by Jesper Bak-Christensen , October 12, 2015
President Joseph Kabila’s options for the 2016 presidential elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are narrowing quickly.
A failed attempt at amending the constitution in January, allowing him a third term, resulted in violent protest in both Kinshasa and Goma, leaving 40 people dead, according to Human Rights Watch. The protests are in line with a larger trend of popular uprisings against African leaders’ attempts to extend their tenure through constitutional changes.
Kabila, however, avoided being ousted — like Burkina-Faso’s former president Blaise Compaoré, who also tried to stay in power with a constitutional amendment — as the Congolese senate rejected the measure.
Kabila did display his administration’s capacity for control by shutting down internet access and cell phone networks, which had been used to organize protests on social media under the hashtag #Telema, meaning “Stand Up.”
In addition to curbing protester communications, Kabila also employed the elite republican guard in the suppression of protests, which suggests that Kabila is genuinely concerned about the risk of a popular uprising.
With the constitutional path to a third term off the table, Kabila has attempted to postpone the election through a highly complicated round of local elections. According to a measure signed into law on August 26, these elections must be completed before the 2016 presidential election. Congo expert Jason Stearns says the tactic known as “glissement,” or slippage, is an intentional administrative complication designed to delay elections.
Another possibility for Kabila that has been floated is a ‘Putin/Medvedev scenario’ where one of his inner circle or potentially his siblings might sit for one term and then return the office to Kabila for another two terms. Both Kabila’s twin Jaynet and his younger brother Zoe are high-ranking members of his government.
However, it is unclear whether or not this is a serious option for Kabila, as it may incite further public outrage as a cheap ploy to maintain power. And public outrage is already palpable, as demonstrated by the opposition and the Telema protests.
Of the opposition candidates in play, a challenger to keep an eye on is wealthy former governor of Katanga, Moise Katumbi. Katanga is an important province because of its independent streak and economic power: it accounts for over half of the DRC’s combined GDP.
Katumbi is hugely popular in his home province and has deep-pocketed supporters in the foreign business community. According to Stearns he is likely to garner the support of foreign backers by virtue of his skilled management of Katanga, most notably expanding roads and infrastructure in a country that is notoriously under-connected. As further indication that he might run in 2016, Katumbi resigned from Kabila’s party on September 29.
Irrespective of potential challengers, Kabila’s motives at this point seem less than honest. Taken together with the latest bout of violence, things do not bode well for the mining industry, as the current mining code is under revision with a look to increase taxes.
Earlier this year Kabila suspended consultations with representatives of the mining industry and forged ahead despite vocal protest, only to resume consultations after considerable international pressure.
Industry representatives have said that a revised mining code with higher taxes would spell ruin for the Congolese industry. It’s a serious threat on several fronts, mainly because most of the DRC’s GDP comes from mining. Because of its poor business rating the DRC is highly dependent on mining profits and souring business relations along with with political and electoral instability may be enough to scare off foreign investment.
Despite stupendous growth, especially in the mining sector, investors should not ignore the wider context of deep-seated political problems and the attendant issues of the coming elections. The DRC’s modest gains in the face of corruption and low-grade violence in the east left over from the civil war should not blind investors to the fact that these gains are easily reversible if violence returns – with devastating economic results.
With electoral uncertainty in the cards for the foreseeable future — even if Kabila stays — a favorable outcome for mining companies is no guarantee.
What’s more is that a new president may feel less inclined to honor deals made with Kabila. As Financial Times Africa correspondent Tom Burgis points out, mining deals tend not to be set in stone in the DRC, but rather are subject to Kabila’s personal preference.
At any rate, Kabila’s next move is likely to have far reaching consequences for Congolese politics and security. Yet, his window of opportunity is closing quickly.
To stay or leave office in 2016 is the obvious question. Having already put down two electoral related protests, one of them deadly, as well as battling the mining industry and courting China, Kabila is facing a series of complex political maneuvers in the coming year.
Come what may, Kabila’s next move could see the country’s first democratic transfer of power, or potentially a return to violence.
Global Risk Insights