The constitution of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) could not be clearer: "The President of the Republic is elected by direct universal suffrage for a mandate of five years renewable a single time" (Article 70) and "the number and the duration of the mandates of the President ... cannot be made the object of any constitutional revision" (Article 220). Hence, the country's current ruler, Joseph Kabila — who took power after the assassination of his father in 2001 and was subsequently proclaimed the "winner" of elections held in 2006 and 2011 — should be preparing to vacate Kinshasa's Palais de la Nation to make way for a successor who should be installed there by Dec. 20. Except there seems to be no such movement. In fact, if anything, there are plenty of worrying signs that the 44-year-old Kabila fils and some of those around him may be planning quite the opposite, with potentially devastating consequences not only for Congolese democracy, but the peace and security of Central Africa as a whole.


The legitimacy of the younger Kabila's rule has always been questionable at best. The father from whom he inherited the presidency, Laurent-Désiré, was an adventurer who managed to seize power amid the collapse of longtime dictator Mobuto Sese Seko's rule. Joseph Kabila's "reelection" to his current (second and final) term came after polls were denounced as "treachery, lies, and terror" by the DRC's Roman Catholic bishops, who based that declaration on the evidence gathered by the 40,000 trained monitors they had deployed at voting places across Africa's second-largest country. The results were considered so tainted by the irregularities the bishops and other independent observers uncovered that only one African head of state, Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, showed up for the inauguration ceremony — a rebuke unparalleled in the annals of the African Union.

Nor has the DRC's ruler done much to redeem himself since then, despite the impressive gains in gross domestic product (GDP) — and thus in central government revenues — that have resulted from successful international efforts to end the conflicts in the eastern part of the Congo and permit something of a return to normalcy in terms of economic activity. Not only does the Congo currently stand in 176th place among the 188 countries and territories ranked in the United Nations Development Program's Human Development Index, but, under Kabila's management, the DRC stood in 48th place out of 54 countries on the Mo Ibrahim Foundation's 2015 Ibrahim Index of African Governance, behind even such manmade disasters like Zimbabwe and Libya, and just barely ahead of totally failed states like Somalia and South Sudan. The country's ranking in Transparency International's 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index was not much better: 147th place out of 167 countries. Nor can the regime claim much credit for the entrepreneurial achievements of the Congolese people, which have revived the once moribund economy. Citizens are succeeding despite the government, not because of it: According to the World Bank's 2016 "ease of doing business" index, the DRC ranks 184th out of 189 places surveyed — only in the Central African Republic, Venezuela, South Sudan, Libya and Eritrea is it more difficult to engage in commerce than in Kabila's Congo.

Consequently, it's no surprise that even if — and this is the big if — Kabila are planning to step down as required by the constitution, his closest allies would be less than enthused by the prospect of having to campaign to keep power with a track record that dismal to run on. Thus, the regime has been pulling out all stops to avoid having to stand down at the end of this year. You name it, they've tried it over the course of the last year: from blocking legally adopted children from joining their families (in order to gain leverage with governments abroad) to trying to mandate a nationwide census before any vote (in a country the size of the DRC and as lacking in transport infrastructure, the census would take years to complete) to splitting the Congo's 11 provinces into 26 (thus gumming up the already delayed process of local and regional elections, leaving regime appointees in control of the machinery of state). The most recent effort is a risible call for "national dialogue" to "discuss" a vote that is already enshrined as black-letter law in the constitution.

A report in December by the United Nations mission in the Congo documented the detention of at least 649 political opponents and civil society activists in the first nine months of 2015 alone, and noted rather diplomatically that "the shrinking of democratic space is likely to impact the electoral process." The pace of the repression has picked up this year: An updated report by the U.N. mission found no fewer than 383 violations of human rights with respect to democratic space in just the first two months of 2016. Just how much that space had shrunk was evident in the gubernatorial elections held two weeks ago in most provinces: After opposition candidates were systematically excluded, Kabila loyalists scored lopsided "wins" in all but six provinces (a runoff is required in one province and independent candidates prevailed in five others). The interim governors, who will hold office until full-term governors are elected at an unspecified future date, will control local security services and other resources well through the critical current year.

One year ago, in the wake of the historic electoral defeat in Nigeria of a sitting president by an opposition candidate and the ensuing peaceful transition in Africa's most populous country, President Obama telephoned Kabila to emphasize the importance of timely, credible and peaceful elections that respect the DRC's constitution and protect the rights of Congolese citizens. There is little evidence that Kabila was swayed by the admonition. In fact, the Congolese ruler has yet to even commit himself unambiguously to respecting the constitution and leaving office when his term ends in December.

That any meaningful national election — much less one meeting international standards for free and fair — is even in the works is doubtful. Last month, the U.N. Security Council went so far as to adopt a resolution expressing "deep concern" over "the delays in the preparation of the presidential elections scheduled for November 2016, in accordance with the Constitution, and that the update of the electoral register has not yet begun." Far from assuaging these concerns, there are credible reports that the Kabila regime may be planning instead to further crack down on those it sees as threats, including the "G7" group of parties that used to be allied with the government and Moïse Katumbi, the popular former governor of Katanga, whose province was split up into four barely viable entities after he resigned from the ruling party. In a troubling sign last week of what the regime perhaps has in the works, Jason Stearns, director of New York University's Congo Research Group and former coordinator of the U.N. panel of experts on the DRC, was arrested and expelled from the country after he was quoted in a Bloomberg article that reported on revelations in the "Panama Papers" concerning the holdings of presidential twin sister Jaynet Kabila.

It is important to keep in mind that what happens in the Congo doesn't stay in the Congo. In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in February, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield acknowledged that "the DRC risks a political confrontation over respect for the constitution, including term limits, with potentially disastrous results for the people of the DRC and the region." In a report last month for the Atlantic Council's Africa Center, Gérard Prunier, one of the world's top experts on the Congo, was even more explicit in his warning: "Unless the United States, the European Union, and other world leaders take an active role, not only the Congo but also the broader African Great Lakes region will succumb to a new wave of violence. The ensuing instability will create chaos but more frighteningly opportunity for those terrorist groups that thrive off of chaos."

Pham is director of the Atlantic Council's Africa Center.