After postponing elections at the end of President Joseph Kabila’s last Mandate in December 2016, political compromise was sought with the Congolese opposition in the so-called Sylvester Accord. With the decease of Etienne Tshisekedi, a veteran opposition figure, chances for a real democratic transition seem – once more – mortgaged. It may, however, prove to be time for international actors to renew their commitment to support the development of sustained democratic transition within the Congolese society. (Featured Image © VoteTshisekedi)
President Joseph Kabila, ruling the DR Congo for more than 16 years now, would have completed his last constitutional mandate in December 2016. However, elections were postponed, causing protests and violent turmoil. A political compromise was reached on the 31st of December 2016, thus called the New Year’s Accord or (Saint) Sylvester Accord, prompted by international partners (VN, VS, EU and member states such as Belgium), neighboring countries like Angola as well as internal actors.
The accord comprises measures for a consensual management of the DR Congo during a one year transition period, including: presidential elections to be held in December 2017, no third mandate for Kabila and no constitutional changes during the transition, a transitional government led by a PM, and a national council (CNSA) charged with carrying out the agreement.1
As the unified opposition (le Rassemblement) and government both participated in the Accord mediated by the Congolese Episcopal Conference, the agreement seemed a promising foundation for a peaceful transition, despite several arrangements that still had and have to be substantiated.
Etienne Tshisekedi, Key Figure in the Accord
The real challenge will lie in the complete implementation of the accord, which is complicated by the decease of Etienne Tshisekedi in February 2017, a key figure in the opposition and the transition itself. It was this opposition veteran that unified the Congolese opposition in 2016 against the secretive prolongation of Kabila’s presidency. He was then nominated president of the Conseil National de Suivi de l’Accord (CNSA) to safeguard the implementation of the Sylvester Accord.2
His sudden death not only changed the balance of power within his own UDPS and opposition coalition, but also between opposition and government.3 Tshisekedi’s death challenges the transition process as the opposition is internally divided and now lacks a chief negotiator to lead them. It may however at the same time happen to be a momentum appealing strongly to the crucial responsibility of international actors: they need to step up their efforts in order to actually push change, otherwise risking no change at all.
External Actors’ Convenient Morality
Official external support for the democratization process in the DRC has waned over the years. There’s still massive funding from multilateral institutions and bilateral donors, but this aid is mostly delivered indirectly through general budget support.4 As a consequence – reinforced by a government opposing outside influence and control – leverage has been considerably less and not enough focused on clearly delineated outcomes.
National interests as a driving force for involvement in Congo, overruling concerns about political reform
The geo-strategic importance of the DRC and the abundance of natural and mineral resources explain national interests as a driving force for involvement in Congo, overruling concerns about political reform.5 In some cases this has even enforced tendencies unfavorable for a democratic system. Such is for example the case with the security assistance provided by South Africa and Angola, as elements of the DRC’s police force trained by them are believed to form part of Kabila’s security apparatus used to violently suppress opposition protests.6
Donors have rarely displayed the commensurate political and diplomatic muscle necessary to leverage this aid towards a sustainable solution.7 External engagement in the chaotic and violence-causing elections of 2011 was minimal and even before the elections there was hardly any pressure from international actors on the government. It’s exemplary noting that when Kabila forced through constitutional changes that were widely perceived to benefit the president, little noise was made by Western governments. This demonstrates a sense of ‘convenient’ morality, which undermines the legitimacy and sincerity of pious statements about democracy.8
The enduring attitude of the Congolese political leadership had been encouraged by the willingness of external actors and governments to keep doing business with them, without demonstrating any willingness to invest in long-term stability favoring Congo as a sustainable investment prospect. This undermines respect for the rule of law and a democratic institutional development.9
Lacking external pressure, the regime in Kinshasa itself has little will to strengthen its institutions
Lacking external pressure, the regime in Kinshasa itself has little will to strengthen its institutions. Congo’s government shows no intention nor capability to reform its own state, thus exhibiting an extreme and deliberate institutional weakness based on a deep-rooted political logic of patronage.10 This symptomizes what can be called a ‘violent kleptocracy’: a state system in which a ruling elite is driven by personal interests and maintains profits and power by hijacking governing institutions and using security institutions to repress opponents.11
It’s crucial to recall that the Congolese opposition cannot combat the existing culture of opportunism and self-enrichment that defines politics in the DRC as it exhibits the same deficits as the ruling political elite.12 Moreover, Congolese civil society is fragmented with more than 500 political parties and a myriad of social organizations and platforms claiming to represent it.13 This is detrimental to the checks and balances needed for a sustainable democratic transition and consolidation. Hence, change is unlikely to come from within.
Recalibrating the Role of External Actors
Although the solutions to Congo’s problems will have to be homegrown, its national institutions are still fragile and donors must play a role in bolstering democratization and state reform.14 Generating momentum for political reform in the DR Congo therefore requires a commitment from regional and global powers to ‘recalibrate’ their engagement in the DRC.
Although the solutions to Congo’s problems will have to be homegrown, its national institutions are still fragile and donors must play a role in bolstering democratization and state reform
A renewed commitment of – among others – external aid-agencies, non-profit organizations and multilateral institutions to support a comprehensive political strategy is necessary to aid the development of a democratic agency within Congolese society.15
The role of multilateral institutions will be crucial, since the World Bank, IMF and African Development Bank provide foreign cash reserves, fund requirements packages for state employees and signal to companies and donors that Congo is safe for investment. But it is precisely these donors that have been most reluctant to tie their funds to political reforms.16 The IMF, for example, should push the Congolese government to publish the financial reports of its state-owned companies such as Gécamines, and to have independent audits conducted.17
Donor countries supporting post-conflict reconstruction efforts in the DRC, including the United States, France, Belgium, China and South Africa, should take conscious and improved measures to align their support to the democratization process, especially the aspirations of the Congolese people. This means providing financial support on specific conditions. Also measures for instance aiming at reforming the legal system such as making it more transparent to the people and stem corruption, would require greater coordination and unity of purpose among traditional and emerging donors.18
The lessons of African and international engagement in the 2006 elections show that the unity of efforts can help deliver a democratic outcome, which can be replicated if all regional and multilateral partners involved coordinate in engaging the Congolese parties.19
The incentives for international actors not to step back from this challenge are multiple. Besides the humanitarian consequences for the – already for decades – beleaguered population, the existing record of crises spilling over borders in this strategic region urges mitigating actions. Past experience has shown that timely and coordinated external engagement has been a moderating influence that can lay the groundwork for negotiated outcomes.20
Furthermore, with each crisis, the DRC faces a paradox: the confidence of the donor and business community in the Democratic Republic of Congo as an investment prospect decreases. This in turn even threatens commitments for humanitarian assistance and essential services, resulting in a further downward spiral.21
To transform the deep-rooted system of patronage, there must be significant consequences for the thieves-of-state that maintain it
Specifically for the EU, it could revive its image and perceived role as a credible actor in African conflict management, fitting the EU’s growing emphasis on mobilizing its aid and external relations policies to support conflict prevention and management in vulnerable countries, such as the DR Congo.22
The best hope for the future is sustained action by Congolese civil society to fulfil its role as the bastion of democracy, but those trying to support reform are in dire need of international support. To transform the deep-rooted system of patronage, there must be significant consequences for the thieves-of-state that maintain it.23
The international community has powerful leverage and should use it urgently. Political crises in the DR Congo – often accompanied with harsh violence – have repeatedly proven to quickly gain regional proportions, destabilizing the neighboring region with displacements and giving rise to an expanding zone of destabilization and conflict with even continental impact.
The DR Congo currently finds itself at a crossroads and the involvement of the international community will be decisive in the coming months
The stability of the country, its 80 million inhabitants and the security of the region as a whole are at stake. International business and donor confidence are also at stake, risking the loss of trade prospects for governments with strong commercial (mineral) interests in the DRC as well as investments of aid agencies and multilateral instances.
If any hope at all existed that the Sylvester Accord would further a real democratic transition, following the death of all-time opposition figure Etienne Tshisekedi, it became clear that the recurrence of national and regional instability with disastrous consequences for millions might not be inconceivable. The DR Congo currently finds itself at a crossroads and the involvement of the international community will be decisive in the coming months.24