As the DRC's economy begins to struggle, the country's political debate is focused on elections that must take place by November and the constitution's presidential term limits. It seems impossible to meet that deadline, but President Kabila is not letting on about how he will play the crisis.
Suspended from the towering monument dedicated to Belgium's King Albert I opposite Kinshasa's iconic central train station, a blue banner screams at the traffic below: "LET'S DIALOGUE FOR THE GOOD OF CONGO." For more than four months, tropical squalls have felled it from its perch – sometimes several times a week. Each time, it has been promptly restored, a beacon of persistence against gathering storms.
Joseph Kabila needs to understand that he can no longer hold the electoral process hostage
The banner is an apt metaphor for the political initiative it touts. Announced to great pomp last November by President Joseph Kabila, who has ruled the vast Central African country since his father's assassination in 2001, the so-called "national inclusive dialogue" has had an uneven start. The government presented the talks as an urgent measure to set the conditions for peaceful elections after votes in 2006 and 2011 were marred by bloodshed.
The first progress came only in April when an international facilitator, Togo's former prime minister, Edem Kodjo, announced the imminent installation of a preparatory committee. The vast majority of major opposition parties have rejected the dialogue and said it is a pretext to delay the presidential election slated for 27 November and to allow the term-limited Kabila to cling to power.
And yet, few of Kabila's allies seem overly concerned. Indeed, if the master plan, as the president's opponents charge, is glissement, or a slippage of the election calendar, then Kabila's coalition could hardly have hoped for better.
More than just a delaying tactic, it has also become a one-size-fits-all rhetorical cudgel for Kabila's defenders. Asked by The Africa Report if Kabila would be willing to commit to leaving power after the election in order to reassure the opposition that his real strategy is not to change the constitution, the ruling coalition's spokesman, André-Alain Atundu, replied with a trusty retort: "The dialogue is there precisely to build confidence."
The current stalemate marks a reversal for Kabila's foes, who seemed to begin 2016 with a spring in their step as the dialogue floundered. Kabila's coalition dealt with several high-profile defections and the country's fractious opposition formed a new platform committed to the president's departure this year.
Well aware of the country's continuing fragility and Kabila's acute political weaknesses, the president's allies only briefly countenanced the brute-force method used by other presidents in the region to stay in power.
Instead, they have rallied around an apparent strategy of delay to extend Kabila's time in office until they can find a long-term solution. Top allies like national intelligence director, Kalev Mutond, and the interior minister, Evariste Boshab – instrumental in negotiations over financing the elections – have been drafted into key political roles, even as they oversee a crackdown on Kabila's critics.
The strategy of glissement has taken few by surprise. As soon as the January 2015 protests against alleged efforts by Kabila to cling to power ended in the government withdrawing a controversial reform to the electoral law, opponents warned that Kabila would next look to technical delays based on a lack of money, an obsolete voter registry and security problems. Even so, they have been unable to do much to stop it.
"The glissement is already a fact – the opposition has [done] nothing really to counteract this," says Hans Hoebeke, a DRC analyst for the International Crisis Group (ICG), a non-governmental organisation. "Thus far, through the [electoral commission and] the courts, the majority has succeeded in controlling the playing field with very little effective reaction from either the opposition or the international community."
In March, the president of the electoral commission, Corneille Nangaa, told the media that he would request a "small extension" to the presidential election in order to update voter rolls, said to exclude more than seven million eligible voters who have turned 18 since the 2011 election and to contain the names of millions of dead people.
Previously, the commission said that revising the rolls would take between 13 and 16 months. The government has failed to clarify how it plans to raise the funding for a planned slate of local, provincial and national elections estimated to cost some $1.2bn.
While the United States ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, pushed back against the commission's time estimates, the position of Western powers on the elections seems to be softening. "Behind the scenes, everyone knows it's not going to happen [this year]," says Stephanie Wolters, a Congo analyst at the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa.
All of this has forced the opposition to recalibrate its approach. Several leaders have even begun to speak openly about the possibility of a transition if November's election is missed, though they insist that Kabila cannot be the one to lead it.
If the wily Kabila appears to be winning the parlour game so far, it would be a mistake to ignore the DRC that dwells beyond the corridors of power. Nearly the size of western Europe and with a population of more than 70 million, the DRC has defied firm centralised control in the best of times.
Kabila, never popular in the west of the country, now faces growing discontent in his traditional eastern fiefs too. Protests in January 2015 resulted in more than 40 deaths, hinting at widespread disaffection with the results of Kabila's 15-year rule.
Despite some of the fastest economic growth rates in the world – averaging 8% over the past five years – poverty reduction has remained anaemic and inner-city residents complain of worsening overcrowding and deteriorating infrastructure. Youth activist groups have emerged to channel the largely inchoate anger that percolates on the streets, leading to brutal crackdowns by authorities.
Deteriorating economic conditions are likely to amplify tensions. Sharp drops in the price of commodities like copper, cobalt and oil that the DRC depends on for some 98% of its export revenues are just starting to be felt.
Mines in the copper-producing southeast have started laying off workers, the central bank has slashed its 2016 growth forecast from 9% to 6.6%, and foreign-currency reserves are at their lowest levels in years. After five years of remarkable macroeconomic stability, the Congolese franc is slowly but surely losing ground to the United States dollar.
A return to the hyperinflation of the 1990s might not be on the cards, but Kinshasa residents say they are starting to feel the pinch in the price of basic staples. "The direct social impact of the economic crisis is likely to contribute more to the instability than the political uncertainty," says the ICG's Hoebeke. "The combination of both makes for a dangerously unpredictable cocktail."
The opposition is keen to harness this discontent and steadily increase the pressure on Kabila. "Joseph Kabila needs to understand that he can no longer hold the electoral process hostage," says Olivier Kamitatu, whose G7 opposition coalition endorsed the powerful former governor from the DRC's copper-mining south-east, Moïse Katumbi, to represent it in the presidential election.
Katumbi has not yet officially declared his candidacy, saying he is trying to first unite the different wings of the opposition. He has said the opposition will organise a series of marches in July to pressure Kabila to commit to leaving.
Despite murmurings of discontent within the ranks of the armed forces, it is still Kabila who controls the guns. With Kabila known for his silence, the answers to the most important questions of all remain exasperatingly elusive.
What are his true intentions? Can he be gently coaxed into retirement with the right mix of personal protections and incentives? Or is he – as many analysts believe – quietly weighing the balance of forces, keeping his options open until the very last possible moment?
Then, there is the question of his allies and family members, whom analysts say could fear material loss and even potential prosecution if Kabila is no longer president. A proposal in the senate would extend far-reaching immunities to Kabila's collaborators, but the measure has yet to be taken up formally.
Over bottles of Tembo and Primus beer, speculation over these questions mixes these days with rumba to form the new soundtrack of Kinshasa's bars. But, says Pascal Kambale, the former DRC country director for the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa: "Anyone trying to predict outcomes or what it will look like process-wise has learned nothing from the complex political history of the country." ●