What is evolving in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is not much different from events in neighbouring Burundi. Both presidents are reluctant to respect their constitutional term mandates. While in Burundi the situation has evolved into a full-on crisis, in the DRC it is just starting to escalate.
This week the Burundian government rejected the deployment of a 228-strong UN police force to the country – a compromise solution that took the UN Security Council many months to forge and that most Burundi-watchers agreed was a mere drop in the bucket compared to what is really needed. But the government was not willing to allow a small number of outsiders access to the country, even though this force could have helped end killings on both sides of the political divide.
The time to deal with Burundi was early 2015 – and many would say even earlier. There are now very few options left to persuade Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza to make concessions and return the country to a path of stability and long-term peace.
The impasse in Burundi is proof that when a head of state wants to cling to power, he can, and there is very little the international community can do about it.
Of course there are sanctions, and some countries have already imposed them on Burundi, but these are slow to have an impact, and depending on their nature, often hurt the poor first.
This is a lesson that is growing more acute by the day for those hoping to prevent neighbouring DRC, where presidential elections have been delayed indefinitely, from descending into large-scale violence.
Time to act is quickly running out. The African Union (AU) appointed facilitator, former Togolese prime minister Edem Kodjo, announced his intention to launch preparatory talks on the National Dialogue in late June, but has had to indefinitely postpone them as the largest opposition grouping – the Rassemblement de l’opposition – led by Etienne Tshisekedi, has refused to attend.
The Rassemblement argues that Kodjo determined the date and format of the meeting unilaterally and so violated an understanding he had forged with the opposition in June. Since the Congolese government first mooted the National Dialogue in 2015, the opposition has rejected it as a process whose sole purpose was to rubberstamp the government’s orchestrated election delays.
Presidential elections were due to be held in November this year and President Joseph Kabila’s second and last presidential mandate expires on 19 December. Kodjo, who was appointed by the AU in January upon the Kabila government’s request, has failed to shake off the impression that he is there to do the government’s bidding.
And while the Rassemblement and other opposition groupings have agreed that some sort of dialogue is necessary, they insist they will not participate in a National Dialogue that has been ‘designed’ by Kabila, and in which he may himself participate.
In response to the opposition’s demands that Kodjo accept independent co-facilitators from the UN and the US, and also to speed up the stalled process, the frustrated international community hammered out a new arrangement, announcing in June the formation of a support committee for Kodjo consisting of the UN, the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie, and the European Union (EU). These organisations are joined by the Southern African Development Community and the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR), of which DRC is a member.
In July the UN Special Envoy to the Great Lakes, Said Djinnit, and the EU Special Envoy to the Great Lakes, Koen Verwaake, accompanied by AU Peace and Security Council Chairperson Smaïl Chergui, travelled to meet representatives of the Rassemblement in Brussels.
Although the constitution of the support committee was a big step forward, and a clear victory for the opposition, the opposition maintains that Kodjo is biased in favour of Kabila and that it will not engage in a dialogue stage-managed by the Congolese government.
The Congolese government is not helping matters. On the one hand it calls the opposition to negotiations, and on the other it cracks down on freedom of expression, responds violently to protests and continues to harass its political opponents.
Last week a judge in the recent criminal case against Moise Katumbi, the former Katanga governor turned opposition figure, who is now outside the country, revealed that several senior government officials pressured her into finding Katumbi guilty. The indictment means Katumbi would be arrested upon his return to the country, and it also makes him ineligible to stand for the presidency.
But the Rassemblement and other opposition parties that refuse to engage with the dialogue also need a reality check. Less than five months before the end of Kabila’s mandate, some sort of political dialogue to chart the way forward has become inevitable. The government has made minor concessions, notably on the support committee to Kodjo and, although largely a token move, it released some political prisoners last week.
However, compromise from the opposition camp also seems unlikely in the near future. After two years in exile, Tshisekedi returned to Kinshasa to a triumphant welcome last week and then summoned tens of thousands of people to a political meeting on 31 July. Bolstered by this show of force, the Rassemblement’s position is unlikely to budge anytime soon. The opposition’s gamble is that it can scare Kabila out of power by demonstrating that the street is behind it.
Both sides are now locked into their positions. In such a context, it is almost impossible to establish the trust and confidence necessary to foster an open and productive political dialogue.
The creation of the support group for Kodjo also seems to have failed to make significant progress. The ICGLR’s recent decision to send Denis Sassou Nguesso, the President of the Republic of the Congo, to help with the talks is also questionable. Sassou recently stage-managed his own domestic political dialogue in order to push through a new constitution that allowed him to stand for another term. He has also mediated in DRC before – in 2014 in another national dialogue that the opposition boycotted because it was dominated by the Kabila government.
Chergui recently said it is not about the facilitator, but in the end, replacing Kodjo is likely to be the only way to restart the process and have an open political dialogue that charts a credible way forward. That is, provided both sides actually want a peaceful resolution.
Written by Stephanie Wolters, Head, Peace and Security Research Programme, ISS Pretoria