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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, Congo’s capital, where he publicly urged Kabila to step down at the end of his term.
Still, Kabila resisted. In 2015 and 2016, peaceful pro-democracy protests brought thousands of young people and opposition supporters into the streets. The government responded with a crackdown. Tens of youths were shot dead. Kabila paid millions of dollars to Washington, D.C., lobbyists in an effort to sway the U.S. government, and his advisers regularly visited the city to press their case. Their message, however, was undermined by Kabila’s continued repression, not to mention his terrible track record in office: despite its vast mineral wealth, Congo ranks among the world’s ten poorest countries on the UN Human Development Index.
The pressure only increased. As a warning to Kabila, the U.S. Congress passed a series of resolutions urging the Congolese government to hold credible elections and comply with presidential term limits. In 2016, the U.S. Treasury issued a wave of sanctions against Kabila’s inner circle, including top generals in the military. The European Union followed up the next year with sanctions against another group of Kabila’s associates, among them Mende and Ramazani. In December 2017, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on Dan Gertler, an Israeli business tycoon and long-time associate of Kabila’s, over corrupt mining deals in Congo. Pressure also came from African countries, particularly from South Africa and neighboring Angola, which used their influence to insist that Kabila initiate a credible democratic transition.
Beginning this summer, Kabila responded with a passive-aggressive act of defiance: he reshuffled his military high command and appointed two generals under international sanctions, John Numbi and Amisi Kumba, to prominent positions. Throughout the security apparatus, he promoted sanctioned senior officers to critical positions. The moves were an opportunity for Kabila to not only thumb his nose at the international community but also intimidate the political opposition and members of civil society. Kabila was also likely seeking to further tie top officials and military leaders to his fortunes: more than ever, they pay for the abuses they commit to secure his rule, yet depend on his good graces to protect them. That makes them easy to manipulate.
It was against this backdrop that Kabila selected Ramazani, a trusted loyalist, as his successor. Kabila had depleted whatever goodwill he had with Western donors. Pressure was mounting at home and abroad. Cornered against the wall, he threw the international community a bone in order to generate a short reprieve as he considers his next steps.
The way Ramazani was chosen does not inspire confidence that Kabila’s announcement marks the start of a democratic transition. His appointment did not result from a consensus among the bosses of the various factions of Kabila’s ruling coalition. Analysts and political insiders did not include Ramazani on the short list of potential successors. Rather, he was Kabila’s personal choice. Moreover, the timing of the announcement, made the last day candidates were allowed to register with the electoral commission, prevented any would-be challenger from emerging within the ruling coalition.
Nor does Ramazani’s curriculum vitae suggest that he represents a departure from Kabila. In the early 1990s, Ramazani fought the country’s dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, as a provincial leader of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress—a major opposition party, then and now—but soon after Mobutu was overthrown, in 1997, Ramazani threw his lot in with Laurent-Désiré Kabila (father of Joseph). In 1998, Kabila père appointed Ramazani as deputy-governor of Maniema province, and he was later made governor. In 2002, Ramazani joined Joseph Kabila and a group of political operatives to found the People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy, which provided Kabila a platform in anticipation of the 2006 elections. Elected to Congo’s parliament in 2006 and again in 2011, he has wielded great influence as Kabila’s right-hand man on parliamentary matters.
A loyalist among the faithful, Ramazani was rewarded with the most powerful portfolio in 2016, when he was appointed both minister of interior and security and deputy prime minister. A hawk and hardliner, he represents the reactionary wing of the ruling coalition. In other words, he believes that Kabila’s power is non-negotiable, and thus that any means, including military force against unarmed civilians, must be used to preserve it. In 2017, the European Union imposed sanctions on Ramazani for his role in the violent crackdown against critics and protesters. Perhaps most telling, he has made it loud and clear that Kabila should stay in office: speaking at a rally this May, he declared, “Kabila was president, Kabila is president, Kabila will remain president.”
Indeed, Ramazani is deeply beholden to Kabila. He has no political base of his own, save for his district in Maniema, which means that he will have to rely on Kabila’s goodwill and network. It remains to be seen whether Kabila will grant him the necessary financial backing and other support to articulate a new vision for Congo, a move that would allow him to become his own man. To date, Kabila has yet to present his chosen successor to the people, thus leaving some ambiguity about whether he fully stands with him.
Even though Kabila has backed a candidate in the elections, this does not necessarily mean that they will take place. The main obstacle is Congo’s electoral commission, a supposedly independent body chaired by Corneille Nangaa, who was picked by Kabila. Today, four months before the scheduled election, Nangaa presides over a process fraught with irregularities. The voter registry, which dates from the last electoral cycle, has not been audited as the law requires. Out of the 41 million registered voters, at least 10 million may be ineligible, having enrolled either without fingerprints or with partial fingerprints.
Nangaa has ignored these irregularities but insisted on using electronic voting machines, which the majority of the electorate views as enabling fraud. He has invested little effort in building confidence in the electoral process, and he has consistently dismissed the grievances of the political opposition and civil society. If he were allowed to see his preferred process through to the end, the December elections would be so chaotic and contested that the population would reject the results. Protests would follow. In that case, Kabila would stay in office through military repression—and Congo’s political crisis would go on.
The urgency of this crisis requires stricter and stronger international sanctions against those who seek to subvert the democratic process, including Nangaa and his deputies. The president of the electoral commission holds the key to resolving the crisis, but he has shown few signs that he will do so. Nangaa must either salvage the process in short order—allowing a complete audit of the voter registry, convening weekly meetings with various stakeholders, and canceling plans for electronic voting machines—or he must step down.
No matter what happens, the Congolese people will continue to fight for their constitution to be respected and for a democratic transition to finally take place. But outside pressure is also needed. In a country that has seen grave conflict before, the stakes are too high for the international community to stand on the sidelines.