Posted on Wednesday, 06 August 2014 16:23

DRC's Joseph Kabila: Will he stay or will he go?

By Gregory Mthembu-Salter in Kinshasa

Where there’s a will there’s a way: Kabila considers his options©Gwenn Dubourthoumieu/afpElectoral and constitutional changes proposed in June suggest that President Joseph Kabila will attempt to stay beyond the end of his last term in 2016. Political uncertainty has slowed peace negotiations, the national dialogue and improving the economy outside the mining sector.

"Nothing is moving", says a Kinshasa-based businessman as he shakes his head. "To move this project forward, I need the go-ahead from the minister. But no one is signing anything. For months now, they have been sitting on their hands," he explains.

Ever since President Joseph Kabila announced in October 2013 that he would bring in a new government, the current administration – headed by Prime Minister Augustin Matata Ponyo – began grinding to a halt. The political class was awaiting a decision on the new governing team.

In DRC's post-independence history a head of state has never voluntarily left power

Months later, the wait continues, and the list of unfinished business grows ever longer. The government and the mainly Tutsi rebels in the Mouvement du 23 Mars signed a peace deal in December 2013, but that has not resolved the question of instability in the east. The Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération du Rwanda, made up of Hutus that conducted the Rwandan genocide in 1994, said that the group's fighters would surrender in May.

Diplomats have been dissatisfied with the follow-up on that promise, and the United Nations peace- keepers and national armed forces have threatened new offensives. Problems related to demobilisation, reintegration and amnesties have derailed previous peace efforts in the east.

A revision of the 2002 mining code, which has been hotly debated by the government and mining companies for months, is still unfinished. There is no clear timetable about when it might be completed. A law about investment in the oil sector has also not been finalised.

The government has not delivered on its promise to draft new legislation on insurance either. A bill intended to encourage private investment in the energy sector sits unsigned on the president's desk.

Vexed question

In the absence of official information, a plethora of rumours and theories have been circulating in the capital. Prime Minister Matata Ponyo will keep his job or he will be dropped. National Assembly president Aubin Minaku will replace Matata or Senate president Léon Kengo Wa Dondo will. Or maybe it will be someone else entirely.

There is a rough consensus, though, that who- ever heads the new government will somehow have to manage the vexed question of 2016. Kabila's second and final term in office expires in two years, after which the constitution requires elections and a new president.

The United States government made a strong call for Kabila to respect the constitution. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Kinshasa in May and called on Kabila to abide by and not alter the constitution. Adding to the pressure, the European Union has backed Kerry's call.

Congolese public opinion appears firmly in favour of maintaining the constitution's two-term limit. Information minister Lambert Mende has insisted that President Kabila will not stay in power beyond 2016 and will not do anything to violate the constitution. His statements have done little to resolve the debate about the succession.

In the country's post-independence history, a head of state has never voluntarily left power. There is a lot of uncertainty about what would happen if Kabila decides to step down in 2016. The country's civil war officially ended in July 2003, but the central government has not followed through on the holding of regular elections or sharing funds with provincial authorities, as mandated by the constitution.

Mining and telecoms drive the country's growth, while other sectors face apathy

Kabila's party, the Parti du Peuple pour la Reconstruction et la Démocratie (PPRD), has not openly debated the succession and the National Assembly is fragmented and includes many independent candidates and small personality-based political parties.

Since the end of the national political consultations that Kabila organised in September and October 2013, opposition alliances have been shifting. There are now three main opposition groupings. Longtime oppositionist Étienne Tshisekedi, who scored 32% at the contested 2011 presidential elections, leads one constellation. Senate president Kengo Wa Dondo and former National Assembly president Vital Kamerhe represent the other two.

Members of the opposition have formed umbrella groups, such as the Forces Acquises au Changement and the Front pour des Elections Crédibles, but so far none of them have been able to unite Kabila's principal critics. Tshisekedi and Kamerhe both lambasted the national dialogue held last year and said the government was not interested in real dialogue.

Amidst the political uncertainty related to 2016, will the army stay loyal? Will the civil service keep functioning? What will happen in the provinces, and particularly in Katanga, where new rebel groups have become active over the past few years, and what about the east? Would a new president leave Kabila and his riches alone or arrest him? Would the country's interfering neighbours stay out of the issue or get involved?

To add to all the unanswered questions about Kabila's departure, there are many others about how he could justify staying on, particularly since changing the constitution has become problematic. Kabila had sought to use the national dialogue to gather support for another term in office, but in this he was unsuccessful.
On 9 June government spokesman Lambert Mende announced the government's decision to propose new electoral laws and revisions to the constitution.

The new laws would target elections from the local to the presidential level. There may be a way to amend the laws without changing the constitution. Insiders suggest the plan hatched by Kabila and his allies is to amend the electoral law, changing the way the president is elected from universal suffrage to an election by delegates to the National Assembly. In this way, they argue, the president could serve another term without removing constitutional term limits. In addition, they would amend the rules so that local councillors rather than voters elect provincial deputies.

Buying time for Kabila

Opposition parties are likely to claim that the proposed amendments are substantial enough to require changes to the constitution, but the newly created Cour Constitutionnelle has come to Kabila's rescue in the past and can probably be relied on to do so again. A possible compromise, particularly if donors voice their opposition to such plans, would be to put the proposed changes to the electoral law to a referendum. Donors will no doubt refuse to pay, and months could slip by. Since the main motivation behind the plan is to buy Kabila time, all delays would be welcome.

Holding a national census could be another reason for delay. There has not been a census in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in decades. The resulting dearth of up-to-date information hampers development work, so donors might be tempted to pay for one. Conducting a census is bound to be a lengthy, difficult and expensive process. The government is likely to insist that it must be completed before another general election can be organised.

The next part of the plan is to hold local elections, which have not happened since the end of the civil war. After announcing in January that the polls would be held this year, the electoral authorities announced in late May that they would take place between 14 June and 15 October 2015.

Like the census, local elections are set to be slow, pricey and fraught with difficulty. The opposition group Sauvons la République Démo- cratique du Congo called the election timeline "a provocation" and said that a census covering more than 2.3m square kilometres and an estimated 76 million people will take an unknown period of time to complete.

A census and a potential referendum on changes to electoral law could easily take the DRC past the 2016 constitutional deadline.

Economy surges ahead

The final part of the plan could be the trickiest – namely the claim that with a new electoral law in place, Kabila would be entitled to two further terms as president. Opposition parties and Western donors are sure to oppose such an argument. Whether donors would be prepared to attempt to prevent it from happening is another question entirely, particularly with Central African Republic and South Sudan in such turmoil already.

For all the political torpor, the DRC's economy continues to surge ahead. Real gross domestic growth was measured at 8.2% in 2013 and could rise to 9.4%, one of the highest rates in the world, in 2014. Most of this growth is due to rising mining production. According to official statistics, copper output rose from 620,000tn in 2012 to 957,000tn in 2013, a year-on-year increase of 54% and a near-record level of production.

The rise is the result of several years of investment in Katangan copper mines by international operators. It would have been higher still if the companies had access to sufficient electrical power. There is a growing energy deficit, particularly in the mining sector, with companies often resorting to expensive diesel-fuelled generators to keep their machines running.

Outside the mining sector, there is continued growth in telecoms. In mid-May, South Africa's Vodacom Group announced that the International Chamber of Commerce had ruled in its favour in a long-running dispute with its minority partner in the DRC. Company officials said the ruling means that it would now "significantly increase" its $100m annual capital expenditure in the country, where it has 10 million subscribers.

In other sectors, though, many companies report that economic growth is anaemic and complain that consumer purchasing power remains weak. Reliable statistics are hard to come by, particularly in the agricultural sector, where activity remains almost entirely absent from official data. The government is launching a series of agricultural projects to raise production, fight food insecurity and provide jobs.

Investor caution

Investors, too, have been wary. In late 2012, for example, no suitable companies bid for a contract to manage bus transport in Kinshasa. The government says that the recent peace deals in eastern DRC will allow foreign investors to return, but most prefer to wait and see. A law about local ownership could deter them from investing in the agricultural drive.

Industry analysts say the construction sector has weakened, with a number of private sector projects on hold. The end to a series of disputes with Chinese investors and financial institutions means that the infrastructure and mining sectors will receive a boost.

The country's small oil sector, meanwhile, continues to produce more controversy than barrels per day (bpd). Daily oil production remains at just 22,000bpd from a small number of Atlantic offshore wells. Talks between the DRC and Angola, which occupies a number of lucrative offshore blocks that are claimed by the Congolese government, have not led to any progress.

There is little activity on the Lake Albert oil blocks held by Foxwhelp and Caprikat, two British Virgin Islands-registered companies linked to Israeli mining mogul Dan Gertler, who has a close relationship with President Kabila.

In April, London-listed Soco International launched a seismic survey of Lake Edward in the UNESCO World-Heritage listed Parc National des Virunga. Following the release of a documentary that appeared to show bribery and payments to rebels, Soco said it would not continue work in the park. Comments by its deputy CEO in The Times, however, suggested the company is trying to redraw the boundaries of the protected site. ●

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