Two years ago Secretary of State John Kerry visited the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and publicly called on President Joseph Kabila to respect the country’s constitution and not seek a third term in 2016. In remarks before the African Union last summer, President Obama affirmed the U.S. view that Africa needs no more “presidents for life” but rather new ideas and leadership resulting from elections.
Mr. Kabila’s response has been an ongoing campaign to undermine the constitution, jail opponents and shut down media outlets. These actions have brought this large, strategically important nation in the center of Africa ever closer to the precipice of a major political conflict. To avert a destabilizing political and human rights crisis, and to cement his legacy as a strong advocate for democracy in Africa, Mr. Obama should stand firm on his administration’s pro-democracy policy and to do what he can to ensure Mr. Kabila follows his country’s constitution and holds national elections.
Mr. Kabila came to power in 2001 after the assassination of his father. His election to a second term in 2011 was deeply flawed and widely criticized by the international community. Corruption has been rampant as the economy has stagnated. Mr. Kabila has never said explicitly he would breach the constitution, which he himself spearheaded in 2005, but top U.S. officials are clearly concerned about his intentions and what they might mean for stability in the Congo.
Last month, in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Thomas Perriello, the State Department’s special envoy for the Great Lakes Region of Africa, warned, “the DRC could fall into a crisis more violent and destabilizing than the current crisis in Burundi,” where President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to seek a third term in violation of the constitution has resulted in hundreds of deaths and a refugee crisis.
Mr. Kabila’s attempts to derail his country’s fledging democratic system are apparent. In early 2015, he attempted to postpone elections, leading to mass protests in which many people were arrested or killed by government security forces. Shortly after that, a mass grave with 400 bodies was discovered and remains the focus of queries by human rights groups. Subsequently, he has arrested numerous opposition political leaders and shut down opposition radio and television stations and newspapers. He has weakened his main opponents by redrawing political boundaries and starved the country’s election commission of funds. After deliberately engineering obstacles to scheduled elections, he has now called for a “national dialogue,” which probably is intended to stall the electoral process and extend his presidency.
While Mr. Kabila has been trying to maneuver around the constitution, leaders of political parties once part of the governing coalition have abandoned him and are standing with millions of Congolese who insist that the rule of law be honored. The DRC’s constitution stipulates when his mandate ends, and lays out the protocols for the transition to a successor. There is no mention of a “national dialogue” or any popular consultation to be held before the next election. Mr. Kabila is aware of this but is persisting in his efforts.
There is still time for President Kabila to reverse course and do the right thing, and the United States and international community should continue to strongly encourage him to move in that direction. Mr. Obama and Mr. Kerry should publicly renew their call for Mr. Kabila to pledge to uphold the constitution and step down. In exchange, the United States should pledge to work with the European Union, the United Nations and the African Union to provide technical and logistical support, as well as major funding to facilitate free and fair elections. If Mr. Kabila chooses to derail the democratic process, the U.S. should deny visas to Mr. Kabila’s immediate family and political cohorts, review all assistance programs that might benefit the presidency, and be prepared to undertake financial sanctions aimed at his personal holdings.
The administration should also seek the support of the key western European and democratic allies. With 22,000 U.N. peacekeepers and personnel in the Congo, the international community should be prepared to speak out in support of stability and continued political progress. Political instability will only exacerbate and prolong the U.N.’s work.
Mr. Kabila is counting on the United States to continue to monitor the situation, make earnest statements and to move slowly. There is still time to produce a better democratic outcome in the Congo, and the United States should step up its diplomacy and make clear there will be consequences for Mr. Kabila and those around him if they undermine the constitution and create greater instability in the Congo.
• James Jones Jr. is a retired U.S. Marine Corps general and a former U.S. national security adviser. Johnnie Carson is a former ambassador and assistant secretary of State for Africa (2009-13).
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