Congo’s election is a farce. It’s time for Joseph Kabila to go

Congolese riot policemen ride on a pickup truck as they patrol the streets ahead of the presidential election in Kinshasa, Congo, on Saturday. (Kenny Katombe/Reuters)
Congolese riot policemen ride on a pickup truck as they patrol the streets ahead of the presidential election in Kinshasa, Congo, on Saturday. (Kenny Katombe/Reuters)

As the sun sets on yet another turbulent year marked by widespread violence and uncertainty, the Congolese people are looking to the new year with trepidation. The source of their anxiety is none other than President Joseph Kabila, the 47-year-old who has overstayed his two constitutionally-mandated five-year terms, the last of which expired in 2016.

Kabila, who has fostered this crisis, should be held personally responsible for further election-related deaths by his security forces and any further breaches of the rights to expression, information, assembly or association. He should not be allowed to hold Congo and the region hostage to his whims.

For the past seven years, Kabila has used every trick in the dictator’s toolkit to stay in power. He has sought to emulate his peers in Congo Republic, Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda who have managed to adjust the law, either via referendum or other means, and cling to power.

Congo, however, is unique. The country boasts a strong civil society, a vibrant press, a committed youth movement and a politically astute electorate. In every electoral cycle, the population has voted out of office the vast majority of members of parliament. And, as an institution, the Congolese parliament has been known for its independent streak since the beginning of the republic.

Ignoring this reality, Kabila attempted to change the constitution and lift term limits. But his efforts, which met with strong popular resistance, failed. He bribed his followers in the National Assembly to pass legislation that would tie the election to a national census, which could take years, delay the poll and keep him in office. But the population took to the streets in protest, and the Senate defeated the initiative.

Kabila then reconfigured the Constitutional Court and appointed judges he could control, to little avail. So he refused to fund and hold the election, a position that changed only when Nikki Haley, the United States' ambassador to the United Nations, met with him in Kinshasa in October 2017. She insisted that a date be set and agreed upon: Dec. 23, 2018.

Since then Kabila has done everything he can to derail the electoral process. His minister of justice and the court invalidated two prominent candidates, Jean-Pierre Bemba and Moïse Katumbi, under questionable charges. Security forces have been deployed regularly to disrupt opposition candidate Martin Fayulu’s rallies and have killed several civilians at these events. The government has denied opposition candidates access to the national radio and television stations.

To protect his hold on power, Kabila is resorting to violence. He spares no means to crush those who stand in his way. He responds to peaceful protests with disproportionate force. His security forces kill unarmed civilians with total impunity. The fields of Congo are full of mass graves from Kongo Central to Kinshasa to Kasai. Disappearances are commonplace, and prisons overflow with disillusioned young people who dared to protest for their right to education, employment and good health — their God-given right to a decent life. This situation is unacceptable.

Donors should stop relying on Congo’s neighbors to solve Congo’s crisis. There are no general African solutions to Congo’s problems. The last time Africans intervened, they did so by launching a war on Congo that killed more than 6 million Congolese. African authoritarians have little incentive to help, since any democratic success in Congo threatens the status quo and internal dynamics in their own countries. Congo is too important to be relegated to the dysfunctional African Union or the disjointed Southern African Development Community.

The time has come to push Kabila to step down. Only one country, the United States, can make a difference. The United States stands out for its commitment to democratic change in Congo. In recent years, Washington has dispatched some of its best envoys, including former senator Russ Feingold, former congressman Tom Perriello and former secretary of state John Kerry, to persuade Kabila to see reason. Haley is just the latest in this line of American officials who have stood with the Congolese people.

There is only a Congolese solution to the crisis, but the United States can help to make it a reality. As attested by the vigorous campaign mounted by the opposition over the last few weeks, the people of Congo are fully committed to democracy and have little interest in the meaningless conflict that has already claimed millions of lives.

The United States should do what it can to help the population realize their democratic aspirations. The Trump administration should start by imposing sanctions on Kabila, his family and close associates, under the Global Magnitsky Act of 2016.

Kabila has come to believe he is untouchable. That must end. He must either resign or be forced out. A transitional government should be set up to organize the election within the next 90 days.

Mvemba Phezo Dizolele is a lecturer at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He served as an election monitor with the Carter Center in Congo in 2006 and 2011.

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