Congolese mathematics: Kabila, elections, and the slide rule of dialogue and duress

The ultimate insight into DRC's power gamble ahead of the electoral storm: President Kabila's silence seen is seen as coquetry of a strongman by some

IN his excellent fiction about the political bargain in a pre-electoral Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), writer Jean Bofane describes how a young Congolese self-made-man fascinated by math formulas rises to the heights of the presidential spin doctors. The novel’s title is “Mathematiques Congolaises” and it speaks abundantly to the country’s current power gamble, amidst a bleak record of political stability during the past twenty years.

Two big wars and a smouldering conflict still flaring up, the DRC’s auspices for a smooth electoral season are choppy. Both the 2006 and the 2011 elections were followed by a more or less intimately-linked rise in armed mobilisation – culminating in the rebellions of CNDP and M23, respectively. 

Now, again, parts of eastern DRC are more “swamps of insecurity” than the UN’s attempted “islands of stability”: around Beni, scores of massacres have diluted the least modicum of human security, while ongoing military operations against the FDLR, the last remnants of the Rwandan rebel forces that crossed over after the 1994 genocide, set fire to a highly volatile security situation. 

Kabila looks to linger

15 years in power, President Joseph Kabila is supposed to leave office at the end of the year. However, four months into 2016 it’s becoming doubtful whether DRC’s logistic capacities will meet the requirements of an ambitious poll schedule. Repetitive politicking around electoral technicalities is about to turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy on the glissement, as Congolese refer to the sliding of the electoral calendar.

In September 2015, DRC’s Constitutional Court called upon the independent national electoral commission (CENI) to revise the electoral schedule. The commission itself is just coming out a painful process of revamping its leadership and, as a high-level official said on condition of anonymity, “no one here has a clue whether or not we will have elections anytime soon”. On November 28, finally, Kabila announced the preparation of a “national dialogue”, launching cryptic statements with regards to financing, voter registration, and electoral mode.

With local elections overdue, CENI had aimed for provincial, gubernatorial, and senate elections early 2016, followed by parliamentary and presidential ones. At the same time, DRC rolls out its most ambitious administrative reform in decades, multiplying the provinces from 11 to 26. Under its new head Corneille Nangaa, CENI ran gubernatorial elections in 20 of the 21 newly refurbished provincettes on 26 March: a landslide government victory in all but five provinces was overshadowed by the a priori exclusion of opposition candidates.

Term limits and political wrangles

Debates over presidential term limits in Africa remain heated: in Burundi, Pierre Nkurunziza created a violent fait accompli followed by deadly confrontation between security forces and opposition groups. In Uganda, where term limits were abolished in 2005, Yoweri Museveni just won widely criticised polls. Denis Sassou-Nguesso successfully changed the constitution in Congo-Brazzaville and won subsequent elections, while Paul Kagame is on his way for a renewed bid since Rwandans overwhelmingly endorsed constitutional amendments. Yet, in DRC things may not be as easy.

From Human Rights Watch to numerous Congolese opposition parties and a new generation of civil society actors known as “Lucha”, Kabila is under fire for clinging to power. In two serious blows, former government stalwarts known as the “G7 group” and ex-Katanga governor Moise Katumbi have left Kabila’s camp. 

 DRC nationals demonstrate outside Luthuli House on December 5, 2011 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo by Foto24/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

Government spokesperson Lambert Mende, a seasoned mathematician in Bofane’s terms, immediately denounced the G7’s “auto-exclusion” and Katumbi’s “ingratitude”. In response, the government savvily weakened the group by dividing some of its parties and thereby multiplying small splinter parties adhering the government camp.

The rapid succession of these revolts and the Catholic church’s criticism recalibrates the equation of Congolese mathematics: with Katumbi’s candidacy more a question of “when than of whether”, in particular since he was nominated by the G7 bloc around Olivier Kamitatu and Pierre Lumbi on March 30, 2016. Other opposition heavyweights like Vital Kamerhe or Etienne Tshisekedi’s crumbling UPDS party may prioritise an own bid or coalition-building.

Will Kabila run or not?

Kabila himself is yet to clarify whether he will be leaving office, while his die-hart allies, in the meantime, are consumed by crisis diplomacy. Summit after summit, the presidential entourage gathers in Kingakati, a proverbial shadow “state house”. 

With the president’s silence seen as coquetry of a strongman by some, Kinshasa insiders suggest that immunity (including family assets) seem to be vital to the president. However, recent real estate acquisitions in DRC’s eastern parts and elsewhere – hard to dislodge in case he would (have to) leave DRC at some point – cast an additional doubt over his intentions.

In case he decides to step down, a wonderful elder statesman future might wait: National hero, lifetime senator, and appointments as UN or AU special envoy, or simply being a wealthy farmer in the lush hills of the Kivus. 

But who would assume the legacy of the (political) family? Loyal aides like minister of interior Evariste Boshab, national assembly president Aubin Minaku, or intelligence chief Kalev Mutondo are said to be at odds with each other. Family members like Jaynet or Zoe Kabila (national MP’s) may raise suspicion of dynastic succession. Any opposition candidate, though, would intensify the security dilemma for Kabilist property.

Dialogue: what elections will take place when?

In his speech calling for a “national dialogue”, Kabila confirmed what many argued were the central obstacles to elections: insufficient funds, challenging logistics, risks of violence, and – perhaps the most central condition – no up-to-date voters lists.

How legitimate can representation be if most citizens below 27 years are excluded, representing around two thirds of the entire population? Yet, these arguments keep being refuted by human rights organisations and foreign diplomats who, claim that elections are still feasible within the constitutional limits.

In the meantime, Kinshasa remains stubborn: Dialogue is the way towards progress in electoral planning. The president’s call was heard, but will it be responded? The G7, Kamerhe, Katumbi, Tshisekedi, and other opposition leaders refuse. Under the label Front Citoyen 2016 many of them co-created an umbrella architecture that teams up with various civil society actors. Some savvy politicians oscillate over the issue, calculating their own positioning in view of potential returns and results.

With all that political brinkmanship and manoeuvring, presidential elections could simply not take place at all in 2016. The CENI calculates 18 months for the revision of the voter registry, seen by many as a sine-qua-non to organise credible polls. 

Voices within the ruling majority have begun to propagate a “reasonable delay” coupled with a transition period (whose length varies depending on whom you talk to). Behind closed doors, Western diplomats drop their pants and confess that, ultimately, their governments may employ little concrete leverage if glissement happened without significant violence.

However, if rumblings over a constitutional amendment by referendum or a transition period invoked in a façade dialogue will materialise, this could present a major readjustment of Kinshasa’s political equation. The 16 February ville morte show-off has, even if not successful to a 100%, sent a visible signal as to the opposition’s capacity to mobilise and the people’s eagerness for constitutional respect.

Mathematics is complex science

Much like the spin-doctors that protagonist Célio Matemona’s encounters in Jean Bofane’s fine-grained and hyper-realistic fiction, the real-life advisers and emissaries on DRC’s political marketplace somersault in their tactics and calculations to preserve political power. 

If it had not been written as early as 2008, it may just serve as scripted reality for the current backdoor rumblings craving to forge coalitions and foster tactics on all sides of the Congolese political equation.

As government loyalists frantically seek alternative alliances, the majority’s inner circle is fiddling about other strategies, not necessarily excluding force. Various Kabila allies have begun talking much more openly about postponing presidential elections – a theme also readily taken up by many loyalist newspapers. The opposition in turn is – traditionally – far from unified: a tattered party landscape and overlapping personal ambitions overshadows their unison call for popular upheaval. 

One or two smart tricks carrying the handwriting of Celio Matemona, could render any united bloc even less probable: as a freshly recruited communication adviser in Bofane’s novel, he masterfully uses public broadcasters to throw misleading propaganda into Kinshasa’s notorious “radio trottoir”, the proverbial rumour mill that DRC’s sidewalks and public places are.

However, this time even the virtuous masters of DRC’s politics may end up miscalculating their equation as variables continue to add up to exponentially complex Congolese mathematics. In its resolution 2277, the UN Security Council has joined the choir of concern over election delays and lack of political space, refusing to respond to DRC’s request to scale down its peacekeeping mission MONUSCO. Kinshasa is up for a turbulent poll season, whether or not presidential elections will actually take place in 2016.

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