Deal Sets Congo on Path toward First Democratic Transition, but Huge Challenges Ahead
After weeks of intense negotiations, and much bloodshed, participants at talks mediated by the Catholic Church concluded an agreement just before midnight on New Year’s Eve. The deal – signed by representatives from the ruling coalition, the political opposition, and civil society organizations – includes a clear commitment that presidential elections will be held before the end of 2017, that President Joseph Kabila will not seek a third term, and that there will be no referendum nor changes to the constitution.
This is a significant development, following months of speculation that Kabila would not step down and open calls by some Kabila loyalists for him to defy the constitution’s term limits and cling to power indefinitely.
But huge challenges remain.
Congolese Justice Minister Alexis Thambwe Mwamba (right)
is assisted by Abbot Donatien N'shole, CENCO secretary
general, as he signs the accord between the opposition
and the government of President Joseph Kabila at the
Conference episcopale nationale du Congo (CENCO)
headquarters in Gombe Municipality, in the Congolese
capital Kinshasa, December 31, 2016.
The agreement calls for a national follow-up committee to oversee implementation of the deal and the organization of presidential, legislative, and provincial elections in 2017. It also says that a new prime minister will be appointed, chosen by the Rassemblement opposition coalition, and that the national and provincial governments will be made up of members of the majority and opposition. But there’s no detailed calendar. It’s not yet clear how the follow-up committee will be structured or when the new prime minister and national and provincial governments will be appointed. Many also question whether the country can organize three elections in 2017 and say it would be more realistic to focus on presidential and legislative elections before organizing provincial elections.
Kabila has not yet signed the agreement, and while many say that it’s enough for his representatives to have signed on his behalf, the deal would likely have much more credibility in the eyes of the population if it included Kabila’s signature.
The opposition Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) and the coalition Front for Respect of the Constitution expressed reservations about the agreement regarding the point that Kabila can stay in power during the transition. Many Congolese youth activists say the best guarantee of credible elections would be for Kabila to step down immediately.
Felix Tshisekedi, of the Union for Democracy and Social
Progress (UDPS), signs the accord between the
opposition and the government of President
Joseph Kabila at the Conference episcopale
nationale du Congo (CENCO) headquarters
in Gombe Municipality, of the Democratic
Republic of Congo's capital Kinshasa,
December 31, 2016.
Perhaps most importantly, “confidence building measures” have yet to be implemented, and there are no clear guarantees that two years of repression will be reversed. Senior intelligence and security force officers responsible for much of the repression remain in office. The agreement says that four of the seven “emblematic” cases of political prisoners or activists in exile have been addressed, including Antipas Mbusa Nyamwisi, Roger Lumbala, Moïse Moni Della, and Floribert Anzuluni. But they have yet to be released or cleared of charges at the time of writing. The agreement says the other three cases – Moïse Katumbi, Jean-Claude Muyambo, and Eugène Diomi Ndongala – and those of other political prisoners, will be dealt with later by a committee of magistrates.
Katumbi called on the opposition to sign, saying he didn’t want his case to block the agreement, adding that the bishops have committed to dealing with his case later.
Meanwhile, as the agreement was being finalized, repression against the political opposition, pro-democracy activists, the media, and peaceful protesters seems to have continued unabated.
There has been no attempt to seek justice for the killings of at least 40 people by security forces during protests in Kinshasa and other cities on December 20, 2016, the day after Kabila’s two-term limit ended.
Opposition leader Franck Diongo was arrested on December 19, and convicted and sentenced to five years in prison on December 28, following a hasty trial that he attended in a wheelchair and on a drip from the mistreatment he endured during arrest. And the provincial parliament of Haut Katanga voted on December 27 to lift the parliamentary immunity for opposition leader Gabriel Kyungu, accused of insulting Kabila.
At least 10 pro-democracy youth activists from LUCHA, Filimbi, and Compte à Rembours (“Countdown”) are still in detention, arrested in recent weeks over peaceful protests calling for Kabila to respect the constitution and step down. Some have been held in secret detention without access to their families or lawyers. The Kinshasa representative for Filimbi, Carbone Beni, for example, wasarrested on December 13 alongside other activists outside the building in Kinshasa where the talks were being held. His family had no news about him until his wife received a handwritten note from Beni on December 26, informing her that he is being held at the Tshatshi military camp and asking her to remain strong, look after their children, and tell his mother he loves her. A month earlier unidentified assailantsabducted Beni and beat him badly before releasing him.
Other activists who were released told us about the conditions of their detention. Gloria Sengha, a LUCHA activist, was arrested on December 16 while walking in Kinshasa. She was thrown into a car, blindfolded and beaten, and her belongings stolen. Held in incommunicado detention first at Camp Tshatshi and then at the 3Z detention center of the intelligence services, she was interrogated about LUCHA and its supporters. She received little food and water until her release on December 27.
A Congolese woman holds a placard written 'Women require
stable peace' as they sit in protest during talks between
the opposition and the government of President Joseph
Kabila outside the Conference episcopale nationale
du Congo (CENCO) headquarters in the Democratic
Republic of Congo's capital Kinshasa,
December 31, 2016.
Constant Mutamba, an activist from the Nouvelle Génération pour l'Émergence du Congo (NOGEC) citizens’ movement, was arrested in the Ngiri-Ngiri neighborhood of Kinshasa in the early hours of December 20 while monitoring as Congolese took to the streets, blowing whistles and banging on pots and pans to tell Kabila his time was up. Several armed men grabbed him, beat him, put a ski mask over his head and threw him into a car. He said he was held at an unknown location, tied to a chair and beaten with blunt objects. The assailants threatened that he would never see his wife and two children again and asked him to reveal the identity of his group’s supporters. He was left blindfolded until being dropped off on the street in the early hours of December 23.
The signal for Radio France Internationale (RFI), the most important international news outlet in Congo, has now been blocked in Kinshasa for nearly two months. At least six Congolese media outlets also remain blocked.
So while the New Year’s Eve deal could prove to be a big step toward a democratic transition, there’s still a long road ahead. The parties should now work to ensure strict implementation of the deal. Concrete measures are needed to end the climate of repression. Credible elections can't be organized when opposition leaders and activists are thrown in prison and beaten, and convicted on trumped-up charges, when independent media outlets are shut down or blocked, and when security forces fire live rounds on peaceful protesters.
Congo’s international and regional partners – whose pressure seems to have led Kabila to make important concessions – should remain engaged. They should support the organization of credible, timely elections and signal that they stand ready to impose additional targeted sanctions and other punitive measures should the repression continue, if those responsible for past abuses are not held to account, or if efforts are made to prevent or delay the organization of elections.
Director, Central Africa
HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH