Now is not the time for the UN to run from the DRC
By Reuben Loffman
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) will only have successful elections if the United Nations (UN) maintains its strong presence in the country. UN infrastructure and personnel are vital for a credible poll.
In 2006, for example, the United Nations Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the DRC (better known as ‘MONUSCO’) played a pivotal role in organising and supervising the presidential and provincial elections.
Before the 2011 elections, the UN was instrumental in creating space for freedom of political expression and association.
Few other civilian institutions within the DRC can match the UN’s contingent of 22,016 uniformed personnel. These officers have the capacity to prevent violence and facilitate a peaceful election.
Despite this, the UN has decided to cut back the mission’s presence by 370 troops. This was done on the initiative of the US which argued for a much bigger reduction. Its reason, as its ambassador to the UN set out, was that the mission was aiding the government’s oppression of its citizens.
But the truth of the matter is that the cuts suggested by the US are purely a cost-cutting exercise.
Yet with the political situation in the DRC being as unstable as it is, the mission needs all the troops it can get. Now is clearly the wrong time for the cut backs.
Kabila has been clinging to power since his term expired on December 10th, 2016. Cutting back UN support will give credence to his argument that elections cannot be held due to a lack of infrastructural capability.
But the true stumbling block to elections isn’t a logistical one, but rather a distinct lack of will on Kabila’s part to step down.
Deal falls apart
Last year, Kabila was offered a historic opportunity to leave gracefully when the National Episcopal Conference of the Congo led by the Archbishop of Kisangani, Marcel Utembi, brokered a deal with his opposition, known as the “Rally”.
The Rally is a coalition of opposition parties which agreed to work together to persuade the president to hold elections and, ultimately, to relinquish power.
The December 31 agreement stated that Kabila would have to step down by the end of 2017 after which fresh presidential elections would be held. But while the New Year’s eve deal gave the DRC’s beleaguered citizenry some hope, it was deeply flawed.
The deal was never signed by either the Rally or Kabila. The Rally’s leader Étienne Tshisekedi withheld his support because of fears of bad faith on Kabila’s part. He died unexpectedly shortly thereafter.
Then one of the Rally members – the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) – announced that it had no faith that elections would be held by the end of the year.
There were many reasons for the UDPS to question Kabila’s intentions even beyond the fact that he hadn’t signed the Archbishop’s deal. One of them was the lack of consensus on who would fill the position of prime minister.
While an earlier African Union (AU) agreement made it clear that Kabila would choose an opposition politician for the post, it left the choice of candidate to him.
Because he had a free hand, Kabila chose Samy Badibanga to replace Augustin Ponyo. Ponyo had been a loyal supporter of the President’s party – the Peoples’ Party for Reconciliation and Democracy (PPRD) – and had served as Prime Minister since April 2012.
Though Badibanga is an opposition politician he isn’t considered a Rally stalwart. Naturally, the Rally saw his appointment as a flagrant attempt to divide the opposition.
The UDPS’s response to Badibanga’s appointment was lukewarm and, coupled with Kabila’s intransigence, the churches abandoned mediation efforts. This marked the death knell of the New Year’s eve deal.
Faced with having to pressurise Kabila and his government through different means the Rally called for a general strike on April 3rd, 2017.
The strike affected many of the DRC’s major cities. But Kabila and his administration have made few, if any, concessions.
Shortly after the strike, Kabila named Bruno Tshibala as his choice for prime minister. But like Badibanga before him, Tshibala was a deeply controversial choice not least because he disagreed with the names that his party – UDPS – had suggested to succeed Tshisekedi who was a highly regarded opposition figure prior to his death.
Dissatisfaction with the state of affairs continued and a week later, on April 10th, businesses in Kinshasa were again brought to a standstill. There were also a series of protests in a number of key Congolese towns and cities.
This standoff between the Rally and the government makes the possibility of elections this year even more remote.
Cutting MONUSCO’s budget in this context spells disaster.
What the international community should be doing
The DRC is one of the poorest countries in the world. It’s therefore easy for Kabila to claim that a free and fair election now is impossible.
But by investing in the international institutions that work in the DRC – such as MONUSCO – the international community would be demonstrating its commitment to support the smooth running of elections in the DRC, even if the Congolese government cannot afford to do so. For example, the UN agency’s transport facilities would be vital in ferrying election observers around sub-Saharan Africa’s largest country.
The DRC’s Independent National Electoral Commission has already managed to register over 13 million out of 32 million voters. But to register an optimum number of citizens the commission estimates that elections can only reasonably take place in 2018.
A strong MONUSCO will support the electoral commission to move the country towards the peaceful transition of power that it so badly needs. – The Conversation
• Reuben Loffman is Lecturer in African History, Queen Mary University of London