Waiting for Democracy in Congo

Why Kabila's Retirement Announcement Offers Little Grounds for Optimism

Joseph Kabila addresses the UN in New York, September 2017. Eduardo Munoz / Reuters

On August 8, 2018, Lambert Mende, the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s combative minister of communication and media, stepped up to the microphone at a press conference and made a remarkable announcement: that the country’s embattled president, Joseph Kabila, will not seek a third term. Kabila’s political coalition, Mende said, had chosen Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, the secretary-general of the president’s party, as its candidate for presidential elections scheduled for this December.

Elections in Congo were supposed to have been held in 2016, according to the country’s constitution, and Kabila, having served two terms, would have been ineligible to run in them. But Kabila kept delaying a vote and remained vague about whether he would stand as a candidate when one did occur. So his government’s recent announcement came as a welcome surprise. Until last week, the ruling coalition had given no indication that the president would step down, let alone appoint a successor.

But a key question remains unanswered: is Ramazani’s selection a harbinger for Congo’s much-awaited democratic transition or merely a lifeline to a beleaguered strongman? Kabila’s method of rule and Ramazani’s own background offer little reason for optimism. That’s why it will be critical that the outside pressure that helped force Kabila to make this concession not dissipate anytime soon.


Kabila’s stalling tactics began in 2011, when he undertook a concerted campaign to stay in office beyond his two five-year terms. In 2014, for example, the president sought to subvert electoral laws by conditioning the scheduled election on a national census, a lengthy operation that would have extended beyond 2016.

The international community took notice, and soon it began insisting that Kabila and his associates respect the constitution, safeguard civil liberties, and open up the political space. To signal their commitment to Congo, the United States and the European Union appointed special envoys to the Great Lakes Region. Their pressure campaign culminated in a 2014 visit by U.S. Secretary John Kerry to Kinshasa,

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