Category Archives: Democratic Republic of Congo

Africa – Presidential term limits and the third term tragedy

Africa is currently in the middle of a third term crisis. As presidents come up against the presidential term-limits included in many multi-party constitutions, a significant number are refusing to leave power gracefully. Instead, a number of leaders have sought to secure a third term. So far, this trend has taken in countries as otherwise diverse as Burkina Faso, Burundi, Namibia, Rwanda, Uganda, and now, it seems, the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In most cases, they have tried to do so through official channels, in other words by changing the law or appealing to the judiciary, rather than simply suspending the constitution and ruling by fiat. One reason for this is that there is strong domestic and international support for presidential term limits. Afrobarometer data suggests that typically over two-thirds of Africans support term limits, although there is considerable variation, with a high of 90% in Benin and a low of 44% in Algeria. As a result, leaders feel compelled to tread carefully, and to legitimise their strategies by pursuing them through formal channels.

Yet despite this, attempts to secure a third term have often triggered political unrest and in some cases widespread civil conflict. In both Burkina Faso and Burundi, efforts by unpopular presidents to stay in power come what may triggered mass protests and ultimately (very different forms of) military intervention. At the time of going to press, a further crisis appears to be brewing in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the President, Joseph Kabila, looks set to pursue an unconstitutional third term in office. On Thursday 5 May, the former Governor of Katanga, Moise Katumbi, announced that he would be contesting the presidency as the candidate of the three main opposition parties. Just hours later he tweeted that the president – his former ally – had sent the police force to surround his house and that he had appealed to the United Nations mission in the country to protect him. Unconfirmed local reports later suggested that it was only the intervention of UN soldiers that prevented Katumbi’s detention.

If so, the DRC has had a lucky escape. Opposition supporters have already been involved in violent clashes with the security forces in protest against the prospect of a prolonged Kabila presidency. The arrest of Katumbi would raise the political temperature yet further, increasing the prospects for conflict in the coming months. As allegations and rumours circulate unhindered, the threat of a broader political rupture becomes ever more likely.

The growing number of third term tragedies on the continent raises three important questions. First, when do presidents seek a third term and when do they not? Second, when are they successful? Third, when are a president’s attempts to serve a third term most likely to result in political conflict?

Should I stay or should I go

Despite the recent headlines it is important to remember that considerably more presidents have respected term limits than have broken them. For every Uganda there is a Zambia, for every Burundi there is a South Africa, for every Rwanda there is a Kenya. There are a number of factors that appear to encourage presidents to seek third terms. First, the quality of democracy matters. Presidents in less democratic states who face weaker institutional checks and balances are more likely to try and break – or at least change – the rules. Good recent examples include Congo-Brazzaville and Djibouti.

Second, it is more feasible for presidents who govern countries that are more politically and economically independent from western influence to ignore international protests. As a result, leaders who enjoy greater international leverage because their countries feature valuable natural resources or are of considerable geo-strategic importance, try to secure a third term much more frequently than those that are much more dependent on Western trade. This is one of the reasons that President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, a country that recently found large oil reserves and is a key ally of United States in the war-on-terror, is able to stay in power indefinitely.

Third, presidents who enjoy greater political control are more likely to judge that it is possible to secure a third term, and hence more likely to risk pursuing one. Political control comes through two main routes: the ruling party and the security forces. Presidents are far more likely to try and secure third terms in dominant-party states in which the ruling party secures over 60% of seats in the legislature, such as Namibia and Rwanda, and when they have tight control over the army and police, as in Djibouti and Uganda. Under these conditions, it is often possible to both change the constitution through the legislature and silence any opposition to this strategy.

You can’t always get what you want

Of course, presidents do not always get it right and a number of third term bids have been unsuccessful. In countries such as Nigeria and Zambia, presidents failed in part because they could not take their own parties with them. As a result, they struggled to pass the necessary legislation, and, facing strong opposition from civil society groups and other parties, abandoned their plans. Rather than undermining democracy, this process can actually give it a short in the arm, and deter future presidents from pursuing similar strategies.

However, unsuccessful attempts to stay in power can also have far more problematic consequences. In Burkina Faso and Burundi, leaders overestimated their political control and underestimated the strength of opposition. As a result, they struggled to push through their third term ambitions. In Burundi, for example, President Nkurunziza lost a critical vote in the legislature to change the law, which forced him to put pressure on the judiciary to interpret the constitution in a way that would allow him to stand again. Although the Supreme Court ultimately ruled in his favour, it was immediately apparent that it only did so as a result of high levels of intimidation, further undermining the president’s credibility. As a result, the verdict did little to dampen opposition protests against his actions.

Limited political control undermined the position of President Nkurudiza in a second way. In the midst of the public protests in May 2015, a group of army officers launched a coup attempt. Although it appears to have been a poorly coordinated effort and was eventually put down, the mutiny demonstrated the lack of unity within the armed forces, and the potential for the president’s limited control over the security forces to contribute to political instability.

The bigger they are the harder they fall

To date, presidential term limits have not tended to be the source of major political conflict when presidents have either a) been willing to give up on their ambitions in the face of widespread opposition (Nigeria, Zambia) or b) have enjoyed the political control needed to be able to force through their will with relatively little resistance (Uganda, Rwanda). The “problem category”, for want of a better term, is those cases in which conditions are not favourable to a third term bid but leaders try and force one through regardless.

In turn, this is most likely to happen in states in which presidents have most to gain from staying in office, and most to lose by giving up power. Good proxies for the benefits of office are the level of corruption and the presence of valuable natural resources, the combination of which can make a leader extremely wealthy. A decent proxy for the costs of leaving power is whether a country has a history of political violence, which tends to decrease the level of trust between rival leaders, and increase the potential that the head of state will be prosecuted for human rights violations when they step down.

This is not great news for the DRC, which is a highly corrupt resource rich state with a history of political conflict. Unless President Kabila bucks the continental pattern, he is unlikely to step down voluntarily. And if he proves to be willing to risk everything to stay in power, sending the police to surround Katumbi’s house is likely to be only the tip of the iceberg.

@fromagehomme

DRC – President Kabila and an extension to the presidential term

President Joseph Kabila’s second term comes to an end in December 2016. With the presidential election still nearly two years away, his supporters have already tested various options for a possible extension of Kabila’s mandate beyond the constitutional two-term limit. The term-limit issue is, however, proving to be highly divisive, including within the ruling coalition.

A simple revision of term-limits – similar to what Blaise Compaoré attempted in Burkina Faso – is not an option in the DRC: the constitution (Art. 220) stipulates that “the number and the duration of the mandates of the President of the Republic … cannot be made the object of any constitutional revision.” To revise term-limits would require adopting a new constitution or, alternatively, changing regime type by amending Arts. 70 and 71 to provide for indirect rather than direct election of the president, as in South Africa. Changing the mode of designation of the president would, arguably, reset the term clock to zero, allowing Kabila to present himself for election by the legislature for two new terms.

The adoption of a brand new constitution has the support of some stalwarts within the ruling People’s Party for Reconstruction and Development (PPRD) who consider the existing fundamental text an illegitimate compromise between belligerent parties in the DRC’s civil war. Thus, in March 2014, the National Secretary of the PPRD, Claude Mashala, initiated a petition for a new “dynamic” constitution, better reflecting the needs for “national cohesion.” Undeterred by the Burkina experience, Mashala reportedly declared in November having attained the 100,000 signatures required to initiate a referendum, with his team working on regrouping the signatures by province before submission to the legislature. There are, however, also opponents within the presidential coalition to constitutional change, including prominent figures such as Senate President Kengo Wa Dondo and the powerful governor of Kabila’s home province of Katanga, Moise Katumbi.

On a separate track, in September the government introduced a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow for the indirect election of provincial councilors (Art. 197). The proposal was met with staunch resistance by the political opposition, civil society and the Catholic Church, who saw this move as a ploy to change the mode of election of the president by the same stroke.

Still pending, this proposed constitutional revision was overshadowed by the adoption on January 17, 2015 by the National Assembly of electoral reform that could have led to a sliding of the presidential election into 2017 or later. The bill provided for a new census to be completed before the poll, to serve as the basis for the voter list. The government spokesperson, Lambert Mendé, admitted that if passed into law by both houses of the legislature, the bill could entail a delay of the presidential election “without the sky falling on our heads.”

In an already tense environment, the prospect of Kabila playing for overtime triggered widespread demonstrations in Kinshasa as well as Bukavu and Goma in eastern DRC. Police forces and the Republican Guard cracked down violently on protesters, killing as many as 42 people according to the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH), a number contested by the government. The protest dynamic was distinct this time from previous demonstrations mainly initiated by political parties, as argued by Jason Stearns. Notably, the manifestations were more decentralized, university students played a greater role in both Kinshasa and Bukavu, and the homes of individual Kabila supporters were targeted. Social media also played an active part. This protest dynamic is reminiscent of the Burkinabe uprising that brought Compaoré down. The stand-off moreover shone a full light on divisions within the ruling elite.

In a declared move to respond to the people’s demands, the Senate removed the contentious language from the bill referring to the need for a census ahead of the presidential poll and included reference to the election taking place in accordance with the constitutionally mandated timetable. Senate President Kengo Wa Dondo used the opportunity of the directly televised Senate session to take on the mantle of savior of the constitution. Ultimately, the final version of the bill that was passed into law on January 25 by both houses makes no mention of the census requirement, but also does not include direct reference to the timetable laid down by the constitution.

The coming months are likely to see more of such tug-of-war between those who do and those who don’t favor an extension of Kabila’s stay in office. The diplomatic community has come out clearly against changing term limits, but the real test will lie in the internal balance of forces and tactics on either side.

DRC – Follow-up on last month’s national consultations

The national consultations held in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) at the initiative of President Joseph Kabila resulted in 619 recommendations that Kabila has promised to act on. The month-long consultations, bringing together 700 participants from political parties and civil society under the leadership of the chairs of the national assembly and the senate, ended on Oct. 5, 2013. Prominent absences from these discussions include armed groups currently active in Eastern Congo (who were not invited) and leading opposition parties (who refused to participate). The latter include the UDPS-faction loyal to presidential runner-up Etienne Tshisekedi and the UNC of Vital Kamerhe. On the other hand, the MLC of Jean-Pierre Bemba, currently on trial at the ICC in The Hague, did take part in the consultations.

The stated goal of these exchanges was to strengthen ‘national cohesion’ and end the political, social and security crises facing the country. Five working groups developed recommendations in the areas of good governance, the economy, disarmament and demobilization of armed groups, reconciliation and decentralization. Key suggestions included: the establishment of a more inclusive government, the creation of a national human rights commission, amnesty for political prisoners and the reopening of private TV-stations close to the opposition.

Kabila’s first response to the recommendations was the promulgation on Oct. 15 of a law establishing the Constitutional Court. Provided for by the 2005 constitution, this Court was never created though the law was passed by the legislature several years ago. The Court has the mandate to rule on the constitutionality of legislation and to resolve electoral disputes. In the absence of the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court – seen as partisan by the opposition – had validated the outcome of the controversial 2011 legislative and presidential elections.

In an Oct. 23 speech to the two houses of the legislature, Kabila promised follow-up on the remainder of the recommendations. He outlined a number of priorities for immediate action, such as a general amnesty and the inclusion of civil society and opposition party representatives in a government of ‘national cohesion’. Kabila also promised the repatriation of the remains of former autocrat Mobutu Sese Seko to be buried in the DRC and the enforcement of a 30% gender quota for elected positions.

Following the president’s speech, Prime Minister Matata Ponyo has asked the cabinet of ministers to handle daily issues as a caretaker government until a new government is appointed. The informal house arrest of Tshisekedi in effect since the 2011 elections has been lifted, and Kabila has commuted death and prison sentences for common law offenders – which does not, however, affect political prisoners.

Follow-up on the broader set of recommendations awaits the seating of the new government. This includes notably preparations for long-delayed local elections.