DR Congo opposition protests delay in elections, extension of term limits

Monday November 2 2015

By GAÏUS KOWENE, TEA Special Correspondent

On a sunny morning, protesters stand outside the offices of the National Independent Electoral Commission, known by its French acronym Ceni, singing songs with messages that oppose President Joseph Kabila’s term in office.

“We came to tell the world that the democratic process in the Democratic Republic of Congo is threatened and request Ceni to urgently publish an electoral calendar,” screams a skinny man in a white T-shirt and sunglasses.

This is Christian Badose, the spokesman of the coalition of opposition political parties in North Kivu Province.

A few metres behind him, a group of police officers block the entrance to the avenue, preventing more people from joining the sit-in.

Local elections

The local elections that had been scheduled for last Sunday, October 25 didn’t take place. This is what fuels Mr Badose’s wrath. Like many other opposition parties, Mr Badose accuses the current power elite of manipulating the electoral commission, with the aim of extending the president’s term.

“Some people in the government are afraid of elections and are pressuring Ceni to stop the electoral process. Ceni should stop playing this farce” says Mr Badose, leading to anti-third term songs, under a multitude of opposition flags.

The government has rejected the accusation.

A few days earlier, the international community raised similar concerns. In a press conference organised last weekend in the eastern town of Goma, US Under-Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, Sarah Sewall, was clear. In a firm voice, she declared: “I am here on the behalf of the United States to urge concrete progress towards elections.”

To ensure credible and transparent elections, Ms Sewall advocated respect for fundamental freedoms and human rights throughout the electoral process.

While encouraging all parties not to use violence, she emphasised: “It is critical that the government refrains from targeting those who have the aim of expressing their beliefs peacefully.”

Regarding finance, the National Independent Electoral Commission originally submitted a budget of about $1 billion. Several months later, the government reduced this budget to $900 million.

Apart from funds allocated to the electoral process in DRC’s 2014 and 2015 budgets, the US has already released $25 million for the organisation and promises to add another $5 million for security during elections.

However, Ceni denies being under any pressure from the current rulers. It attributes the delay in implementing the current electoral calendar to a decision the Constitutional Court made on September 8.

Sitting in his office on the second floor of a colonial-era building, Akilimali Raphael, head of Ceni in North Kivu province, said that the entire situation is under control.

According to him, this delay should surprise no one. He explained, “When we realised that the law allocating seats for urban and local elections wasn’t promulgated when planned, we issued a statement expressing the need to reassess the electoral calendar.”

He said  that his institution is evaluating the electoral calendar and trying to adapt it to new developments on ground.

But recently, DRC’s 11 provinces were split into 26, a measure that came with obligations that also delayed the implementation of the electoral calendar. “We cannot hold elections for governors in 21 new provinces without any of them having an office of the provincial parliament. There have to be internal regulations for each province” said Mr Akilimali.

He called on the opposition to be patient as the electoral commission is “fixing everything.” At the same time, he said he remained open to constructive ideas.

But Christian Badose, said he feared possible consequences such as delay in organising the 2016 presidential elections. He warned: “If the new electoral calendar does not culminate in a democratic change of power in 2016, Congo will fall into a serious crisis. We must prevent that from happening.”

With a population of nearly 70 million people, the DRC held its first democratic elections in 2006, which were won by President Joseph Kabila. After his five-year term renewable only once, he again won the second elections in 2011, amid controversy over fraud denounced at the time by the Carter Centre.

Attempt to change constitution

In January this year, an attempt to change the country’s constitution to allow President Kabila to run for a third term, aborted after a week of intense protests that claimed the lives of 15 people, according to the government, and 42 according to the International Federation for Human Rights.

Although he officially never asked for a third term, people close to President Kabila’s circle publicly argue that he should remain in power after December 2016.

Delaying and complicating the electoral process could easily lead to this goal, without even changing the constitution or organising a referendum.