As youth activist Fred Bauma left Sunday service with his family at a church in Goma, Congo, earlier this year, police opened fire with tear gas — and, in other cities, real bullets. “Nothing is sacred for this government,” Bauma said afterward. “But they will not shake our faith in God or in Congo’s democratic future.” These were extraordinary words from a man who has lost colleagues and friends to the violence of the Congolese government.
The United Nations secretary general, the pope, the archbishops of Canterbury and Cape Town, and other world leaders are all calling for the right of Congolese youth to peacefully protest. The Congolese persist in their hunger for positive change, even in the face of a legacy of mass slaughter and brutality reaching from Belgian colonialism to the present through regional proxy wars, internal militias and kleptocratic regimes. Astonishingly, the people of the Democratic Republic of Congo today find themselves within reach of the country’s first peaceful democratic transition of power.
The man most capable of granting elections, President Joseph Kabila, has taken a series of dangerous, destabilizing steps to cling to power. Yet it is not too late for him to change course. In the past, Kabila has also presided over peace talks that ended deadly civil wars — suggesting that he can yet secure his legacy as the leader who supported democratization in Congo.
Under the Congolese constitution, the president was required to leave office in 2016 after serving two terms. With a popularity rating in single digits, his efforts to orchestrate a third term produced massive protests that were crushed with fatal force. A power-sharing agreement signed on New Year’s Eve 2016, brokered by the Catholic Church, gave Kabila a 12-month extension. Sadly, the president did not comply with this deal. He remains in power and has ratcheted up tensions by allowing his security forces to cross a sacred line — firing into Catholic church grounds to disrupt peaceful services and protest marches called by the Catholic Lay Committee following Sunday Mass. Elections are now scheduled for Dec. 23, but with no clear sign that Kabila is planning to step down and allow for a credible vote.
During many visits to Congo over the years, both of us have consistently witnessed a population that remains steadfastly hopeful that their country can emerge as a great success story, but only if a transparent and democratic process is allowed to take root.
In recent years, across presidential administrations and houses of Congress, U.S. policy has deterred greater violence and instability. Congressional leaders have championed sanctions targeting corrupt and brutal members of Kabila’s government, sanctions consistently credited with helping to free political prisoners and motivating some security forces to shift away from lethal force in their crackdowns. The Obama administration helped galvanize global and regional pressure to prevent a third term for Kabila, and President Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, visited the country last October with a clear message that credible Congolese elections by the end of 2018 are nonnegotiable.
While pressure from international and regional players helped prevent mass violence, Kabila continues to gamble with live fire, prevent a climate conducive to fair, credible elections, and seed doubt about his intentions — with some ruling party officials brazenly campaigning for Kabila to run again, in clear violation of the constitution. Diplomats talk openly about Kabila proceeding with a scorch-earthed policy of rushed elections in which violence and repression are used to dictate an outcome that is not only undemocratic but also almost guaranteed to spark a civil war. According to a recent poll by the Congo Research Group, 74 percent of Congolese support a call by the public and some opposition parties for Kabila to step down immediately and allow for a caretaker government to oversee the organization of credible elections.
Some outsiders misread this as primarily a moral statement about Kabila not “deserving” more time after three strikes to get this right — missing the constitutional deadline in 2016, the Catholic Church deadline for 2017 and now the minimal conditions for credible elections this year. But many Congolese have made clear that they see this as the only path forward that avoids widespread bloodshed, as they believe the deeply unpopular Kabila would be required to use maximum violence to remain in power or dictate outcomes.
If the international community is serious about its commitment to peaceful, credible elections, it would be wise not to ignore the wisdom of the Congolese people regarding the conditions needed for legitimate elections.
The United States has a key leadership role to play in helping to ensure these conditions are met. First, the United States should intensify economic pressure against President Kabila and his allies to show that there are real consequences for continued violence and repression. Backed by bipartisan congressional support, the Trump administration should ensure the availability of sufficient personnel to prepare to implement additional targeted sanctions.
Second, the United States and other international players should not be duped into believing more false promises or accepting bad elections that will do nothing to end the underlying problems of violence, abuse and corruption. They should clearly signal that — if minimum conditions for a credible vote are not met in the coming weeks — they will support the growing calls from within Congo for a “transition without Kabila,” where the president would step aside to allow independent leaders to restore constitutional order, and organize free and fair elections.
For more than a decade, the international community has invested billions of dollars in Congo, and the Congolese people have sacrificed much more to try to break the cycles of violence and corruption. Despite those who oppose peace and progress, the coming weeks may be our best opportunity in years to turn this faith into reality.
Cindy McCain works with the McCain Institute for International Leadership. Tom Perriello is the former special envoy to the African Great Lakes for the Obama administration.