- By Robbie GramerRobbie Gramer is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. He writes for The Cable, FP’s real-time take on all things, well, foreign policy. Before he joined FP in 2016, he used to think in a tank, managing the NATO portfolio at the Atlantic Council for three years. He’s a graduate of American University’s School of International Service, where he studied international relations and European affairs. He has lived in both Washington and Brussels, though he grew up in Idaho and Oregon, so he’s a West Coaster at heart. When he’s not busy reporting, he’s probably busy starting three new books before he has finished the last one or planning a trip to a national park he hasn’t visited yet.
A last-ditch political deal in the Democratic Republic of Congo could avert a brewing crisis, but the window of opportunity is closing fast. On Friday, the DRC’s ruling party, under President Joseph Kabila, met with opposition political groups to try and broker a transition of power, after Kabila refused to leave office.
The leaders agreed at least in principle to a deal, but sources close to the negotiations tell Foreign Policy the sides have reached an impasse that could scupper a final agreement.
Protests against Kabila, whose term legally expired on Monday, have been relatively small but violent. A brokered deal may be the last, best hope to avoid what many fear will be a nationwide surge of protests and violence.
The apparent impasse in talks, according to a person in close contact with the negotiators, is over who wields what power in the interim period before Kabila steps down. At the negotiating table on Friday, Kabila reportedly pushed to keep full presidential powers until he steps down and keep the opposition prime minister subservient to the presidency, and refused to commit to a specific date for leaving.
The opposition is pushing for Kabila to cede certain presidential powers during the transition and commit to a specific date to give up office. The ball is in Kabila’s court now, says the source, because the opposition feels it has gone as far as it can.
Kabila previously pledged to step down in 2018 and appoint an opposition leader prime minister, but the opposition and senior U.S. officials say that’s not enough.
The Congolese conference of Catholic bishops, which is mediating the political dialogue, says it hopes to have a deal struck by Christmas Eve.
At least 40 were killed and nearly 500 arrested in protests against the government this week — but experts say it could have been worse. “Overall, the protests have been fairly muted because many people are still holding out hope for the Catholic mediation effort,” said Sasha Lezhnev, an expert on the DRC with the Enough Project, a non-profit conflict research organization.
Given the country’s fragile political stability and Kabila’s penchant for clinging to power, some worry whether any deal, if one is ever finalized, will actually stick.
“People are skeptical of what the government will do if there is a deal,” Sylvain Saluseke, a leader for the Congolese opposition group Lutte pour le Changement (LUCHA), told FP in an interview on Thursday. “We’re dealing with people whose intentions are to stay in power no matter what.”
If there’s no deal, Kabila will face international and domestic backlash. The United States and European Union have slapped sanctions on top members of Kabila’s cohort in recent weeks. France warned it will target Kabila and his family next if he shuns his constitutional mandate to step down, and the United States is likely to follow suit if a deal isn’t struck by Christmas Eve, one source in close contact with the State Department told FP. Neighboring countries such as Angola worry that Kabila’s clinging to power could destabilize the DRC and spill across the border. From 1994 to 2003, a conflict in the DRC known as “Africa’s first world war” for its involvement of neighboring countries claimed some 5 million lives.
And Congolese opposition parties are planning on taking to the streets in full force if they feel Kabila is stalling on a deal. If the protests turn violent — especially worrisome given government security forces’ bloody crackdowns in the past — experts warn that hopes for a deal could evaporate for good.
“If there’s going to be a soft landing, it’s now,” Dr. Peter Pham, Atlantic Council’s Africa Center director, told FP. “The onus is on Kabila to do the right thing and take the soft landing.” He said that while Christmas may bring a respite for the overwhelmingly Christian nation, public unrest “will come back with a vengeance after Christmas.”
Mounting pressure may force Kabila to relent. “If the international community escalates the financial pressure, and Kabila sees that it’s in his interest to take Congo back from the edge, there’s a decent likelihood we could see a credible deal come soon,” Lezhnev said.
Saluseke, who was detained for two months in 2015 after protesting, says many protesters expect arrest and police abuse even if they protest peacefully. “We know the danger of being rearrested is there,” he said. “But we just want to see a different Congo one day,” he added. “That is what is driving us despite the worries. We want to see change.”
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