DRC President Joseph Kabila and his wife, Marie Olive Lembe di Sita, at an independence-day celebration in Kindu, DRC, June 2016.
Kenny Katombe / Reuters

On December 20, the Democratic Republic of Congo, which had been a democracy for the past decade (flawed though it was), lost that distinction. The backsliding of democracy in the country was preventable; it unfolded slowly and under the watch of the international community. DRC President Joseph Kabila, faced with the end of his constitutional mandate, had two options: call elections or resort to repression to stay in power. He chose the latter.

Kabila’s ultimate decision is not that surprising. He faces deep levels of unpopularity. A Congo Research Group poll of 7,545 Congolese showed that he would have only received 7.8 percent of the vote if elections had been held this year. Furthermore, the presidency guarantees his safety. As Brian Klaas of the London School of Economics has noted, 43 percent of African leaders have been jailed, exiled, or killed after losing power since 1960. Klaas highlights how the current developments in the Gambia showcase the difficulty of stepping down: “Yahya Jammeh initially accepted electoral defeat until he realized that he would face prosecution. He’s now clinging to power through every means available to him.” Kabila is likely doing the same because he knows his post-tenure fate could be perilous.

The backsliding of democracy in the country was preventable; it unfolded slowly and under the watch of the international community.

In recent years, Kabila had made it increasingly clear that he would seek to remain president following the end of his second term. Immediately after the 2011 election, Evariste Boshab, deputy prime minister in charge of the interior and security, as well as a close ally of Kabila, traveled to Lubumbashi and tried to cobble together support for a potential third-term bid. That would have required a constitutional amendment—a hard sell. The constitution, which Kabila himself promulgated early in his first term, reads: “The number and length of the mandates of the president cannot be the object of any constitutional revision.” Kabila—powerful but not omnipotent—failed to get the constitutional changes he wanted.

Kabila has managed to stay in power nonetheless because he has played his hand well. His regime has occasionally used force, with devastating effects, but his weapon of choice has been the Congolese political system’s own flaws. Kabila did not simply crown himself; he declared that orderly elections were simply impossible. He was right. In late 2015, a report from the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie pointed out that about seven million young new voters had yet to be registered for the election and that over 1.5 million deceased voters needed to be taken off the registries, in addition to 300,000 duplicate voters. Indeed, the Congolese electoral commission is not only tragically underfunded; it is a toothless paper tiger. The reason, of course, is Kabila himself. In power for 15 years, he had plenty of time to fix such problems.

43 percent of African leaders have been jailed, exiled, or killed after losing power since 1960.

Kabila also effectively silenced the media, and his security apparatus all but made it impossible for the opposition to voice dissent. A major demonstration scheduled for November 19 was canceled after Kabila deployed the police in full force and blocked off the home of opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi and the headquarters of his political party, the Union for Democracy and Social Progress Party (UDPS). The same month, Kabila’s government also blocked broadcasts of Radio France Internationale and Radio Okapi, a local station run by the UN. 

When the Congolese regime did use physical repression, it was brutal. In January 2015, student-led protests erupted in Kinshasa in response to proposed changes to the DRC’s electoral law, which many believed would allow Kabila to rule beyond the end of his second term. Scores of protesters—including at least six students—died in the government crackdown that ensued. Then, in late September of this year, regime forces killed at least 50 protesters in Kinshasa. The protesters were demanding that the scheduled elections be held on time. Some of them were found to have bullet wounds in the head or chest, suggesting summary executions. 

In response, the West talked a strong game but achieved little. A week after the September violence, the United States imposed sanctions on two senior security officials who are part of Kabila’s inner circle. Many European countries denounced the regime but could not reach a common position on sanctions. Only Belgium took action—it shortened the duration of Congolese officials’ visas. To be sure, the sanctions flustered the regime. According to Ida Sawyer, a Human Rights Watch senior researcher recently banned from the DRC, they “had a notable deterrent effect and rattled those implicated in abuses.” However, they did not go far enough to tip the scales and force Kabila—or enough influential members of his regime—to accept timely elections or a legitimate caretaker government. To this day, Washington has subjected only five members of Kabila’s inner circle to sanctions, and the European Union has sanctioned seven. The sanctions on all of the individuals targeted by the EU and two of the five reprimanded by the US were only extended on December 12—too little, too late.

It might be too late to prevent Kabila from staying in power beyond his mandate, but it’s not too late to save democracy in the DRC and beyond.

Meanwhile, attempts to strengthen the democratic system through development aid have been wasteful and ineffective. Over the past year, the West spent just over $70 million on democracy promotion projects in the DRC, less than an eighth of what three countries—Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States—spent on Afghanistan’s last election alone. Furthermore, only six percent of the total money used for democracy promotion in the DRC was spent shoring up public electoral bodies, which were easier to coopt as a result.

It might be too late to prevent Kabila from staying in power beyond his mandate, but it’s not too late to save democracy in the DRC and beyond. To do so, the West must come together to increase the costs to DRC officials of ignoring the popular will. More of them must be targeted with travel bans, and the financial sanctions that are targeted at key personnel within repressive governments must be vastly expanded. At the same time, the West must become better at spending money effectively to facilitate the democratic process.

Democracies not only enjoy better legitimacy among their citizens—in the long run, they are more stable than their autocratic counterparts. Democracies are also more conducive to positive economic outcomes. Harvard University’s Dani Rodrik shows that participatory democracies generate more predictable levels of economic growth than autocracies. Furthermore, their growth weathers economic shocks better and is more equally distributed. These factors are all critical for the DRC, one of the poorest and most shock-prone economies in the world.

As highlighted by the recent protests, Congolese are becoming restless. The last time the DRC erupted into large-scale violence—between 1998 and 2003—an entire region was in turmoil. In fact, nine African countries were directly involved in the Second Congo War, which led to the death of millions of civilians. If today’s status quo persists, the resulting unrest could be catastrophic for the DRC and the wider Central Africa region. Whether such a showdown happens or not, democracy has experienced another major—yet preventable—setback. 

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  • DAVID LANDY is a doctoral candidate in international development at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. MARCEL DIRSUS is a doctoral candidate at the University of Kiel in Germany. Both have conducted research in the DRC.
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