DRC: All eyes on 2016
“No, I have no idea who my bourgmestre [mayor] is,” says Alphonse Mabwa as he shakes his head. Mabwa, an even-tempered, stout man with a shining bald pate, works in the house of a local Indian family and has lived in the impoverished Lemba suburb of Kinshasa since the late 1980s.
In nearly all that time, says Mabwa, he has neither known nor cared to know the identity of his senior local government representative. “There was a man back in the early 1990s who I remember was at least nice to people. But the others… I have never seen them. They are not interested in people like me.”
There have never been free, multi- party local elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and Toussaint Kapuku, Mabwa’s bourgmestre – like all the bourgmestres in the country’s cities and towns, plus all the territorial administrators in its rural areas – was appointed to his position from on high.
Mabwa is thus of no use to Kapuku as a potential voter.
Mabwa does not own a business that needs permission to do something from the local authorities, which would create a handy opportun- ity for them to extract rents, so he is of no financial interest to Kapuku either.
Footage of Kapuku appeared on YouTube on 21 January, showing him speaking to camera on a Lemba street surrounded by heavily armed riot policemen.
Kapuku reassured viewers that Lemba was under control following two days of unrest in the neighbourhood and the city as a whole.
His aim was clearly also to dispel rumours circulating that the rioters, who had torched his offices, had also assassinated him.
The protests followed the introduction in the national assembly in mid-January of a draft electoral law requiring a census to be held before elections.
Opposition parties immediately denounced the requirement as a ruse to enable President Joseph Kabila to delay presidential polls and called out their supporters onto the streets.
The resulting violent protests panicked the senate into striking down the census requirement, and Kabila quickly endorsed the change.
A calendar at last
Satisfied that they had made their point, the rioters returned to their homes – but only after scores of people had been killed.
Estimates range from the government’s 29 to more than 100 according to some opposition party sources, and many more people were arrested and detained, including several high-profile politicians.
Under intense pressure from international donors, the electoral commission finally produced a comprehensive electoral calendar in February, with presidential elections scheduled for November 2016.
Local elections are set for October this year, and they are to be followed by provin- cial and then the legislative and presidential polls.
The electoral commission estimates that the elections will cost a staggering $1.2bn – money that the Congolese government does not have.
As donors mull the best way to respond, they are uncomfortably aware that the timetable is bound to slip and possibly to slip badly.
Even if donors open their chequebooks immediately, it would still take many months of hard work before local elections could be held in enough parts of the country to make the poll credible.
However, that does not take into account the explosive impact the process might have on the fragile politics of the country’s war-scarred eastern provinces of Nord-Kivu and Sud-Kivu.
To complicate matters, the government is promising within the next two months to implement decentralisation, which would mean increasing the number of provinces from 11 to 26.
Decentralisation is a requirement of the constitution, but many observers have dismissed the idea as impractical and too expensive.
Yet Kabila, who rarely says anything in public, has called for decentralisation to happen quickly on more than one occasion this year.
An announcement about the measure seems increasingly imminent.
Decentralisation would almost certainly delay the electoral calendar still further and would also significantly curtail the power base of existing governors.
These governors include Moïse Katumbi, whose province of Katanga is destined to be cut into four.
Under the current proposals, the current Katangan capital of Lubumbashi will become the capital of Haut Katanga, and 85% of the country’s copper production would end up in the neighbouring province of Lualaba, with Kolwezi as its capital.
That would drastically reduce Katumbi’s power, particularly if miners persuaded the Lualaba authorities to give their blessing to a new border crossing on the road from Kolwezi to Solwezi in Zambia.
If the new province’s mining companies could truck their production out that way instead of using the congested Kasumbalesa border post down the road from Lubumbashi, the companies would save time and money. Meanwhile, Katumbi and his shrunken fiefdom would lose a huge chunk of their income.
There is increasing suspicion that weakening Katumbi’s capacity to challenge Kabila for the presidency is the real intention behind the decentralisation plan.
Katumbi has not openly announced his intentions but has given a convincing impression of being interested in the top job, particularly during a rousing speech in Lubumbashi in early January in which he criticised at- tempts from Kabila’s camp to engineer a third presidential term.
Kamerhe on trial
The relationship between Kabila and his former ally Vital Kamerhe has further degenerated.
Kamerhe was once the president of the national assembly but broke with Kabila several years back after Kabila invited Rwandan troops to eastern DRC to fight the rebels of the Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda (FDLR).
Kamerhe then formed his own party, the Union pour la Na- tion Congolaise (UNC).
He was one of the main instigators of the January demonstrations, during which many of his supporters were arrested and some were killed.
The UNC leader is now on trial at the supreme court in a politicised case dating back to the last elections in 2011.
Kamerhe had at the time disputed the result of the vote for one national assembly seat, saying that Wivine Moleka had won because of ballot stuffing.
An electoral court later rejected the claim and Moleka sued Kamerhe for defamation.
The plaintiff later dropped her suit after she and Kamerhe reached a negotiated settlement.
Reviving the case and taking it to the supreme court seem a clear case of the political manipulation of the justice system.
Kamerhe’s supporters are asking donor governments to raise the issue with Kabila, but he has made it plain that he is in no mood to be lectured about this or indeed on anything.
On 15 February, Kabila summoned diplomats to a 45-minute address in which he angrily accused them of sponsoring opposition parties and failing to give him and his government the respect they deserve.
Kabila also tore into a recent decision of the UN mission in the DRC not to work with the Congolese army in a new military campaign against the FDLR.
The UN made the move to protest Kabila’s choice of two generals who had committed major human rights abuses to lead the offensive.
At the meeting with diplomats, Kabila said the UN peacekeeping force had given “nothing” to the country “except water and tinned sardines”.
Martin Kobler, the special representative of the UN secretary general to the DRC, was sufficiently shaken to inform close associates that he anticipated his possible expulsion from the DRC.
Since then, however, the political temperature has cooled somewhat, and discussions have tentatively begun within the UN about what kind of assistance it can offer for the electoral process.
So, perhaps, the time is drawing nearer when Congolese can finally elect their local representatives, meaning that if Kapuku wants to retain his Lemba seat he will have to campaign for it, and Mabwa might end up knowing – and caring about – who he is. ●