Earlier this year, angry demonstrators filled the streets of Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They were outraged by President Joseph Kabila’s attempts to extend his last term as president through a new electoral law that would likely have delayed the November 2016 elections by at least two years. One of the most keenly contested provisions of the law required a national census before elections could take place, a laborious effort that was never budgeted. Kabila responded violently to the protests—his security forces killed around 40 people.
The new law was eventually passed in late January of this year without the census provision, but it appears that Kabila has yet another card to play.
On March 2, he set a 120-day deadline for the implementation of découpage, a constitutional change introduced in 2006 intended to divide Congo’s 11 provinces into 26. The 2006 constitutional change was a milestone in the country’s transition from almost a decade of civil war and was meant to transform Congo into a fully fledged democracy. However, while Kinshasa should have completed découpage by 2010 in accordance with the constitution, the process has not yet even begun. The delay is not surprising given that découpage is one of the most complex processes that the government has had to grapple with since the official end of the war. As a result, it neither budgeted nor designed an execution plan for découpage.
In pursuing découpage now, Kabila can ostensibly hold on to power. In the last few months, a number of his former supporters, such as the political party Union of Federalists and Independent Republicans, defected from the ruling majority. In December 2014, one of his allies, Moïse Katumbi—the powerful governor of Katanga Province and representative of the ruling party in Katanga—publicly opposed Kabila’s quest to extend the presidential term limits and run for a third term. The speech sent shock waves across the business and political scene; although Katumbi was widely believed to harbor his own presidential aspirations, his ties to Kabila were generally seen as essential to his potential ascension.
If implemented, découpage could allow Kabila to marginalize such power brokers and defectors. Katumbi and many others would be replaced once their provinces were dissolved and reconfigured into smaller ones.
At the same time, if logistic, financial, and political reasons prevent the successful implementation of découpage (and that is quite likely), the process may not only help delay the electoral process but also serve as a convenient justification for Kabila to amend the constitution. After all, if the constitution’s call for découpage is no longer practical, Kabila might argue that other conditions—such as the two-term limit—also require amending.
Katanga, Congo’s industrial mining hub, is perhaps the only province in which découpage is viable. Its districts are relatively well established and the province generates most of the country’s revenues. Yet even there, issues with the division seem nearly insurmountable. Katanga would be divided into four new provinces, and at least two of those are fiercely resistant to the change. Meanwhile, leaders from the mining town of Kolwezi insist that their district should constitute an independent fifth province.
The prospect of dissecting Katanga has heightened ethnic tensions, with some groups in the south of the province such as the Lunda viewing découpage as a means to increase regional influence and others, such as the Balubakat—Kabila’s own ethnic group—seeing it as a recipe for marginalization. In an effort to discourage the government from implementing découpage, some members of the Balubakat have thrown their support behind a regional militia, prompting a major humanitarian crisis in the so-called Triangle of Death in north-central Katanga.
Other provinces—such as Équateur and Orientale—would also be likely to experience growing competition over resources, power, and representation if découpage was implemented. This could spark localized conflicts with largely unpredictable consequences.
There are many other, less visible pitfalls from découpage as well, particularly for the private sector. For example, découpage might well lead to more bureaucracy and corruption. As new decision-making structures are created at what are now district levels, companies are likely to encounter additional delays and unexpected costs in their operations. The central government and provincial authorities already ask companies to follow contradictory and ambiguous regulations and taxes, a problem that découpage is also likely to exacerbate. Meanwhile, the advent of new local authorities is likely to expose companies to increased extortion and demands for bribes.
In Katanga specifically, mining companies may face new export restrictions and taxes if the province is quartered. Some companies currently operating across multiple districts may be forced to change their export routes—local governments often require that exports originate from within their own province so that they can collect additional export taxes. Such requirements would have major operational and potentially financial repercussions for businesses.
Businesses are also concerned that découpage could herald more instability in their contracts. A government-led contract review in 2007–09 heavily dented investor confidence; it was a terribly corrupt process, and some companies that failed to bribe the reviewers lost their licenses. Mining companies are now keeping a close eye on the current review of the mining code, which could elicit a new round of contract renegotiations. Découpage adds to this uncertainty, potentially invalidating certain contractual terms following the division of the country’s provinces.
Kabila’s attempt to redraw provincial boundaries reflects broader uncertainty in Congo. Nobody knows for sure how this year and 2016 will play out. Even if Kabila succeeds in his bid to stay in power by pursuing découpage, the next years are likely to see more volatility. To prevent Kabila from having his way, the opposition would need to overcome its huge internal divisions, realign itself around a single leader—such as Katumbi—and pressure the government to respect the electoral time frame. Either course promises to be fraught.