Painting by Cheri Samba

Lokuta eyaka na ascenseur, kasi vérité eyei na escalier mpe ekomi. Lies come up in the elevator; the truth takes the stairs but gets here eventually. - Koffi Olomide

Ésthetique eboma vélo. Aesthetics will kill a bicycle. - Felix Wazekwa

Monday, November 17, 2014

Distractions and regional politics delay progress on Rwandan rebels

The Grand Congolese Bargain, as seen by many foreign diplomats, was supposed to be: Get rid of the M23 and the FDLR, and you will have removed the linchpins of the Congolese conflict. This approach makes sense, insofar as most other armed groups––as deadly and brutal as they may be––are extremely limited in their reach without regional backing. While it does not deal with the violent dysfunctions of the Congolese state, it could have been a useful first step. 

Tanzanian Special Forces during a training exercise (Courtesy of MONUSCO)

The second part of this equation, however, has been stuck in political mud. Military operations against the FDLR were supposed to begin in January 2014. "The number one priority for MONUSCO is now the FDLR," Martin Kobler, the head of the UN peacekeeping mission in the Congo, tweeted on 12 December, 2013. To that end, the UN wanted to employ its Force Intervention Brigade (FIB), which had played an important role in defeating the M23. 

Two problems initially arose: First, the Congolese army had other priorities in mind. They launched operations against the ADF in the Ruwenzori foothills in January 2014, informing the UN that other joint military operations would  have to wait. While the UN has the mandate to carry out unilateral operations, given the strength of the FDLR and the optics of going it alone, the mission decided to wait, instead lending support to the ADF operations. (Those operations are now bogged down in controversy, as well, as the ADF have come back to massacre dozens.)

Then there was a second, more political reason. The FIB is made up of troops from the Southern African Development Community (SADC)––from Tanzania, South Africa, and Malawi. The first two countries, in particular, had initially intervened in part due to their opposition to the M23 and its Rwandan backers. Indeed, the FIB was initially supposed to be a SADC military mission in support of the Congolese army against the M23 before, following extensive international pressure, it was integrated into MONUSCO. 

South Africa and Tanzania were consequently less than eager to apply the same military élan against Rwanda's archenemies, the FDLR. In May 2013, Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete urged Kigali to open political negotiations with the FDLR––anathema to the ruling party there––and his foreign minister referred the FDLR as "freedom fighters" in a communiqué in July 2014. Members of the South African government, angered at what it considers to be repeated attempts to assassinate Kigali's opponents on its soil, have echoed similar sentiments in private, although officially they still back military operations. 

South African leverage was particularly important in pushing through a SADC/ICGLR resolution in July 2014, allowing for a six month moratorium on military operations against the FDLR, to allow them to disarm peacefully. The pretext for this delay had been conveniently provided by the FDLR just weeks prior, when they had sent some 200 soldiers to regroupment camps in North and South Kivu as a gesture of goodwill. This was just the first group, the FDLR said, and the Congolese government said they would be transported to Kisangani. Neither turned out to be true––no further FDLR soldiers have laid down their weapons, and they have refused to move to Kisangani.

Five months later––and a mere six weeks ahead of the deadline given by SADC of 2 January, 2015––there has been almost no progress. Two weeks ago, the FDLR, eager to forestall military operations, said that their combatants would go to Kisangani after all. Two days ago, members of the FDLR leadership visited the military camp where they are supposed to be housed. "They complained that there was no adequate provisions for their civilian dependents," a UN official reported after the mission. Still, it is likely the FDLR will try to provide another gesture of goodwill in the coming weeks in order to postpone the military offensive once again.

In the meantime, there seems to be a splintering among the FDLR leadership, between radicals such as their overall commander General Sylvestre Mudacumura, President Victor Byiringiro, and spokesperson LaForge Bazeye on one side, and officers such as Colonel Wilson Iratageka on the other. This latter faction has sway over much of the FDLR forces deployed in South Kivu––perhaps a third of the total of around 1,500––and is also close to a new alliance of Rwandan opposition parties, the Coalition for Rwandan Political Parties for Change (CPC), led by former Prime Minister Faustin Twagiramungu. 

Twagirumungu is now pushing (see his statement of 6 October here) for the FDLR's most notorious leaders––including Mudacumura and Byiringiro––to be arrested, but for the rest of the organization to enter into a peaceful dialogue with Kigali that would end with the creation of "a pluralist political space." That statement caused the FDLR's leadership to denounce Twagiramungu as a traitor, but it hasn't prevented the latter from traveling in the region, seeking support for his initiative and finding some sympathetic ears. 

The Congolese government, the UN, SADC, and the ICGLR all say that a military offensive will begin in the early days of January if the FDLR does not disarm. We'll see if they live up to their word. In the meantime, efforts are underway by diplomats to see if a military confrontation could be avoided––the last major operation against the FDLR in 2009-2011 displaced over a million people––not through a chimerical government of national unity in Kigali, but by organizing the defection of senior FDLR commanders and their exile in third countries. 

For now, a surfeit of possible solutions, and a complete lack of actual progress. 

Sunday, November 9, 2014

A year after its defeat, could the M23 make a comeback?

It's been just over a year since the M23, at the time the most significant Congolese armed group, was defeated. It had been a symbolically momentous moment––it was a rare victory for the Congolese army, and the first time since 1998 that the Rwandan government did not have a significant military ally on Congolese soil.

The anniversary was marked by remonstrations on both side––the M23 President Bertrand Bisimwa accused Kinshasa of not upholding its side of the deal, while Kinshasa complained that the M23 had not participated in follow-up meetings in Kinshasa and Nairobi in recent weeks, and said "one has the impression that they aren't ready" to come back.

M23 President Bertrand Bisimwa (left) and General Sultani Makenga in Bunagana (© Jason Stearns)
As a reminder, the M23 was scattered in three broad directions––in March 2013, infighting broke out within the group and a faction led by Bosco Ntaganda (who then handed himself over to the International Criminal Court) fled to Rwanda. 682 M23 members were interned in a military camp in Kibungo, in the east of the country. In November 2013, the M23 was defeated by the Congolese army and UN peacekeepers; most, including its commander Sultani Makenga and President Bertrand Bisimwa, fled to Uganda, while some rank-and-file surrendered in the Congo. The Ugandan authorities reported that they received 1,665 rebels on their territory––a figure that raised eyebrows, as the UN had only estimated the M23 at around 400 at that time, with a high-water mark of perhaps 1,200-1,500 M23 soldiers in March 2013.

Under pressure by the international community to conclude a peace deal to facilitate the return of those combatants, a compromise was reached on 12 December 2013 in Nairobi. Parallel declarations were signed by both parties, committing the M23 to a peaceful return, demobilization and conversion into a political party, while the government promised a conditional amnesty, demobilization program, and national reconciliation.

That was almost a year ago. Some modest progress has been made: the Congolese government promulgated a new amnesty law in February 2014 and has issued five successive lists of amnesties, totaling 288 M23 members (most of their names can be found here) out of a reported total of over 2,100 requests for amnesty. A new demobilization commission was created on paper in December 2013 (its structure and budget has since been changed), although funding ($84 million) is still pending and there have been reports of over a hundred dead in the newly established DDR camps.

But that progress is extremely limited: most of the M23 soldiers are still abroad, and the Congolese government will not amnesty the majority of M23 military commanders, whom it considers war criminals. The Rwandan and Ugandan governments, for their part, are unlikely to arrest and extradite leaders of a group that they supported.

In the meantime, many of the M23 in the camps appear to have auto-demobilized, tiring of life in the camps and returning home to the Congo or Rwanda (many were recruited from Congolese refugee camps there, or were Rwandans). According to diplomats who visited the Ngoma camp in Rwanda,  around half of the soldiers may have left since last year; a similar trend has been observed in Uganda.

However, over the past three months, there have also been increasing reports that the M23 may be remobilizing in preparation of a new attack. Several attempts have been made to reconcile the Bosco and Makenga wings, Ugandan authorities have told the M23 housed in their camps that they want them gone by the end of the year, and numerous M23 members have told friends and family that an operation is being prepared. According to a soldier in the Bihanga military camp in Uganda, Makenga reportedly gave a speech to M23 soldiers there recently, saying that "soldiers should be ready for an operation." A civilian leader of the M23 told me, "they will attack before the end of the month, that was the plan." Even their civilian leader Bertrand Bisimwa says that if Kinshasa doesn't live up to its side of the Nairobi Declaration, he cannot "give guarantees for what will happen tomorrow."

Few details about the nature of these operations are clear. Several sources suggest that there could be a group that will go through South Sudan into Ituri––the M23 had tried mobilizing there in 2012 and failed, but some of the officers formerly based in Ituri are now in Rwanda and still have contacts there. Another M23 leader suggests that they will carry out operations in the Kasindi area of North Kivu––M23 commanders from the Nande community, such as Colonel Nyoro Kasereka, currently in Rwanda, are from that area. There have also been reports of M23 mobilization in Masisi territory in recent months, documented by human rights workers.

Given the weakness of the M23, it would be difficult to mount a large-scale attack without substantial backing from the Rwandan or Ugandan governments, which would risk triggering another wave of international opprobrium. It is more likely that they would try to destabilize the Congolese government and shame its army and the United Nations with small, sporadic attacks, possibly under the guise of other armed groups, compounding the already fragile security situation. "I think they are biding their time for a political crisis, possibly linked to the elections or a constitutional revision," one M23 member said.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

"Ebola" pre-empts Kabila's presidential aspirations

Ok, I can tell how that title can be a bit misleading. Perhaps I should have called it: Congolese singer flip-flops on backing the president. And, despite appearances, this is actually a serious story.

This is what happened. Koffi Olomide, perhaps the most famous Congolese singer and winner of 10 pan-African Kora Awards, is not known for his firm principles. Like most Congolese artists, he sells shout-outs (mabanga in Lingala) in his songs to the highest bidder––including Congo-Brazzaville President Denis Sassou-Nguesso and the former Ivorian rebel leader Guillaume Soro. In 2010, he even traveled to Kigali to support the election campaign of President Paul Kagame, a daring venture, given the Rwandan president's notoriety in the Congo. And then, to further infuriate inhabitants of the Congolese capital, he gave full-throttle support to Joseph Kabila's 2011 election campaign in this video clip, "Koffi Chante Kabila":

But all that changed last year. Koffi released a video that surprised many. Even the title of the video––"Koffi Chante Congo"––is an obvious counterpoint to his 2011 Kabila campaign video. He kicks it off by dedicating the song not to a politician (that practice was outlawed in 2009, but still continues) or businessman, but to his son Del Pirlo Mourinho (other children are called St James Rolls, Elvis, Rocky, and Didi Stone Nike). Pretty quickly his protégée and co-singer Cindy gets to the point: "We reject the abuse of power, all we do is cry, we go to sleep hungry, our children are suffering." The Koffi chimes in: "If you love the Congo, respect democracy, if you love the Congo, respect the institutions....respect the constitution, you don't change the rules in the middle of the football game."

The context is important: the video was released during the Concertations nationales in Kinshasa last year, which brought together members of the ruling coalition, civil society, and opposition, and where one of the items discussed was whether the constitution should be changed to allow Joseph Kabila to stay on. (The answer was clear: No.)

Is this the same Koffi? Well, perhaps. Cynics suggest that he only released the video because he, along with other Congolese singers, have been hit hard by the inability to perform in some European capitals due to oft-violent protests by Diaspora Congolese, who are outraged that their musicians opportunistically support politicians, especially Joseph Kabila. One commentator (almost Olomide's poetic equal): "Has Koffi met the angel of democracy or the demon of demagoguery?" But still: surely Koffi knew that he would face problems due to the video (although he does say in the song that people should respect the presidency, although not necessarily the president)?

So when Koffi was called in for questioning by the police commander of Kinshasa, General Célestin Kanyama, two weeks ago, many thought it was for a belated haranguing over the video. But no––it was because Koffi had started to call himself "Vieux Ebola," Old Ebola, and posters had even started appearing around town advertising his concerts thus. Of course, bear in mind that Koffi has called himself pretty much everything under the sun, including some that have offended the Catholic Church (they asked him to stop calling himself Benedict XVI). But Kanyama said that he shouldn't make light of such a serious disease.

Of course, what's Kanyama's nickname? "Esprit de mort," spirit of death. This might be why.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Interview with Gilles Yabi on protests in Burkina and lessons for other countries

The following is an edited transcript and a translation of an interview with Dr Gilles Yabi. Political analyst and economist, Dr Yabi spent seven years as senior political analyst and then project director for the West Africa Project of the International Crisis Group. Holding a Ph.D in economics from the university of Clermont-Ferrand in France, Gilles also worked as a journalist for the weekly magazine Jeune Afrique. After leaving Crisis Group in November 2013, Gilles is now independent consultant in the fields of conflict analysis, security and political governance in West Africa. He also publishes articles and editorials on his blog: Le Blog de Gilles Yabi (

I'll start with a big question: What were the key factors in bringing about the fall of President Blaise Compaoré?

I think it is really the result of the attempt to change the constitution with the aim of prolonging his presidency, which was already 27 years long. That was the straw that broke the camel's back; if he had not tried to change the constitution, I think there would not have been these demonstrations or his departure. He took a risk and made a bad choice.

This is not the first time he tried to change the constitution, and he's not the only African leader to have tried to do this. But it's rare that one sees this kind of mobilization, especially one that results in a military coup. Why did we see this kind of mobilization this time and why not in other countries?

Each country has its history and it's not a technical question, but a political one––Burkina is not Benin, not the DR Congo. It has a particular history, it's a country that has a very strong political and revolutionary culture due to the time of Thomas Sankara [1983-1987], this led to a very strong politicization of burkinabé society and elites. This period of politicization and militantism is not found in many other countries, because they did not go through a revolutionary period as under Sankara. 

Why not before? Over 27 years Compaoré's regime changed. It used to be a very brutal, very harsh regime that inspired a lot of fear. That fear diminished over time––Compaoré grew older, the regime and the context changed and he could no longer resort to the same kind of pure violence as he used to. When he carried out the two previous constitutional amendments, he was stronger and inspired more fear. In particular, the mutinies of 2011 [over soldiers' benefits and rising food prices] undermined his stature, and that facilitated this mobilization. 

Talk a bit about the actors who sparked this mobilization––was it spontaneous, or were there structures underlying this mobilization?

It wasn't really spontaneous. There has been a debate for over a year over the change of the constitution that people saw coming. Everyone began positioning themselves. On the political level, we saw important members of the government, including the former head of the national assembly and people very close to Compaoré, leave the ruling party to form another party and to join the opposition. They didn't want him to change the constitution, they were concerned about how that would affect their own personal interests.

On the side of civil society––there was also a mobilization around this question for over a year. Well-known groups, such as Le Balai Citoyen, a similar kind of youth mobilization as we saw in Senegal, including rappers and musicians who began singing and mobilizing against constitutional change. Those civil society structures were crucial, as well.

But in the end, I don't think anyone thought it would be so many people in the street. People went into the streets without any organization, any rallying by political parties. Youths, in particular were fed up and wanted change.

Some say that the marches were manipulated by political elites who wanted to get rid of Compaoré. You seem to say that this isn't an accurate portrayal of what happened. 

I think that's not the only factor. Of course, there were people who worked with Compaoré who defected over the past year. The fact is that many leaders of the opposition––aside from the so-called Sankariste opposition––including its main leader Zéphirin Diabré, worked with Compaoré. Most of the leaders of the opposition were in government at one point in time. You have to understand, the government had been in power for so long that it co-opted almost all the important civilian leaders at one point in time or the other. So of course these elites were important. But the important thing was that various groups––some out of interests, some out of opportunism, some out of true dedication––came together to oppose changing the constitution. This kind of confluence of action made this kind of result possible.

What role did the donors and foreign diplomats play during the events?

On the public level, the United States had been very clear for a long time that they opposed constitutional changes across Africa. The French, as usual, played a role that was much less clear, until very recently. Eventually, they tried to facilitate a "soft departure," naming him as the new president of the Francophonie.

But international actors were not decisive in the mobilization. They were surprised, as well. If there had been change of the constitution by a majority in parliament, I don't think they would have done much in reaction.

What about the military, were they surprised, as well, and had they planned to react against a constitutional revision?

They, too, were surprised, I don't think they had taken a position on the constitutional revision. One part of the soldiers had the same feeling as the civilians, and wanted change. Also, the reaction to the 2011 mutiny, which led to some heavy prison sentences for some, had left its traces. There was no doubt that there were divisions within the army as a consequence of that and Compaoré's long rule. But as long as Compaoré was there I am not sure that the soldiers alone would have tried to do something without the popular mobilization. It was when people took to the streets that they had the choice to open fire on the protesters, or to tell Compaoré that he would have to leave.

The situation is still fragile. What is the chance that the transition to a civilian government will be successful?

I am pretty optimistic. The transition has to be the result of negotiations between soldiers, opposition, and civil society. I think the army has understood that the context has changed, and that their best options is to carry out this transition to civilian rule, to try to influence it, of course, but not to create conditions that would isolate Burkina Faso, which really depends on external aid.

Last question: What are the lessons that can be drawn for other countries from what has happened in Burkina Faso? There are other leaders who want to change the constitution to stay in power.

Absolutely. Everyone has seen or heard what has happened in Burkina, on the internet, radio, and television. I've already heard that in Chad, opposition parties cite Burkina as an example for mobilization. I think that in places like Benin, where many suspect that the president wants to stay on, some will cite Burkina as an example. But I am skeptical that mobilization can be carried out in these other countries the same way as it was done in Burkina. There is a much higher capacity for corruption in some of these countries, given their revenues, and also much greater international support for the regime. So Burkina will be an inspiration, but not necessarily provide a formula that can be easily reproduced.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Could #Lwili reach Kinshasa? Lessons from the streets of Burkina Faso

The momentous events in Burkina Faso last week have reverberated across Africa, and nowhere more so than in the streets and halls of power in the Congo. The #Lwili (the burkinabé hashtag used for the protests) playbook is attractive to many in the opposition and civil society: A president tries to overstay his welcome and his term-limits by changing the constitution; the people rise up and force him out of power; the army joins them to send the president into exile. This sequence of events was played out in Burkina Faso, but also in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011, and to a certain extent in Chile (1988) and the Philippines (1986).

Courtesy of @dieuson1, Burkina24
What are the chances that the scenes we witnessed in Ouagadougou will be replayed in Kinshasa? Of course, a lot depends on what happens over the next two years, and it is possible that the government does not try to change the constitution and holds free and fair elections. But let's assume––not unreasonably––it doesn't, and protests kick off. 

As I (and many others) have argued before on this same subject, suffering does not a revolution make. Gene Sharp, who wrote what many consider the Bible on non-violent resistance, argues that protesters needs to undermine the regime by depriving it of legitimacy, access to resources, and internal cohesion. His writings on non-violent resistance have been translated into over 30 languages, and were used by the Serbian Otpor! democracy movement in 2000 and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 2011. 

But creating a strong movement with the right tactics isn't enough. You need the appropriate structural conditions. In particular, many scholars––see here and here for recent examples––highlight the importance of divided elites and military defections in the overthrow of a government. Erica Chenoweth, analyzing 323 different campaigns, concludes that over half of the successful non-violent movements relied on important military defections. This is what happened in Egypt and Tunisia, and is what we are currently seeing in Burkina Faso. 

What about the Congo? What are the chances of creating a strong social movement that could prompt defections from the political or military elites?

Fragmentation is perhaps the most dominant feature of the Congolese social and political scene. Civil society, the ruling government, the political opposition, and the military are all extremely vivacious but also fragmented. Impressive mobilization has happened around important events––the Marche des Chrétiens saw hundreds of thousands in Kinshasa's streets in 1992, and Tshisekedi was able to mobilize similar numbers during his election campaign in 2011. However, this mobilization has not been able to produce protracted change––in 1992, the protests forced Mobutu to reopen the Conférence national souveraine (CNS), but then proceeded to ignore the government produced by that national forum. And in 2011, the crowds were successfully dispersed as soon as riot police and the army began their brutal crackdown.

In part, this is because of tactics. Tshisekedi––now in poor health and an octogenarian––has relied too much on his own legendary stature and not enough on the nuts-and-bolts of community organizing and grassroots mobilization. He has also struggled to shake the perception that his party is dominated by the Luba community, which has tense relations with other ethnic groups in the capital and elsewhere. Civil society and the political opposition have often relied too much on elite-based politicking and intrigue and not enough on civic education and mobilization. 

The structure of society has also played a role, in particular the sustained efforts by both Mobutu and the Belgian administration to stamp out any rival source of legitimacy and organization. Student and labor unions that form the hub of resistance in other countries are internally divided in the Congo, with parts of their leadership co-opted by the government and factionalized. Ethnic-based organizations have flourished, in part due to the absence of other legitimate moral communities (for example, a rule of law enforced by the state), but in a country with at least 250 ethnic groups, this cannot amount to a structured resistance, and indeed many have argued that such ethnic loyalties have been part of a divide-and-rule strategy by those in power. 

All of this is not to say that sustained civic resistance is not possible. The Catholic Church has become increasingly strident in its opposition to Kabila––despite its internal divisions––and the controversy over  a constitutional revision is becoming such a lightning rod that it could well forge a more cohesive civil society and opposition.

What about the internal cohesion of the regime? Here the Congo is different than Tunisia and Egypt, and perhaps Burkina, as well. The government has used weakness and fragmentation as a tool of power  since the Mobutu era. “In the land of dwarfs, the four foot tall man is a giant,” a diplomat recently told me. “It’s not that Kabila is strong. It’s that everyone else is weak.” There are 98 political parties in the national assembly, 45 of which only have one MP; various different nebulous networks gravitate around the president, but there is no ostensible political hierarchy. This makes governing extremely chaotic––as the protracted formation of a new government shows––but also prevents competing centers of power from emerging. 

A similar situation obtains in the military, as well. Kabila’s main concern in the security sector has been his own personal security and the loyalty of those around him. Since the integration of other belligerents into the army in 2003, the military has become more of a means to co-opt commanders and less a body to execute Kabila’s security strategy. 

This has produced a body with numerous competing patronage networks, none of which is internally cohesive. For example, in his inner circle, Kabila has relied on many officials from the Lunda community of southern Katanga for security. This has allowed him to counterbalance the influence of the Lubakat community on his decision-making, giving him more leeway––the Lunda and Lubakat are traditional rivals. This has been particularly striking in the last few years: Kalev Mutond is the head of the national intelligence service, and probably one of the five most powerful men in the country; General Jean-Claude Yav is the deputy head of military intelligence and Kabila’s trusted envoy on many matters related to armed groups in the East. Both men are relatively young, trusted by the president and have worked with him for many years, in contrast with many of the politicians around him. In addition to them, a newcomer, Richard Muyej, also Lunda, is now interior minister. His advisor, Professor Kaumba Lufunda, is the former national security advisor, also from the same community.

The second constituency, although it is far from a cohesive one, is ex-FAZ officers. Given that Kabila fought a war to oust Mobutu from power, it is striking that many key positions in the army are staffed by former commanders in Mobutu's army. This includes General Didier Etumba, the chief of staff of the army, as well as his two deputies: Célestin Mbala and Dieudonné Amuli. But it is questionable to what degree any of these general form a cohesive network. Many of them are driven by competing loyalties––ethnic, regional, personal, and historical.

Finally, one could speak of several other important networks: Congolese Tutsi commanders form an important constituency, both because of the threat they could represent in the East, but also because they constitute a relatively cohesive group. This includes the head of the national police service, General Charles Bisengimana, the head of the Bas-Congo military region General Jonas Padiri, and six other Tutsi generals in the army and the police. Finally, individual family friends such as General François Olenga (Kabila's personal military advisor, from Maniema) and General Delphin Kahimbi (the head of military intelligence, from South Kivu are important allies for Kabila. 

This situation makes it difficult to predict who, if anyone, could play the role that Lieutenant-Colonel Zida has played in Burkina Faso over the past few days. Kabila has been careful to make sure that no one person or network has enough power to muscle him out of office. 

In sum, both the regime and its opposition are characterized by fragmentation. This will make sustained mobilization difficult, but will also present an obstacle to any efforts at prolonged repression. This state of affairs renders it difficult to predict change, and creates opportunities for big surprises, as new alliances are formed and interests shift. 

So will we be seeing #Lwili tweeted from the streets of Kinshasa some time soon? Perhaps. However, it is useful to remember that in the past, African leaders have been relatively successful in contesting their term limits––the score is still 7 (Uganda, Burkina 2003, Chad, Gabon, Guinea, Namibia, and Togo) to 5 (Burkina, Senegal, Malawi, Nigeria, Zambia) in their favor. Maybe Benin and DR Congo could even the score board?

Monday, October 27, 2014

Who wants to change the Congolese constitution?

President Kabila has not confirmed it himself, but most Congolese today believe it to be true: The incumbent, in power since 2001––and democratically elected in 2006 and (controversially) in 2011–– would like to be able to stay on for another term. To do so, he would have to change the constitution, which, in Article 220, explicitly forbids tampering with presidential term limits. 

If he does want to change the term limits, he could either do through the legal avenue : having a joint session of the senate and national assembly approve the revision by a three-fifths majority––although this would be an obvious violation of Article 220. Or, as proponents of a revision have pointed out, by submitting a revision or an entirely new constitution to a popular referendum. Finally, he could simply circumvent the question by changing other articles in the constitution––the length of the mandate, for example, or how the president is elected (he could be appointed by parliament, as in Angola or South Africa)––and then say that he can serve for another two terms under this new dispensation.

However, the debate surrounding the constitutional revision has split the political elite. As Jean-Claude Muyambo, head of the SCODE political party and member of the president's camp, (over) states: "We can no longer speak of the majority and opposition, there are two camps: Those who say yes to changing the constitution and those who say no."

So who falls on either side?


First, I should say again that President Kabila himself has not come out in favor of a constitutional revision, and it appears that, in typical fashion, he is allowing the various political leaders hash it out before he makes a move. That hashing out has become increasingly acrimonious. 

The most vocal proponent of changing the constitution is Evariste Boshab, the head of Kabila's main political party, the PPRD. Boshab is also a constitutional lawyer and the author of the 2013 book, "Entre révision de la constitution et l'inanition de la nation," which its critics argue was a gambit in changing presidential term limits. Whereas Boshab a year ago said he had never challenged Article 220, he is now on the record as doing exactly that. 

Other political luminaries have stepped in the fray, as well: Théodore Mugalu, the head of President Kabila's "maison civile" (he administers Kabila's personal affairs) has taken to the airwaves and church lecterns (he is a protestant minister) to argue that the country needs a new constitution. Kin-Kiey Mulumba, the minister of telecommunications and ICT, has even launched a new association, "Kabila Désir"––it's slogan is, "Kabila, we still need you" (posa na yo nanu esili te). 

Some are much more cautious in their support, an indication of how delicate the subject has become––Richard Muyej, the current interior minister, has said that a revision of Article 220 would in theory be possible through a popular referendum, although he has not explicitly endorsed such a change. Others, like parliamentarian and Kabila ally Henri-Thomas Lokondo, have said that, since no official request for a constitutional revision has been made, people should stop debating a non-issue.

A rare voice from civil society in favor of changing Article 220 has been Monsignor Marini Bodho, the head of the Church of Christ in the Congo (ECC), the largest protestant association in the country. He argues that as society changes, so must also the laws that govern it. Marini was the president of the senate during the 2003 to 2006 transition and is widely considered to be close to Kabila. 


The voices opposing a constitutional revision are far more numerous and louder. They include the Catholic Church, whose Cardinal Monsengwo has entered the political fray in a major way, asking through the Congolese Episcopal Conference for all church leaders across the country to oppose any change to Article 220. The Catholic Church is divided––as the debate of the 2011 election fiasco showed––but so far no other major cleric has countered Monsengwo's call. 

Numerous Congolese civil society groups across the country––including in Kabila's home province of Katanga––have chimed in, as well. After a seminar in Kinshasa in early September, 650 non-profits (including most of the biggest Congolese NGOs) signed a statement opposing any constitutional revision that would "jeopardize the accomplishments made in the consolidation of democracy and rule of law." Not without a sense of irony, they quoted Boshab himself in arguing against a referendum, saying that referenda often end up as plebiscites over the person asking the question rather than the question itself. Most recently, the famous fistula surgeon Dr Denis Mukwege––the recent winner of the European Union's Sakharov Prize––has come out against the constitutional revision, as well. 

Of course, the political opposition has made much hay out of a potential revision––Martin Fayulu and Vital Kamerhe launched a coalition of opposition parties called "Don't Touch My Constitution!" (although the two have since fallen out), and opposition stalwarts like Jean Claude Mvuemba and Felix Tshisekedi mention the potential revision at every rally. 

Perhaps more troubling for Kabila is the discord that the question has stirred within his own political coalition. One of the largest political parties in that structure, the MSR of Pierre Lumbi, has called for an open debate over the matter, implying that it was not happy with Boshab's stance. A respected parliamentarian and lawyer, Christophe Lutundula, has argued that Article 220 represents everything the country has fought for since independence in 1960 and should not be changed. Other political parties leaders within the presidential coalition to have come out against a revision include Jean-Claude Muyambo, leader of SCODE and Modest Bahati, leader of AFDC. 

Finally, Léon Kengo wa Dondo, the current leader of the senate and former prime minister under Mobutu, opened the current session of the senate with a harsh indictment of any attempt to change crucial articles of the constitution. This came as a surprise, as Kengo is currently negotiating for his party to leave the opposition and enter into the much-delayed government of national cohesion.

On the international level, critics of constitutional revision have received support from the United States, in particular. US Special Envoy Russ Feingold came out strong against a revision of Article 220,   a position reinforced by statement made by Secretary of State John Kerry and Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, Linda Thomas Greenfield. The new UN Special Envoy, Said Djinnit, agrees, as do the other special envoys Koen Vervaeke (European Union) and Boubacar Diarra (African Union), albeit less vociferously. 

Nonetheless, a recent Jeune Afrique article quotas Kabila's itinerant Ambassador Séraphin Ngwej as saying: "What our counterparts say during the day, they don't repeat at night. Once the microphones are turned off, the speech changes." In private, some Kabila allies speculate that the bark of those diplomats will be much worse than their bite. "After all, what will they do? Cut humanitarian aid? Withdraw their peacekeeping mission?" One told me. 

In sum, the potential revision of presidential term limits is quickly becoming the biggest political battle in the Congo, and perhaps the biggest challenge President Kabila has faced. So far, he has few allies if he choses to go down that road. His biggest asset would be the fear of those in power that there is no heir apparent, and that their interests would not be guaranteed if Kabila steps down. As for the opponents of a revision, the question is: Can they muster the leverage needed––either through street protest or international sanction––to prevent such a move?

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Copycat Constitutional Revisionists

As readers will know, the DR Congo is currently embroiled in endless debate over a constitutional revision that dare not speak its name. While neither President Kabila nor his party have officially proposed to change the term limits included in the current constitution, we can safely assume that they are at the very least considering it.

As a reminder: Kabila, who has been in power since 2001, and has been twice elected to 5-year terms (2006-2011, 2011-2016), is bound by the current constitution to stand down in 2016. Not only does Article 70 of the constitution say that the president has to step down after two terms, but Article 220 explicitly prohibits any revision of those term limits.

While some members of Kabila's inner circle and presidential majority have already come out in favor of a revision of those term limits––none more vociferously than the head of his PPRD political party, Evariste Boshab––many others both among among the president's allies and the opposition have opposed it. (A list of those positions will be posted here soon).

But the Congo is not the only country facing this problem––many of its peers in Africa are debating similar revisions, and the results elsewhere will certainly have an impact on the Congo. (Listen to Senegalese civil society activist Fadel Barro on this topic here).

  • Republic of the Congo: President Denis-Sassou Nguesso, in power between 1979-1992 and again since 1997, will finish his term in August 2016. After that, he, like Kabila, is limited by Article 57 to step down, and according to Article 185 of the same constitution, the number of presidential terms cannot be revised (he is also too old to stand for another term, according to Article 58). However, he has said: "In any case, the constitution, if it has to be changed, has to be changed through a popular referendum. And if there is a popular referendum, I don't see which is the force of democracy that could be disappointed by the popular will expressed through a referendum;"
  • Burundi: President Pierre Nkurunziza is in a slightly different situation––he will have completed his second term in August 2015. However, the Burundian constitution is slightly ambiguous: it says the president is elected by a popular vote to two terms of five years. Nkurunziza was elected to his first term by the national assembly, and so argues he has only served one of his two constitutionally-allowed terms;
  • Burkina Faso: Only yesterday, the burkinabé interior minister said that President Blaise Compaoré, in power since 1987, would seek to change the constitution so he could have another term. He currently would have to step down in 2015;
  • Rwanda: President Paul Kagame, who has officially been in power since 2003, will have completed the two seven-year terms allowed by the constitution in 2017. It is telling that debate about a constitutional revision has already been raging, a good three years ahead of the end of his term. This week, three smaller parties––all allied to the ruling RPF––came out in favor of a constitutional revision, while Kagame himself has said: "I don't know of any country where the constitution is immutable;"
If Kabila tries to stay, he would be in notorious company: Eleven countries in Africa have tried to revise the term limits in their constitutions––seven have succeeded (Burkina Faso, Chad, Togo, Namibia, Uganda, Guinea, and Gabon) while four have failed (Nigeria, Zambia, Malawi, and Senegal).