Congo on the edge
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The government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) missed an important deadline this past week, an intentional failure that is already sending Africa's fourth most populous country (and its second largest by area) hurtling towards the edge of a frightful abyss.

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Unless the international community acts quickly to compel the regime of President Joseph Kabila to give up on its efforts to cling to power beyond the expiration of its legal mandate less than three months away, the dozens killed in clashes this week may well be just the first casualties of what could be a cataclysmic convulsion in the heart of the African continent.

As I previous noted, the text of the Congolese constitution — ratified by an overwhelming vote of more than 84 percent of the citizenry in a 2005 referendum organized with the help of the United Nations (UN) after nearly a decade of war that left upwards of 6 million dead — leaves no room for doubt: "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 current Congolese head of state, Kabila, who took power without any electoral formalities after the assassination of his father in 2001 and was subsequently proclaimed the "winner" of elections held in 2006 and 2011, should be winding down his second and final term of office and preparing to cede power to a successor who should be installed there before Dec. 20.

In fact, the constitution even stipulates that "the ballot for the election of the President of the Republic is convoked by the Independent National Electoral Commission ninety days before the expiration of the mandate of the President in office" (Article 73), which means that the election date should have been announced on Sept. 19.

Except that the date — and, indeed, a full week thereafter — has come and gone with no of announcement of an election. Instead, police in the capital of Kinshasa clashed with demonstrators participating in a previously authorized march to present a petition demanding that the election officials carry out their constitutional responsibilities. Scores of civilians were killed in the melee — at least 44 people, according to the midweek tally by Human Rights Watch — and hundreds more injured. Subsequently, three opposition political parties had their offices mysteriously torched.

Despite the outbreak in violence — to say nothing of graphic images of police brutality that have been spread through social media — the response of the international community has been disappointingly muted. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued an anodyne statement expressing his "deep concern" and calling on "all political leaders to address their differences peacefully and through dialogue."

Later in the week, the U.N., joined by the African Union, the European Union and the International Organization of La Francophonie, released a similar diplomatic communiqué to proclaim that they were "gravely concerned" and to urge "the Government of the DRC to remain engaged in the dialogue process ... and encourage the political groups who are not part of the current talks to play a constructive role."

U.S. State Department Spokesperson John Kirby was a little more robust in his statement, communicating that the United States was "disappointed" by the electoral commission's "failure to announce an elections calendar ... as called for by the DRC constitution." But he still reserved most of his outrage — "in the strongest possible terms" — for the physical and verbal abuse Special Envoy Tom Perriello, former Democratic congressman from Virginia, suffered within a Congolese regime-controlled area of Kinshasa's airport following more than a week of meetings with political and civil society stakeholders. And yet, even with the harassment of its high-level representative, the State Department continued to counsel "the need for a truly inclusive dialogue process."

The problem is not dialogue per se. Talks can indeed be useful, but only if they are going somewhere and not just serving as a pretext to avoid what is clearly the only way out of the crisis that the DRC finds itself in: the organization of free and credible elections in conformity with the Congolese constitution and the first-ever democratic transition in the country's history. Instead, the so-called "national dialogue" convened by Kabila has been boycotted by most of the political opposition — including Moïse Katumbi and Etienne Tshisekedi, the two most prominent leaders — who sense the talks are no more than a ploy to allow the incumbent to stay in power past his term of office by dragging out the process.

Even the country's Roman Catholic bishops, whose congregants represent half of the Congo's more than 80 million inhabitants, have, after initially backing the dialogue as a means to avoid violence, backed away. Archbishop Marcel Utembi of Kisangani, president of the bishops' conference, told Vatican Radio on Wednesday that the church was suspending its participation in the process while it mourned those killed in the clashes earlier in the week.

The fact is that while there are significant technical challenges to organizing a poll within the time left before Kabila's term runs out, the timeframe comes as no surprise: It has been more than two years since I first warned in The Hill of the looming deadline and the potential risk it posed not just to the Congo, but to the region as a whole. That the incumbent regime has not taken the steps necessary to carry out its well-known constitutional obligations to organize elections should not, perversely, be allowed to become its excuse getting extra time at the helm.

Hence any dialogue, if it is to be legitimate, must not only include all the major stakeholders in the DRC — including all the main political parties, civil society and key social institutions like the churches — but also have as its starting point U.N. Security Council Resolution 2277, adopted in March 2016, which, "stressing the importance of a peaceful and credible electoral cycle, in accordance with the Constitution, for stabilization and consolidation of constitutional democracy in the DRC," invoked its authority under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter to call upon the Congolese government "to ensure a transparent and credible electoral process ... including prioritization of those conditions necessary for the presidential and legislative elections scheduled for November 2016 in accordance with the Constitution."

Time is short and the resources required to pull the Congo back from the edge at which it is tottering will be enormous. But the alternative is even more frightening when one considers both that country's violent eruptions in the past and the potential havoc that would be wreaked across a wide swathe of Africa should the DRC experience a new upheaval.

Now is the time for the United States and its partners in the international community to summon the political will to apply the pressure needed — including, where necessary, targeted sanctions against those most responsible for either obstructing the necessary democratic transition or brutally repressing political dissent — to ensure that this past week's violence does not presage a much broader conflict.

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


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.