Following two years of uncertainty, the President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Joseph Kabila, has finally confirmed that he will not stand for re-election on 23 December 2018. This declaration is in line with constitutional requirements that impose a two-term limit on DRC presidents. Kabila has now been in power for 17 years, as his second term officially ended in 2016. Since then, the country’s presidential election has been frequently delayed, leading to allegations that Kabila is working to maintain power. The delays have also resulted in violence – in September 2016, dozens of anti-Kabila demonstrators were killed when government forces repressed protests. Running in Kabila’s place, a spokesperson announced, is former interior minister Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, a staunch supporter of the governing coalition.
Kabila’s announcement has drawn international commendation. US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert addressed the news, saying that “the ruling coalition’s announcement of a consensus candidate other than President Kabila represents a significant step forward for Congolese democracy.” Furthermore, a joint statement from the US, European Union, African Union, and the UN mission to Congo noted that Kabila’s announcement has soothed widespread fears of mounting turmoil in the DRC. The statement “[applauded] the decision by President Joseph Kabila to respect the Congolese constitution,” adding that this “constitutes a key stage on the path towards the first peaceful change of power in the DRC.” However, the group carefully qualified the applause, calling for “transparent, peaceful and inclusive” elections moving forward.
The fact that Kabila will respect the spirit and word of the constitution is surely a positive step forward for a nation that has endured man-made chaos for decades. But what kind of legacy is Kabila leaving behind as his tenure comes to an end? Opponents say Kabila’s time in power is badly tainted, while others celebrate a leader who did what he could to unite a hugely disconnected country under circumstances of unprecedented difficulty. Martin Fayulu, presidential hopeful and leader of the Commitment for Citizenship and Development Party, criticized Kabila, saying, “today, we don’t have any security. There is no peace. He has scattered the country.” He also stated that “Kabila’s legacy is that DRC is in shambles… Kabila’s legacy is poverty. Congolese have become poorer, there are no jobs… DRC has become a weak country.” In contrast, presidential diplomatic adviser Kikaya Bin Karubi argued that “if there is one thing that the president did, to begin with, is to unify the country. When he took over in 2001… we had a vast territory with six foreign armies and more than 20 armed groups roaming around the country. He brought everybody, including the international community, to the table for an inclusive process that helped get back our country.”
The reality is that the DRC still has a long way to go on its road to accessible democracy, as well as peace and security for its nationals. 70% of the population lives below the poverty line, women endure some of the highest worldwide rates of sexual violence, and human rights have often been violated with impunity. The DRC’s history can make it hard to be optimistic, although Kabila’s announcement should be a sign of progress. It remains the responsibility of not just Kabila, but the entire government, opposition leaders, security forces, and local communities to ensure that democratic standards are upheld. In order to see positive changes, it is crucial that people are assured the freedom to exercise their voting rights during the upcoming election. If this does not occur, violence and unrest will undoubtedly escalate quickly.
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