Joseph Kabila, the president of the DRC, faces an historic choice: step down or cling to power

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KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of the Congo — Joseph Kabila, the president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, faces a historic choice: Does he step down when his constitutionally limited two terms in office come to an end in December 2016, or does he succumb to the delusion of indispensability that is making the rounds in parts of Africa and try to cling to power?

The issue is the subject of intense debate in Congo. When we met with Kabila last week in Kinshasa, he pointed out — correctly — that he has not yet publicly stated his position about what he will do in 2016. “Let’s wait and see what will happen,” he cautioned. But he has done little to stem intense speculation about his possible reluctance to relinquish office.

If Kabila chooses to abide by the constitution, he would become the first Congolese president to step down voluntarily for another elected president — arguably making him the “father of democracy” in Congo. That would be a major step forward for a nation that suffered brutal colonial rule under King Leopold II of Belgium, decades of post-colonial dictatorship under Mobutu Sese Seko, and then years of deadly war in which a constellation of rebel groups and armies from nine African states battled on Congolese soil.

Kabila came to power in 2001 at the age of 29, following the assassination of his father, Laurent Désiré Kabila. He is not without his accomplishments in office. Under his leadership, Congo has emerged from the dark years of war, and he led a transitional government that in 2006 brought about the country’s first democratic elections in more than 40 years, which he won. With mixed success, he has sought to stabilize the eastern part of the country, which has been plagued by armed groups that continue to kill, rape, and pillage, and he has sought to end the impunity that underwrites these atrocities. His government asked the International Criminal Court to investigate the crimes committed in Congo and has surrendered more suspects to that court than any other government in the world.

His “zero tolerance” policy toward sexual violence by security forces — announced two days after we ncouraged him to take this step at a meeting in the eastern Congolese city of Goma in 2009 — has led to a spate of domestic prosecutions and a notable reduction in complaints about rape by government soldiers. And in late 2013, he succeeded in ridding eastern Congo of the last of a succession of abusive Rwandan-sponsored rebel groups that operated in the region for 15 years.

Yet if Kabila chooses to try to hang on to power, his reputation will be tarnished not only by the failure to respect the unamendable constitutional two-term limit but also by the likelihood of a violent and abusive chain reaction. To envision how a downward spiral of protest and violent repression might unfold in Congo over a disputed extended presidential term, one need look no further than neighboring Burundi, where President Pierre Nkurunziza’s insistence on a constitutionally questionable third term has yielded the deadly suppression of mass protests.

In January, when Kabila’s government attempted to change the electoral law to enable extending his time in office, thousands of people took to the streets of Congo’s major cities to protest. Government security forces responded with violence and repression, killing at least 38 protesters in Kinshasa and five in Goma, and jailing — and sometimes beating and torturing — politicians and activists who were seen to challenge the idea of an extended presidency.

Why might Kabila want to stay past his mandate? Beyond the perks of power, many assume that he fears for himself and his family. For example, in our meeting, he raised the specter of Congo’s first democratically elected leader, Patrice Lumumba, who was executed after an apparently Western-backed coup. “Have I been successful? I don’t know. Lumumba is the real father of democracy, and he was assassinated.”

Moreover, according to political insiders and investigative journalists, the Kabila family has amassed a considerable fortune, which could make them vulnerable to future investigations . Plus, Kabila in 2016 would be only 45 years old; those close to him say he has no desire to leave Congo, but there is no Congolese precedent of a former president assuming an elder statesman role of the sort played by South Africa’s Nelson Mandela or Nigeria’s Olusegun Obasanjo.

Yet Kabila has little room to maneuver. A broad consensus has emerged in the country that a formal third presidential term is constitutionally impossible, so Congolese speak instead of a possible “glissement” — the use of some pretext to allow the prescribed limits for his second term to “slide.” The pretext might be intensifying armed conflict in the east, making the prospect of genuinely national elections difficult. It might be the seemingly deliberate lack of preparations for elections: little of the budget has been funded, and no steps have been taken to register more than 5 million youth who have come of age since the last national election in 2011. Or it might be the government’s insistence on proceeding with complicated plans to subdivide the country’s 11 provinces into 26 and then hold local and provincial elections before national ones — a sequencing that could lead to significantglissement.

But it’s hard to imagine how any of these scenarios would buy Kabila more than another year or two in office. That would accomplish little for him, while significantly undermining his interests. Prosecutors, for example, would be far less likely to proceed against a former president who is respected for having reinforced the foundation of Congolese democracy by handing power to a newly elected leader in timely fashion, than one who oversaw intensifying rounds of brutality against a public that seemed clearly to want a constitutionally mandated handover of power. A tumultuous period of repression would also make it less likely that Kabila’s endorsement of a friendly successor would succeed — another option that might help Kabila safeguard his interests.

We made these arguments to him directly in our meeting last week, but the president was coy in answering them: “Why are you trying to anticipate what will happen?”

He was more responsive when we stressed the importance of allowing people to protest and criticize the government, especially in an electoral period, though he hedged his commitment to democratic principles: “People want to hold demonstrations and protests, good enough. But if the idea is to go beyond free protests and create mayhem and anarchy, that’s completely unacceptable.” We noted that democracy can be messy yet, short of violence, shouldn’t be equated with anarchy. He let the point hang.

Kabila put a special stress on the need to ensure stability. “The issue in Congo is about stability. Stepping down — anyone can step down.” But, again, it’s far from clear how a contested extension of his term in office coupled with likely protest and repression would contribute to Congo’s stability.

Kabila has proposed a national dialogue to iron out electoral questions. If he were to state clearly his intention to relinquish office at the appointed time and indicate that the dialogue would discuss only the modalities for the next round of elections consistent with the constitution, Congolese would most likely welcome the opportunity. But in his typically cryptic fashion, he has left people speculating that dialogue might be just another ploy for glissement.

That we left our meeting with Kabila cordially suggests that the arguments we made are not beyond the pale. He listened politely and even joked: “You say ‘father of democracy.’ You’re not the first one to say this and you won’t be the last.” But he gave no indication that he accepted or rejected our suggestions. He simply asked: “As for my future, continue to pray for me.” For the sake of democracy’s future in Congo, we can only hope Kabila understands that his personal interest, not to mention his country’s, lies in accepting, rather than abusively fighting, the limits that the Congolese constitution so clearly impose.

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