblement’s democratic principles and opposition to political family dynasties. Nevertheless, as Political President, Felix Tshisekedi has taken over from his father as leader of the transitional council and is likely to be Rassemblement’s choice for PM. It remains to be seen if Felix Tshisekedi can overcome this initial opposition within Rassemblement and effectively manage the coalition in its negotiations with the government.

Felix Tshisekedi has not begun negotiations with the Kabila administration due to an ongoing dispute over his father’s burial. The government agreed to provide Tshisekedi with a state funeral and build a mausoleum but his family and the opposition are not happy with the proposed burial site in Kinshasa, and the UDPS has insisted that the funeral will only take place once a transitional government has been formed. Thus, even after his death, Tshisekedi is at the heart of negotiations to resolve the political crisis in the DRC. Tshisekedi’s body is due to be repatriated on 11th March but it is still not clear when his funeral will take place.

The delay in negotiations caused by this could affect Rassemblement’s credibility amongst the people of the DRC. If negotiations continue to be stalled, Rassemblement may no longer be viewed as an effective mouthpiece for the popular discontent in the country. If this is the case, it is likely that protestors will return to the streets and civil unrest will increase. Moreover, given the apparent divisions in the opposition over Felix Tshisekedi’s appointment, it is likely that Kabila will try to take advantage of the situation to sow discontent and discredit the opposition. The Kabila administration has not signed the CENCO deal and there is no guarantee that it will. There are a number of unresolved issues between the government and the opposition, such as the selection of the PM, and the government has indicated that it will not be ready to hold elections in 2017 as previously agreed. In February 2017, the Budget Minister stated that it will be “difficult to gather” the necessary funds for an election this year and the Electoral Commission has maintained that a census should be conducted before elections take place.

Nonetheless, international pressure is mounting. On 16th February 2017, the UN, EU, African Union (AU) and the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (OIF) issued a joint statement calling on the government and the opposition to re-enter negotiations. The statement said that the organisations are “increasingly concerned by the continuing impasse in dialogue among political stakeholders” and that it has the “potential to undermine the political goodwill” that led to the CENCO deal. Additionally, on 6th March 2017, the EU warned the government that it will face further sanctions if it blocks a deal with the opposition. This indicates that there is a growing concern amongst the international community of a breakdown in negotiations and an inevitable increase in civil unrest and political violence.

Furthermore, alongside this continuation of political instability, it appears that there has been a resurgence in rebel activity in eastern DRC. After attacks in January and February 2017, there are indications that the M23 militia group has returned to DRC territory. The UN mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) stated in February that it has “launched aerial surveillance against a probable presence of elements of the former M23”. Although it is not clear how significant a threat this group now poses, the recent attacks have reportedly led to large numbers of people fleeing the region and crossing the border into neighbouring countries. It has been reported that over 30 people a day are entering Uganda and 10 to 15 are entering Rwanda. If attacks in the region persist, which seems likely, the number of people fleeing will increase affecting not only the DRC but the wider Central African region.

The death of Etienne Tshisekedi has increased the likelihood of continued political instability and deterioration of security in the DRC. Divisions have emerged amongst the opposition and although Felix Tshisekedi may be able to maintain unity in the short term, his lack of experience could prove costly in negotiations with the Kabila administration and the formation of a transitional government. It is likely that Kabila will want to take advantage of these apparent divisions, which will therefore make negotiations increasingly difficult. Moreover, the stalling of negotiations is likely to affect Rassemblement’s credibility, which has the potential to lead to a loss of faith in negotiations amongst the wider population, increasing the likelihood of further protests and political violence. As Tshisekedi’s funeral is going to draw large crowds, there is potential that it could evolve into a mass protest, particularly if the police adopt a heavy-handed approach to the gathering. Although a date has not been set for the funeral, Tshisekedi’s body is due to arrive in Kinshasa on 11th March and from this date onwards, there is potential for such a protest to emerge.

As the country is faced with the resurgence of rebel activity in eastern DRC, continued political instability and unrest elsewhere, will hamper the government’s ability to deal with this problem and therefore lead to a deterioration of security in this region. Thus, despite international pressure, it seems that the DRC is heading towards further political instability and insecurity, which will send ripples across the wider Central African region.

Kony’s Comeback: The Resurgence of the LRA

Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) previously drew substantial attention from Western media, particularly following the Kony2012 social media campaign, which sought to shine a light on atrocities carried out by the group. However, in the last couple of years interest in the LRA has waned as other, predominantly Jihadist, militant organisations have taken centre stage in reporting on Africa. This shift in attention away from Kony and the LRA was a reflection of the declining number of attacks perpetrated by the group and its diminishing presence in Central Africa. It was widely perceived that the LRA had largely withdrawn from Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), South Sudan and the Central African Republic (CAR), and was primarily based in Kafia Kingi – a Sudanese-controlled enclave located in South Sudan. This enclave was viewed as a safe haven for the LRA as African Union troops pursuing the group were not allowed to enter this region.

However, it appears that there has been resurgence in the LRA’s activities since the start of 2016. A recent UN report outlined that the LRA was responsible for 42 incidents, 6 civilian deaths and 252 abductions in the first quarter of this year in comparison to 52 incidents, 5 civilian deaths and 113 abductions in the whole of 2015. In response to this, the UN envoy for Central Africa – Abdoulaye Bathily – stated that the “LRA appears now to be deviating from what had been for a certain period of time a low profile posture”.  This trend seems to have continued in the second quarter of 2016 with the LRA Crisis Tracker reporting that a further 165 abductions have taken place. Earlier this month it was reported that nearly 100 people were abducted by the group in the Bas-Uele province in northeast DRC and a further 29 were abducted from two villages in CAR. These attacks and others in CAR are highly significant as it was considered that the group had been pushed out of the country 10 years ago. It is not clear what has caused this recent upsurge in activity but one possibility is that Kafia Kingi is no longer a safe haven for the LRA, so it has re-orientated its strategy.

Moreover, it seems highly likely that the instability caused by this resurgence will continue and intensify, particularly in light of Uganda’s decision on 13th June to withdraw its troops from the African Union force tasked with combatting the LRA. Ugandan military spokesman – Lieutenant Colonel Paddy Ankunda – stated that “the rebels have been significantly degraded” and no longer pose a threat to Uganda. Unless the African Union is able to find another country to contribute almost 2500 troops to replace the Ugandan soldiers, who are set to withdraw before the end of the year, the likelihood of LRA attacks intensifying is high.

Given the current situations in the DRC, CAR and Congo-Brazzaville, it seems highly likely that the wider Central African region will experience increased instability over the next year and the LRA will resurface as a driver of such instability. In the DRC, people have already come out in protest over LRA attacks in Bas-Uele province. On 9th June, 4000 people reportedly protested in the city of Bili and congregated outside a hotel where senior military figures were staying. This is also underpinned by suggestions of a controversial referendum to extend Joseph Kabila’s term as president and the sentencing in absentia of his main rival – Moise Katumbi – to three years in prison, which are likely to cause unrest across the country. Similarly, in Congo-Brazzaville there are signs of increasing instability in the north of the country over Denis Sassou Nguesso’s extension of his term as president. While in CAR, there have been recent outbreaks of violence in the capital Bangui and on 19th June the Seleka rebel militia reportedly took six police officers hostage. Thus, with tension already high in the region, the resurgence of the LRA is only likely to increase instability further.

Elections in 2016

There are a number of important elections across Africa scheduled for 2016 and over the next year, Africa Integrity Insights will examine a selection of these. As an introduction to the upcoming publications we have compiled a list of countries where elections are set to take place in 2016, including the scheduled date (when available) and the type of election.

  • Benin: Presidential (28th February)
  • Burkina Faso: Municipal (31st January)
  • Cape Verde: Parliamentary and Presidential (February & August)
  • Central African Republic: Parliamentary and Presidential Run-off (31st January)
  • Chad: Presidential (April)
  • Côte d’Ivoire: Parliamentary (December)
  • Comoros: Presidential (21st February)
  • Congo-Brazzaville: Presidential (20th March)
  • Democratic Republic of Congo: Legislative and Presidential (27th November)
  • Djibouti: Presidential (April)
  • Equatorial Guinea: Presidential (November)
  • Gabon: Parliamentary and Presidential (December)
  • Gambia: Presidential (1st December)
  • Ghana: Parliamentary and Presidential (7th November)
  • Niger: Parliamentary & Presidential and Local (21st February & 9th May)
  • Rwanda: Local Government (8th, 22nd & 27th February and 22nd March)
  • Sao Tome and Principe: Presidential (July)
  • Senegal: Constitutional Referendum (May)
  • South Africa: Municipal (May-August)
  • Sudan: Darfur Referendum (11th April)
  • Tanzania: Zanzibar Re-run (20th March)
  • Tunisia: Municipal and Regional (30th October)
  • Uganda: General (18th February)
  • Zambia: Legislative and Presidential (11th August)

Francophone Africa Revisited

Artist's Map of Africa

On 17th March 2015 we published an article entitled “Troubles en Afrique Francophonie” which discussed increasing anti-government protests across Francophone Africa, not seen in either Anglophone or Lusophone regions. We assessed that in our globalised world it appears that language still has an important influence on the contagion effect of political protest. The countries we identified as experiencing unrest over the past year were Burkina Faso, Burundi, Chad, Cote d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Niger and Togo. Since then: unrest has intensified in Burundi leading to an attempted coup on 13th May 2015; Gabon has been beset by a series of protests and strikes; and violent clashes have erupted between opposition supporters and the security forces in Guinea’s capital Conakry.

In stark contrast, unrest and political protests have been muted in Anglophone and Lusophone Africa. Despite deteriorating economic conditions in Ghana, allegations of mass killings by the security forces in Angola, and the continuation of the rule of two of Africa’s longest serving ‘Strongmen’ in Uganda and Zimbabwe, these countries have largely avoided anti-government protests like those seen in Francophone Africa. Although South Africa experienced unrest caused by xenophobic, or ‘afrophobic’, riots in April 2015, these were not protests aimed at the government and therefore less dangerous to the ruling ANC.

The unrest seen in Francophone Africa over the past year is particularly anti-government in nature. Protestors have called for greater democracy, criticising long term rulers and those who they believe are exploiting their positions of power in order to prolong their rule. The protests appear to be well co-ordinated by highly active civil society groups and opposition parties which possess clear aims. This is therefore much more of a threat to ruling parties and presidents.

It is not clear why this unrest has been a particular feature of Francophone Africa but it seems that different movements have taken inspiration from each other. It is possible that this has spread through the reporting of events on social or conventional media, which has been expedited by a shared language. However, it is also possible that it has been caused by increased co-operation between different civil society groups. There was an indication that this could be the case in March 2015, when 40 pro-democracy activists were arrested in the DRC, including members of Senegalese and Burkinabe civil society groups. Thus, it could be that civil society groups in Francophone Africa are beginning to operate transnationally; sharing ideas, experiences and acting as inspirations for movements in other countries.

Nonetheless, whatever the reason behind the increasing unrest it appears that Francophone Africa’s autocratic leaders are going to face continued protests in 2015.

Troubles en Afrique Francophonie

Artist's Map of Africa

Following the overthrow of Burkina Faso’s Blaise Compaore in October last year a number of other Francophone countries have experienced anti-government protests, predominantly in relation to the tenure of their long-term leaders. In the midst of the events in Burkina Faso commentators coined the phrase “African Spring” drawing comparisons with the Arab uprisings in 2011. However, it appears that “Printemps Africain” is a more appropriate term than “African Spring”.

In the last year and predominantly after the events in Burkina Faso, large-scale unrest has been seen in Burundi, Chad, Cote d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Niger and Togo. With the exception of Cote d’Ivoire, where protests came from within the military concerning pay, the other countries witnessed protests against their long-term governments and presidents. As recently as February 2015, protests against Burundi’s government broke out in reaction to the arrest of journalist, Bob Rugurika, in connection with a murder investigation. Witnesses said that the demonstration which took place after Rugurika’s release was the largest in the country in over 20 years. Evidently, these types of events are not on the same scale as those seen during the “Arab Spring” but nonetheless, they do demonstrate a rising undercurrent of unrest.

Significantly, Anglophone and Lusophone Africa have managed to avoid these powerful rumblings of discontent. However, this is not due to a lack of dictatorial zeal on the part of these regions’ leaders, as demonstrated by three out of the five longest serving African presidents being from either Anglophone or Lusophone Africa. Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza with his mere 10 years as president must look in envy as the nonagenarian Robert Mugabe enters his 35th year in power.

Thus, on the surface at least, it appears that in our increasingly globalised world of the Internet and social media, language still has an influence on the contagion effect of political protest. It is not clear whether this is through conventional or social media, or links between civil society organisations, but it does seem that it has so far been confined to the Francophone region in which it originated. If this trend continues, 2015 could be an uncomfortable year for Francophone Africa’s longest serving leaders in Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea and elsewhere.

[The above is an extract from Africa Integrity’s new quarterly newsletter – Africa Integrity Reports – which is to be launched in March 2015. To request a copy of this newsletter and join the mailing list please contact us]

Time Out?

Presidential term limit

The events in Burkina Faso in late October last year highlighted the potential conflict caused by presidential term limits and entrenched leaders who are less than willing to give up their presidential positions. Blaise Compaore had ruled Burkina Faso since 1987 and was the archetypal strongman but his decision to try to alter the constitution in order to enable him to run for a fifth term sparked protests which ultimately caused his downfall.

On the back of the democratisation wave which washed across Africa in the post-Cold War period many countries adopted term limits for their presidencies – a policy greatly encouraged by the West. The adoption of presidential term limits appeared to be a constitutional check against the continuation of presidencies dominated by strongmen in the new democratic period. However, as many of these assigned term limits approach for the current generation of leaders political opposition groups are growing wary of how presidents may attempt to circumvent them. Following on from Campaore in Burkina Faso, other countries where presidents are approaching their term limit include Burundi; the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC); Congo-Brazzaville; Rwanda; and Benin.

Apart from Burundi, where a presidential election will take place in June this year, the rest of these countries’ presidents’ terms do not end until 2016 or 2017. However, if they are to attempt to alter their constitutions it is likely that they will do this well before election campaigns start, which could make 2015 a decisive year. Nonetheless, the removal of Blaise Compaore in Burkina Faso as a result of his attempt to extend his presidential term limit may act as a warning for other African leaders seeking the same. It is highly likely that opposition parties across the continent will have taken inspiration from what happened in Burkina Faso, and will be planning to stage similar protests if their presidents attempt to extend their terms.

So much has already been made apparent in the DRC where, on 19th January 2015, students protested against a proposed revision to the country’s electoral code. The change would have required a census to take place before elections in 2016, which would have enabled President Kabila to delay the election beyond his term limit. At the time of writing, it appears that the protests have been successful in preventing a change to the electoral code as the National Assembly withdrew the controversial section of the electoral bill on 24th January 2015.

In Togo, where the opposition are calling for the adoption of a presidential term limit, protestors have taken to the streets to try to prevent Faure Gnassingbe from extending his family’s rule of the country. Faure Gnassingbe took over the presidency after his father, General Gnassingbe Eyadema, died in 2005 after ruling the country since 1967. In late November 2014 a protest erupted in Lome calling for a presidential term limit, which would prevent Gnassingbe from running in 2015. Demonstrators clashed with security forces that used rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse the thousands of protestors. The opposition has championed this issue leading a number of smaller scale demonstrations and promising more as the election in March 2015 approaches.

Although it must be recognized that the conditions in Burkina Faso are not the same across Africa and that Compaore’s loss of military support was vital in explaining his downfall, it appears that the events in Burkina Faso are already inspiring opposition movements across the continent. This does not mean that opposition movements in other countries will necessarily experience the same success as that in Burkina Faso but it does make it increasingly likely that presidents approaching the end of their tenures will not be able to circumvent their constitutions quite as easily as they may have thought.