Elections and economics: What lies ahead for the DRC?

Elections and economics: What lies ahead for the DRC?

The Democratic Republic of Congo faces continued political instability, with persistent violence and economic downturn in the region. Without sufficient opposition, Kabila’s hold on power looks likely for the foreseeable future – but this is not to say certain measures and cooperation could not help alleviate the current situation. Photo by Sasha Lezhnev of The Enough Project.

Violence and instability have characterized the Democratic Republic of Congo prior to and since independence. Joseph Kabila has been in power since 2001: he  was officially voted President in 2006 and his second term came to an end in December. It should have signaled a new era, according to the constitution. Despite economic progress between 2010 and 2015, instability in the east has persisted, militia groups roam the DRC, Congolese troops continue to commit gross human rights violations, citizens face extremely poor standards of living and doing business is nearly impossible, with the DRC being one of the weakest commercial environments in the world.

Notwithstanding the bleak situation, the deployment of the United Nations Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) in 2013 played an important role in the M-23’s defeat, a rebel group that had rocked the region when it captured the city of Goma. By 2015 everyone’s attention shifted to the most important question of the decade: would Kabila cling to power? So far, it seems like this is the case, one that many people in and out of the DRC expected. Protests flared up and were met by violent reprisals from government forces. Despite an agreement on December 31 between Kabila and the opposition, known as Le Rassemblement, the situation has derailed, once again. This article assesses the micro-level risk of domestic instability caused by the electoral dynamics in the country, and will illustrate how more regional and international involvement is required in order to improve the political as well as the economic climate.

What now?

One thing is certain: elections will not be held anytime soon. Last year, CENI, the electoral commission of the DRC, estimated that the end of 2018 was a more realistic time frame. Changing the constitution is not a viable option for Kabila and the opposition is divided, which further complicates the political and economic situation.

Recently, Congolese armed forces were accused of killing and raping women, this time in central Kasai, which illustrates how corrupt the security apparatus continues to be. Kofi Annan’s appeal for a peaceful and democratic transition is testament to the seriousness of a situation described as “a threat to the stability, prosperity and peace of the Great Lakes region, and indeed for Africa as a whole”. Regional bodies and the international community must ensure President Kabila proceeds with elections in what would be the country’s first ever democratic transfer of power.

External actors

Historically speaking, regional bodies, including the African Union (AU), International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC), have been closely involved in the DRC. While the AU and SADC, together with the European Union (EU) and United Nations (UN), all played a critical role in ensuring free and fair elections in 2006, such engagement was absent five years later. In fact, 2011 was the first time in which the government of the DRC took complete control of the electoral procedure, and for many Congolese citizens those elections were neither free nor fair. The SADC specifically, has also been involved in a number of other occasions and with a political deadlock developing in the lead up to November 2016, the AU, together with the SADC, proposed an agreement which would enable a transitional government to take power until elections in 2018. However, they left the opposition out of the deal, which significantly weakened the dialogue, and it begs the question whether they have ultimately enabled Kabila to remain in power. Angola’s recent change of tone is one significant development which will certainly put more pressure on Kabila. More of this is required. Furthermore, EU sanctions are maintaining pressure on Kabila but the fact that the UN has decided to reduce the number troops is a problem – especially since the US is pushing for more cuts.

Economic strain

In addition to the political and social tensions, the political impasse is having a negative impact on the business climate and overall economy. Despite a reported growth of 7.7% per annum between 2010 and 2015, the initial estimate for 2017 was 4.9% and has since then fallen to 3.1%. Furthermore, inflation has gone up by 30% and is expected to be at 33.2% at the end of the year. Additionally, the Congolese franc has depreciated immensely to reach a loss of up to 50%, while consumer prices have increased by 15%.

If the political deadlock persists, we can expect the economic situation to deteriorate even more. Current investors, who have managed to continue doing business in the country despite the poor climate, are starting to look at a possible move away from the DRC. Freeport McMoRan, a US based mining company, recently sold its part of the Tenke copper mine – and it was reported that the political developments played a key role in their decision. Other companies are likely to follow suit.

Immediate attention required

The latest, and arguably most complex political deadlock in recent years, requires immediate attention from the AU, SADC and ICGLR, in coordination with important DRC actors (including the Catholic Church and external actors such as the United States and the European Union). Despite the December 31 agreement, the death of opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi in February weakened the opposition and led the Catholic Church to withdraw from the talks in March. To make matters worse, President Kabila then appointed Bruno Tshibala as Prime Minister in April, even though the December 31 agreement had made it clear that the Prime Minister would have to be a member of the opposition. To make matters worse, the DRC government is refusing an investigation into the violence in Kasai and recent reports accuse the government-backed Bana Mura militia of committing ethnically-motivated attacks. Both these developments highlight the complexity and urgency of the political dynamic.

It is imperative that the opposition finds a way to unite around a leader, so as to increase its credibility. That is the first step. The second is to bring the conference of Catholic bishops (CENCO) back to the table because they are one of the most important internal actors. Moreover, pressure on Kabila needs to be maintained by the international community in the form of targeted sanctions and the region should push parties to address the confidence building measures – issues that are imperative to the dialogue. The engagement of the regional bodies and international community in 2006, which produced free and fair elections, and which in 2013 led to the subsequent dissolution of the M-23 in 2013, are testaments to their power.

About Author

Dimitrios Perdikoulis

Dimitrios grew up in the Democratic Republic of Congo and in Mozambique, spending a total of 15 years on the African continent between 1993 and 2008. He then spent four years in Athens, Greece and completed his Bachelor of Arts in Amsterdam, focusing on International Relations. Dimitrios obtained his Master of Arts in International Conflict Studies at King’s College London, graduating with distinction.