NEW YORK — While world leaders gathered for the annual United Nations General Assembly this week, Congolese President Joseph Kabila was busy at home, urging for calm in the capital of Kinshasa.
Dozens of people were killed during two days of violent riots there this week after Kabila missed his own deadline to announce a date for the country’s indefinitely postponed presidential election. And on Thursday, U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein condemned the government’s harsh response to the protests, saying that government forces had taken an “extremely confrontational position.”
“Some civilians were killed by gunshots to the head or chest, and I strongly condemn the clearly excessive use of force by defense and security forces against demonstrators in the capital,” Hussein said.
Kabila has served as president since 2001, when his father, Laurent-Désiré, was assassinated by his own bodyguard. Kabila’s inner circle insists he doesn’t plan to violate constitutional term limits by running for president again, but his camp has also refused to announce a date for elections that would presumably shift him out of his seat.
In multiple conversations with Foreign Policy, Kabila’s top aide, Barnabé Kikaya-bin-Karubi, has cited the government’s 2012-2013 fight against M23 rebels in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s east as the reason for the delay. He said so much time and so many resources were allocated to fighting the Rwandan-backed rebellion in the country’s unstable eastern region that it became impossible to register voters and get organized in time for this year’s election. Critics say that is just an excuse to cover up Kabila’s attempts to stay in power.
This month, Kabila’s administration announced its plan for a power-sharing transitional government that will run the country between the end of his mandate and whenever the elections eventually take place. The catch? Kabila will still be president of the interim administration.
Kikaya said if Kabila hands the transitional government off to someone else, he would be violating the Congolese constitution, which requires him to stay in place until a new leader has been elected.
“The ‘airplane Congo’ needs a pilot, and there will continue to be a pilot until the new pilot is found, and the new pilot can only be found through the ballot box,” he told FP in an interview in Washington last week. To have Kabila step down, he added, would spark a power vacuum and lead to “instability and chaos in the Congo.”
Kikaya visited Washington and New York this past week in part to try to sell the plan to senior U.S. officials in the National Security Council, the State Department, and on Capitol Hill — and with regional partners at the U.N. General Assembly.
He said “officials in the United States have come to understand that President Kabila is still a key player in terms of assuring that the Congo remains stable.”
Tensions over the elections have grown since American officials began threatening sanctions against anyone who stands in the way of the democratic process in Congo. This week, State Department officials expressed concern over the Congolese government’s unwillingness to stick to a date for its elections: State spokesman John Kirby said in a statement that the United States is “disappointed” by the delay and “deeply alarmed by reports of violence that occurred alongside civic protests” in Kinshasa. Kirby said the violence only solidified the government’s need to organize elections as soon “as technically feasible, and guaranteeing the country’s first democratic transition of power.”
In his conversation with FP, Kikaya said that’s what Kabila wants, too.
“It will be a novelty to have a change of leadership through elections, unlike what happened in the Congo in the past, which was always through civil war or through revolutions or through chaos or through bloodshed,” he said.
But according to the country’s term limits, Kabila should be prepared to step down as soon as Dec. 19, 2016 — prompting suspicion that the long-serving president is purposely stalling the elections as his camp announced he would also head the newly suggested transitional body.
In the meantime, human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have accused Kinshasa of cracking down on activist networks to silence opponents’ complaints about the slow electoral process. HRW has also pointed to Congo’s expulsion of Ida Sawyer, the watchdog group’s American researcher who spent more than eight years working in Congo, as evidence that the Congolese government is trying to avoid reporting on human rights violations.
Kikaya initially said Sawyer was only asked to leave because she was found carrying two work permits in her passport at the same time. He accused Sawyer of doing so to ensure that when her first permit expired, the next one would immediately kick in. Instead, Congolese officials took away the second permit and forced her to leave the country a month later, when the older one expired.
“It has nothing to do with politics or anything, she just had an immigration problem,” Kikaya said in Washington. But when pushed to explain why her work permit was not renewed, the top Kabila aide admitted Sawyer’s work permit was just “the drop that made the vase overflow” and that the Congolese government believes she was no longer objective in her work at Human Rights Watch.
“If you stay in a place too long, you start developing acquaintances,” he said, comparing Sawyer’s position to that of a diplomat’s, and saying she should be transferred elsewhere but will not be welcome to work in Congo again. “Whether you like it or not, we are still human beings. It affects your work and its affects your capacity to have an objective point of view on a situation.”
Kikaya went on to say there are plenty of other people qualified to take over Sawyer’s job, and she should instead consider a career teaching or researching somewhere else, like in Rwanda.
“We are a sovereign nation, we have made a decision, please respect it,” he said. “What does it cost Human Rights Watch to appoint someone else?”
Sawyer told FP that over her lengthy tenure in Congo, she has researched abuses carried out both by the government and by rebel groups operating in Congolese territory, and is “deeply disappointed” that certain officials refused to allow her work in Congo to continue. Her expulsion, she said, is “a step that we see in the context of broader government repression against human rights activists and independent observers.”
Photo credit: EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP/Getty Images