Over the past few years, the Democratic Republic of Congo has been embroiled in a constitutional crisis. It has recently become acute. President Joseph Kabila’s term will end on December 19, and the constitution requires that an election to select a new president (Kabila is not allowed to run for a third term) and parliament be called 90 days before then. Yet the government has failed to do so, and the electoral commission, which is hardly independent, has not taken even the first steps in organizing a timely vote. The whole question of succession is therefore in abeyance. This has created massive popular protests.

The regime’s response has been twofold. First, it has cracked down on its opponents, who have organized a number of marches demanding Kabila's ouster. In September, for example, at least 50 protesters were killed in response to protests in Kinshasa. Second, the regime organized a national dialogue aimed at resolving a dilemma that Kinshasa itself had created by ignoring its constitutional responsibilities. The dialogue involved government, opposition, and civil society figures. (However, most opposition leaders boycotted the meeting, as did the representatives of the Catholic Church.)

It is clear, and has been for some time, that Kabila plans to stay in power past his term limit by employing delaying tactics—a practice known in Congo as glissement, or slippage. To a certain extent, Kabila's attempts to perpetuate his rule have already succeeded. On October 18, the national dialogue suddenly concluded with an agreement to postpone elections until April 2018. The parties resolved the contentious issue of which election (presidential, provincial, or local) should be held first in favor of the participating opposition, which backed prioritizing the presidential vote. They also agreed to create a transition government in which a member of the opposition will receive the post of prime minister. Kabila will remain president.

In many ways, Kabila has modeled his regime on Mobutu's.

The regime ended the dialogue on October 18 in part so that its representatives could attend the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region, in Luanda, with something in hand to demonstrate that it had the crisis under control despite the obvious opposition it faces. Here again, the regime was formally successful. In the conference's final statement, released on October 26, the representatives of Congo's most important neighbors "congratulated [Kabila] for having convened the national dialogue"; "welcomed" the outcome of the talks; and "noted with appreciation the confidence-building measures taken so far by the Government." In sum, the regime, backed by other African governments, devised a plan that it hoped will extend Kabila's presidency at least until mid-2018.

The problem is that a massive number of Congolese reject this road ahead and that Kabila's government is immensely unpopular. In recent weeks, both protests against the regime and government repression have continued. Thanks to a poll conducted by Congo Research Group and the Congo-based Bureau d’Etudes, de Recherche et de Consulting International during the summer of 2016, it is now possible to back up this impression. The results of the poll, which were released in late October, show that Congolese are in agreement on most of the major issues confronting them, regardless of their age, gender, income level, rural or urban location, or ethnic group—an extraordinary result, given the extent to which it is often assumed that ethnic and other cleavages shape the political views of ordinary Congolese. The poll found that 81 percent of respondents opposed changing the constitution—but the Kabila regime has effectively already done just that. When asked what should happen if elections were not held by the end of 2016, 79 percent of respondents said that Kabila should resign. And when asked whom they would vote for if the election were held immediately, less than eight percent of respondents indicated they would support Kabila. On the other hand, the three most important opposition leaders received 33, 18, and seven percent of their support, respectively. The poll made clear that the Kabila government would have no chance at winning a democratic election and that the public adamantly supports the constitution and the end of Kabila’s presidency.

What will be the impact of the tactical victories the regime has recently gained on the final balance of power? Will street confrontations supported by an increasingly mobilized opposition face determined, lethal repression? Will the public accept the postponement of real change to 2018? It is impossible to venture answers to these questions, but it is imperative to look at the underlying forces that will determine the outcomes.

Congolese President Joseph Kabila in Kindu, Congo, June 2016. 
Kenny Katombe / File Photo / REUTERS


It is important to think of Congo's government not as a one-man dictatorship but as a regime. This is not to say that there is some kind of collective leadership in Kinshasa, but rather that Kabila could withdraw from the presidency and appoint a surrogate while largely retaining control over the state, perhaps as Vladimir Putin did after Dmitry Medvedev assumed Russia’s presidency in 2008.

The main issue for the Kabila regime is how to retain its power and dominance. Whether Kabila intends to stay on as president for a third term is unclear; doing so would require amending the constitution. Yet there are two other ways the president could prolong the life of his regime. The first is that Kabila will appoint an heir. The second is that the government will continue to delay elections, much as it has already.

These two courses are mutually compatible. The Constitutional Court—which, like the electoral commission, is heavily influenced by the regime—ruled in May that Kabila must remain in office until a successor is elected, countering an opposition demand for an interim president to replace Kabila once his term ends. Without elections, then, Kabila will remain in power indefinitely—and it is not guaranteed that the regime will hold elections in 2018, as it now promises.

In many ways, Kabila has modeled his regime on that of Mobutu Sese Seko, the dictator who ruled Congo from 1965 until 1997. Mobutu was overthrown by the Angolan, Rwandan, and Ugandan invasion of the country and the self-appointment of Laurent Kabila, Joseph Kabila's father, as the new president. Like Mobutu, Joseph Kabila has established a government that sharply limits political freedoms, disregards human rights, and oversees the massive transfer of state wealth to the ruling elite as most Congolese languish without basic services under one of the world's lowest standards of living. But in some important respects, Kabila's regime differs from Mobutu's. As the low support it now enjoys demonstrates, Kabila's government has done far less to rally Congo's masses behind it than Mobutu's did. To preserve its rule, it instead relies on bribery, the trickle down of elite wealth in the cities, and the heavy hand of the security forces. At the same time, it benefits from the fact that United Nations peacekeepers and internationally financed nongovernmental organizations are performing many of the functions abandoned by the state, such as the provision of health care, in the country's provinces. That effectively liberates funds for use by state-connected elites and the security forces.

A regime that relies on its security forces as much as Kabila's does puts itself in danger of a coup. Apart from the Presidential Guard, which is kept largely in Kinshasa, the Congolese military is not well treated or paid. Perhaps in order to reduce the potential for revolt, the regime has posted most of the armed forces to the country's violent eastern regions. There is no evidence that a coup attempt is in the offing. But outside observers would likely not be in the information chain if such evidence did exist, and the temptation to revolt is obvious.

United Nations peacekeepers in Goma, July 2012.
United Nations peacekeepers in Goma, July 2012.


Congo has had a tradition of nonviolent political opposition since the country's struggle for independence, which ended in 1960. Over the last three decades, the country's nonviolent opposition has been led by the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS), a political party headed by the aging Étienne Tshisekedi. In 2006, the UDPS boycotted the national elections, thereby unintentionally helping Kabila win. In 2011, it participated in them, and Tshisekedi probably won, but the regime stole the election and declared Kabila the victor. Since then, the state has harassed and persecuted UDPS members as well as their leaders. Although Tshisekedi remains immensely popular, he will probably be too old and frail to compete for the presidency if another election is eventually held. As for Congo's other established opposition leaders—Olivier Kamitatu, Vital Kamerhe, and Moïse Katumbi are among them—most of them have served in the Kabila regime at one point or another, and this makes them somewhat suspect for many Congolese. The last few years have also seen the emergence of a new generation of opposition groups, such as Lutte pour le Changement (LUCHA) and Filimbi, which are led largely by younger Congolese intent on the Kabila regime's nonviolent ouster. For now, their influence is limited, but they nevertheless reflect an important shift from quiescence to activism on the part of Congolese youth, and they are not compromised by having worked for the regime in the past.

The leaders of the Congolese opposition have shown that they can inspire city residents to protest, and some opposition leaders, such as Martin Fayulu, the head of the Engagement for Citizenship and Development party, have had the courage to join the demonstrations and suffer violence and arrest at the hands of the regime. In organizational terms, however, Congo's opposition groups are still weak. They have not been able to create a united political party opposed to Kabila's rule, and their local structures are frail. Unlike their nationalist predecessors during the independence struggle, most lack paying members and do little to service their supporters. Those deficiencies would be a serious handicap should an extended political struggle against the regime emerge.

Western pressure will have only a limited effect.

The leadership of the nonviolent opposition has focused on developing legal and parliamentary strategies aimed at upholding the constitution. As recent survey data show, that approach resonates among ordinary Congolese citizens. (But it has also resulted in the opposition expending relatively little effort to mobilize the Congolese masses, especially in rural areas, into disciplined party structures.) Opposition leaders have sought the support of the international community, visiting Washington and European capitals to lobby for support, including sanctions against regime members, which they hope would force the regime to abide by the constitution. Yet the little support that they have received, much of which has been in the form of diplomatic statements, has not helped much.

So far, the U.S. government has pressed the Kabila regime harder than its European counterparts, although there are indications that the Europeans may toughen their positions. In turn, the Kabila regime has accused the United States of interfering in Congo's internal affairs. After the United States sanctioned some members of the regime for breaches of basic democratic and human rights standards, the regime responded by suggesting that Washington was in the process of creating chaos in the Congo. In mid-September, the regime raised the ante when its agents severely harassed a U.S. diplomat at the airport in Kinshasa. Then, immediately after the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president, the Kabila regime demanded the lifting of the sanctions and claimed that the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama had sought to treat the country like an “American province.” In the past, Congolese figures have accused the United States of supporting the country's Balkanization (a patently false accusation) and have complained that Washington does not pressure Angola, Rwanda, and Uganda to uphold democratic norms as much as it does Congo—proof, they claim, of an anti-Congolese double standard. 

Some of these charges resonate among the Congolese public. But the handwringing about double standards ignores a crucial fact: whereas Angola, Rwanda, and Uganda are currently stable, Congo is not. That much is clear to the international community, which has backed MONUSCO, the UN's peacekeeping operation, at a cost of more than $1.3 billion per year, picking up the slack for the security and social services that Kinshasa has failed to provide. It is therefore not unreasonable for the United States and others to take an activist approach to the country's crisis.  Such arguments, however, cut little ice with the Kabila government.

More Western pressure on the regime to abide by the constitution and democratic norms and, specifically, to accept opposition demands for a new, more inclusive dialogue would be constructive. The alternative is more conflict and probably blood in the streets. But in the last analysis, Western pressure will have only a limited effect, in part because the regime will counterbalance such efforts with support from neighboring African dictatorships and possibly China. And Trump’s election has reportedly produced great relief on the part of several African authoritarian leaders, especially Kabila.


There are around 100 violent groups or militias in Congo, most of which lack any links to the nonviolent opposition. Most are in the country's east, south, and north, where extreme, daily violence is often endemic. Some of these groups are politically oriented, some protect their ethnic home bases, and some fight for the control of resources and are essentially criminal. Some are foreign but based in Congo, and some are Congolese but have foreign sponsors.

The largest of Congo's armed movements are the Mai-Mai militias in North Kivu and South Kivu Provinces, which lie in Congo's east. The Mai-Mai are a diverse set of local groups, most of which were organized to resist Rwandan and Ugandan forces and their proxies in the 1990s, although some date back to the 1960s. The formal end of the Second Congo War in 2003 did not spell the end of the Mai-Mai, as many observers had hoped. Today, some of the Mai-Mai control territory, tax civilians, and participate in the mineral trade—in effect, they have established local governance.

A copper mining operation in Katanga Province, February 2013.
A copper mining operation in Katanga Province, February 2013. 

The violence in eastern Congo has lasted for two decades and has cost as many as five million lives. Yet elites in Kinshasa do not regard the violence in the east as threatening, and they have generally allowed it to fester, letting MONUSCO deal—unsuccessfully—with protecting civilians. Notably, the national dialogue ignored the issue of violence in the country's east.

The militarized protest movements of the rural southeast, where Congo’s mineral wealth is concentrated, pose more serious problems for the regime. Their challenges to the authorities are infrequent, and they do not control much territory, instead carrying out hit-and-run attacks on government targets. Yet they nevertheless pose a real danger to Kinshasa, mostly because they could threaten the copper and cobalt mines upon which the country's economy and much of the Congolese elite’s wealth depends. One such group, the Kata Katanga, is intensely opposed to Kabila and calls for the region’s secession and independence. Kinshasa’s response has been to send in heavy forces; to divide up Katanga, the province that formerly covered most of the area, into four new provinces; and to indict Moïse Katumbi, Katanga’s former governor.

Northern and southwestern Congo, too, have histories of rurally based violent protests. Those areas have been mostly quiet in recent years. But if repression is the only response that the Kabila regime has in store for armed protest movements that feed off local antagonisms and economic misery, it will be very busy in the coming years.


All evidence suggests that the Kabila regime is intent on holding on to power. Neither nonviolent protest movements, nor the opposition parties, nor international pressures are likely to dislodge it from that commitment. As a result, more political tension, repression, and protests are in store. Glissement could continue to serve the regime for a while. If the regime does hold elections in 2018—and it might not—they will likely be neither fair nor transparent, and the regime will probably succeed at manipulating the results.

Congo’s government is neither intrinsically powerful nor popular. On the contrary: it is tone-deaf to public opinion. Yet if it is to be replaced, it will take a coup, a revolutionary uprising, or a united, better-organized democratic opposition that has managed to mobilize, from the bottom up, the Congolese masses, both urban and rural, into enduring political institutions.

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