Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version

Apparently inspired by last year’s massive protests in Burkina Faso that ended the regime of President Blaise Compaore who wanted to extend his rule, Congolese citizens last week poured out into the streets to oppose perceived attempts by President Kabila to hold onto power. The people won. But will Kabila still pursue his ambition?

The Congolese political saga resembles an alcohol-laden early morning bar brawl in which one is forced to punch through or duck for cover. In the last week Congolese people, fed up with the government attempt to modify the electoral law descended on the streets in Kinshasa and other parts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Cars were burnt or overturned, buses were stoned, and tires were lit in public squares while protestors, armed with sticks and stones, defiantly chanted “Kabila degage! Kabila Degage! (Kabila get out! Kabila get out!). These violent protests originated in Kinshasa and spread to other parts of the Congo between January 19 and 22, 2015. According to to the official account, four Congolese were killed as an outcome of violent protests. Unofficial accounts have reported over 28 deaths, with many more people missing and hundreds arrested. One easily sides with the unofficial accounts because often the Congolese government has misrepresented facts to minimize their probable social and political implications. Perhaps you wish to know why Congolese descended on the streets, stoning, overturning and burning cars while chanting, “Kabila gets out!” and risking their lives in the process.


The immediate event that triggered the violent protests in Kinshasa and other parts of the Congo was an attempt by the Congolese political majority to modify the electoral law and cunningly prolong Joseph Kabila’s presidency. In the Congolese political jargon this type of maneuver is called “glissement electoral” (electoral sliding). Electoral sliding is an instance where administrative inadequacies and political calculations delay the electoral calendar for few months or years. The current constitution does not allow Kabila to run again for the highest office in the country, everybody knows that. He is serving his second term. As of now Kabila’s best option to stay in power is through delay of the presidential elections, or electoral sliding. If Kabila stubbornly clings to power there is a great chance that the Congo might descend into chaos. The violent protests of last week indicate what might happen if Kabila and his political clique hold onto power. For Kabila to stay in power beyond 2016 it would require the old game overused by African political dinosaurs: changing the constitution or suspend it altogether. We have heard that tune quite often in African politics: Omar Bongo (Gabon), Sassaou Nguesso Republic of Congo), Yoweri Museveni (Uganda) and many others have overstayed their presidencies by re-moulding the constitution to their political liking.

Unfortunately for Kabila the constitution is clear about the presidential term limit, and the successful protests that toppled Blaise Compaore in Burkina Faso provides a cautionary tale. What drove Congolese to the streets was the realization that Kabila’s entourage was seeking to manipulate the electoral law so as to extend their political horizon. In order to fully understand where Congolese indignation against a potential modification of the electoral law came from, one needs to examine the origin of the bill proposing the modification of the electoral law. As early as 2012, barely a year after Kabila’s contested reelection, Congolese political observers, media, and academics began examining potential strategies that Kabila could consider for a third term presidential run. The key hindrance for such possibility was the Article 220 of the Congolese constitution. That article places the limit for the presidency at two terms, five years per term. Seizing the opportunity, Kabila’s proponents, also known as Kabilistes in the Congolese political parlance, went to task. They devised strategies to open the Pandora’s box of constitutional revision.

Kabilistes’ essential argument stipulated that, as a living document, the constitution was susceptible to modification, reflecting the changing Congolese political and legal reality. In other words Kabila’s strategists argued that it was not unconstitutional to propose a constitutional revision. While Kabila’s People Party for Reconstruction and Democracy (PPRD) and members of the political majority announced their overture for a potential constitutional revision, Dr. Evarist Boshab, one of Kabila’s diehard supporters and the current vice primer of the DRC went a step further and wrote a book, “Entre Revision de la Consititution et L’inanition de la Nation.” (Between the Constitutional Revision and the Nation’s Inanition). Boshab took it to the Congolese court of public opinion and vehemently argued that without a constitutional revision the DRC faced serious political inefficiencies.

While he was highly criticized by the political opposition, Boshab failed to articulate what conditions had substantially changed between 2011 and 2013 to cause the need for a constitutional revision. Although some of Boshab’s arguments could be substantiated, the question of presidential term limit, stated in Article 220 of the Constitution, was clear. Perhaps, the only defensible and imaginable argument that could override Article 220 could be a proven absence of alternative eligible presidential contenders in DRC. In other words, insisting that presidential terms be extended implies that the DRC faces a shortage of capable political leaders. Considered as an insult, Boshab’s attempt didn’t fly well in some Congolese intellectual circles, especial in the Congolese political opposition. They swiftly counter-argued that Boshab’s case was a strategy aimed at prolonging Kabila’s political horizon. Aware of what might happen Congolese politicians went on the offensive, examining and counter-arguing any proposal tangentially related to the proposed constitutional revision.

It is not a secret that Kabila has toyed with the idea of staying in power. In the hope of learning something from Blaise Compaoré’s political maneuvering, he dispatched his emissaries to Burkina Faso in October 2014 to witness how constitutional revision was “tactfully” conducted in order to stretch presidential limits. Of course, that did not go as well, we all know what happened to Blaise Compaoré. The Burkinabe people drove him out of the country from the back door. Incidentally, as the Burkina Farso saga was unfolding, Congolese were wondering whether they could learn something from the Burkinabe people. It appears that Kabila learned that a full constitutional revision was out of the question. And the Congolese people learned that they could put up a fight, if the political majority sought a constitutional revision to accommodate Kabila.

Thus, elected twice in 2006 and 2011, Kabila is not longer eligible to run for the highest office in the DRC. It is also pertinent to remember that Kabila has been leading the Congo since 2002, seeking a third term is conterminous with saying that no other Congolese is capable of leading the Congolese people. Realizing that the Congolese people have no stomach for a full-blown constitutional revision, the same Evarist Boshab wrote a bill proposing to modify the electoral law. As the parliament began debating the bill on January 19, Congolese took their voices to the street. At the heart of the debate about the bill proposing modifications of the electoral law stood the infamous Article 8. That article proposed that the presidential elections be conditioned by a general census and identification of Congolese living in the Congo and abroad as well as expatriates living in the Congolese territory. General elections are scheduled for the end of 2016 and the Congolese government is only now proposing to count its people and foreigners residing in the Congo. For the DRC, a gigantic and impoverished country with inadequate technical and administrative infrastructures, a general census could take years. Some have estimated between three to four years. That means that if such a law passed, the Kabila government would stay in power in order to ostensibly carry out the census.

Objecting to a potential third run by Joseph Kabila, Congolese descended on the streets, while political leaders debated the bill proposing modifications to the electoral law in the parliament. After three days of violent protest, the Congolese parliament passed a modified version of the proposed electoral law. The provision of the law stipulates a general census, and the identification of Congolese living abroad as well as expatriates living in the Congo was changed to the collection of available demographic data. At least now the electoral law does not subordinate the presidential elections to a monumental general census. The demographic data will be collected through voters registration. In this way the country will not have to spend invaluable time and resources in numbering Congolese who will not be voting by choice or by ineligibility. At least now the Congolese 2016 presidential elections are still in the realm of possibility. But I have a hunch that the debate is not over yet. Even though the venomous language of Article 8 in Boshab’s bill has been watered down, and some Congolese protesters have chanted victory songs, I believe the fight is not over yet. So long as Kabila doesn’t clearly explain whether he intends to seek reelection in the 2016, tensions will persist in the in the Congolese political landscape.


Observers of the African Great lakes region would certainly attest that exogenous forces rather than Kabila’s IQ and political shrewdness facilitated Kabila’s ascendance and maintenance in power. By any analysis Kabila is an accidental president. We remember too well how on January 18, 2002 the then thirty-year old Joseph Kabila was secretly sworn in as the new president of the DRC. Two days earlier his father, Laurent Désiré Kabila, the president of the DRC, had been brutally assassinated in his palace in Kinshasa, allegedly by Rachidi Kasereka, his personal bodyguard. It has been argued that the choice of Joseph Kabila to replace his father was a strategic move from Kabila’s entourage and other external interests. The DRC had been in a second civil war since August 1998 and the sudden death of Laurent Kabila created the risk of worsening the crisis, which by then had already claimed the deaths of approximately 2.5 millions Congolese, while millions of others were internally displaced or were seeking asylum in neighboring countries. I am willing to make the case that in 2002 a combination of external interests saw in the young Joseph Kabila a potential leader for the “stability” of the African Great Lakes region, not necessarily for the wellbeing of the Congolese people.

Unfortunately, once again the future of the Congolese people might depend more on exogenous forces than on endogenous ones. However, it appears this time that Congolese are willing to put up a fight. “Have we learned something from Burkina Faso?” some Congolese have asked. While certain opposition leaders such as Vital Kamerhe (from the Kivu and former collaborator of Joseph Kabila) have cautioned about the possibility that Congo might find itself in the vortex of a generalized conflict if it doesn’t learn from Burkina Faso. Some representatives of the political majority, such as Francis Kalombo, had made the case that the DRC was historically, politically and socially different from Burkina Faso to expect similar outcomes. It is true that the DRC and the Burkina Faso are different; still the desire to manipulate legal provisions in order to overstay in power is the same. And when people are fed up, they will take to the street.

I have often heard Congolese intellectuals claims that “we are not a subspecies of humans. We are fully capable of governing ourselves if they leave us the heck alone”. This statement represents a profound sense of frustration in the Congolese psyche, dating back to the time Leopold II owned and disposed of the Congo, its people and its riches as his private property. Since then the Congolese political reality has been heavily subjected to exogenous factors. Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba’s assassination, Mobutu Sese Seko serving the Cold War cause, Laurent Kabila acting like the show man for Paul Kagame and Yoweri Museveni, and now Joseph Kabila serving for the “stability” of the Great Lakes region at the expense of the Congolese people. It is pertinent to wonder if the next Congolese president will follow his/her (wishful thinking, the DRC is not ready for a female president yet) predecessors’ footsteps.

It is not impossible that Kabila stubbornly seeks a third term - I’d rather say a fourth term since Kabila has been leading the Congo for the last 13 years. But I believe there are strong indications that Kabila go on with this push: 1) He has no guts to openly trample Article 220 of the constitution, 2) he has failed to incite an “electoral sliding”, and 3) perhaps more importantly for Kabila, he his experiencing signs of political defections.

Kabila will not be able to mess with Article 220 of the Congolese constitution. Though often criticized for its lack of unity and backbone, the Congolese political opposition has done a colossal job of warning the Congolese people about the pertinence of Article 220. Political opposition leaders such as Victal Kamerhe have incessantly insisted that Article 220 is off limits in any conversation regarding constitutional revision. A president can only serve two terms, they have insisted.

“Electoral sliding” through a modification of the electoral law has forced radical resistance, as last week’s violent protests have shown. And more pertinently, important figures in Kabila’s political coalition are beginning to go against the grain. For instance there are credible rumors that the national deputy Francis Kalombo, a vocal supporter of Kabila and member of the political majority, has gone to exile in Europe, possibly France. Members of Kabila’s political party, the PPRD have been beaten and jailed for publicly speaking in support of the immutability of Article 220. And the most famous member of Kabila’s entourage, Moise Katumbi, a wealthy businessman, president of the legendary Congolese football team, Mazembe, and governor of Katanga, has publicly suggested distancing himself from Joseph Kabila.


In today’s Congolese politics Moise Katumbi is the most effective political leader. An accomplished businessman, Katumbi brought his managerial skills and experience to the region of Katanga. During his tenure roads have been paved, schools have been rehabilitated, the worn down Kasumbalesa border office, between Zambia and the Congo, has been transformed into an ultramodern administrative infrastructure for efficient processing of goods and people on the border. Based on his record Moise Katumbi would be a formidable presidential contender. Recently there had been allegations that Katumbi was poisoned; for three months or so he was abroad, supposedly undergoing medical treatment. When Katumbi returned home to his beloved Katanga in December 2014, speaking in public for the first time, he used a soccer analogy to describe his political positioning, or repositioning to be correct. Katumbi said that there had been two false penalties to which we did not react. Now they were seeking a third false penalty. “On this one we will react.” Most people, if not everybody, who follow Congolese politics interpreted Katumbi’s third penalty analogy as Kabila’s attempt to seek a third term, the two first false penalty being Kabila’s two terms, outcomes of controversial elections.

Another potential problem for Kabila is the conditional release of Jean-Pierre Bemba, the Congolese businessman turned rebel, senator, and vice-president on January 23, 2015. The International Criminal Court (ICC) indicted Jean-Pierre Bemba under the allegation that his troops, while soldering for Ange Felix Patase in the Central African Republic, had committed criminal acts, including allegations of cannibalism. While traveling to Portugal Jean-Pierre Bemba was arrested and jailed at The Hague. He was held responsible for crimes committed by his troops in a foreign land. While criminal acts were committed by Jean-Pierre Bemba’s troupes in the Central African Republic, I have always suspected that that the ICC, in its infinite wisdom and majestic selectivity, indicted Bemba to give leverage room to Joseph Kabila. The evidence used to jail Bemba is circumstantial at best, when compared, for example, to the trail of evidence linking Paul Kagame to atrocities committed both in Rwanda and in eastern Congo. Yet the ICC hasn’t indicted Paul Kagame. For me the release of Jean-Pierre Bemba is an indication that exogenous forces are once again at the center of the DRC political future. Without sounding conspirational, it is worth to assk: Is Jean-Pierre Bemba being released now just in time for him to join the debate about the 2016 presidential elections?

The DRC may not be ready for a civilian and ultra-nationalistic president. Considering the level of militarization of the country, the recent history of armed conflicts and the interest in the general stability of the African Great Lakes region, I am willing to bet my money on a candidate who has a military background and has shown minimal nationalistic inclination. A candidate like Jean-Pierre Bemba would fit the bill. Even though Moise Katumbi has the class and a business-like mind, I wonder whether he can withstand military factions in order to consolidate power.

The Congo is at a pertinent crossroads of its history. Since its independence in 1960, there has never been a peaceful regime transition. Joseph Kabila has the opportunity to set the Congo on the right path. Most Congolese hope that Kabila pronounces himself on the question of the 2016 presidential race. Hence, for Kabila the question is to run or not to run for 2016. Certainly this question is critical for Kabila’s political entourage, especially considering that in the Congo politics is largely a zero-sum game. Once powerful political contenders have lost they risk losing political relevance and the lofty advantages that come with it. What would they do if they lose? Will they break down in armed factions and seek to re-conquer power by force? What happens in Congolese politics in the next two years may have profound implications for the Great Lakes region. The Congo is at a critical crossroads of its history.

* Patrick Litanga is a Congolese PhD student at American University in Washington DC.



* Please do not take Pambazuka for granted! Become a Friend of Pambazuka and make a donation NOW to help keep Pambazuka FREE and INDEPENDENT!

* Please send comments to editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org or comment online at Pambazuka News.