As Congo election date nears, uncertainty prevails

African and U.S. officials in Washington puzzled over the precarious election situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The discussion, hosted by the Brookings Institution and moderated by Michael O’Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Washington-based think tank, was spurred by political uncertainty in the Central African country. The DRC’s Independent National Electoral Commission, as well as other officials, has acknowledged that the election scheduled for late November presidential won’t occur, citing an inability to register all voters before that date. But the county’s current president, Joseph Kabila, has hit the constitutionally mandated two-term limit.

The lack of a path forward could weaken the grip of democracy in a country still recovering from conflict at the end of the 20th century.

“Congo is roughly one month away from a full blown constitutional crisis,” panelist Anthony Gambino, a former USAID official said. “Congo should not be at this point.”

Other speakers, including Congolese Ambassador Francois Nkuna Balumuene and U.S Special Envoy Thomas Perriello, alternated between advocating respect for the country’s constitution, which spells out term limits, and ensuring stability in the second largest country by land mass and fourth largest by population on the continent.

Panelists disagreed on potential next steps, including expanding U.S and E.U. sanctions on high-level Congolese officials and facilitating a country-wide dialogue with current office-holders, opposition leaders and civil society groups.

Gambino and Perriello both criticized President Kabila, who has served since 2001, for not working to calm rising tensions. They repeatedly mentioned confidence-killing actions, like jailing youth activists, and the failure to renew the visa of well-known of a human rights worker based in the country.

The pair also condemned the president’s supporters for seeking to prevent the fall election. They said that although the international community can — and should — play a role in any solution, the Congolese people must lead the way. Wary of the country’s colonial past, Perriello especially emphasized this is not a case of Western powers, including the U.S., imposing their will.

“President Obama didn’t pull this issue of constitutional term limits out of thin air.” Perriello said. “Our policy is determined entirely by the Congolese constitution.”

Ambassador Balumuene, who has also served in diplomatic roles throughout Asia, came to the president’s defense. The 64-year-old, who does speak English, gave his remarks in French to avoid miscommunication. Balumeune said financial strain, caused by battles with a rebel group, M23, and dropping exports prices in commodities such as oil and copper, hindered election-planning. Stability, even under a third term by President Kabila, was preferable to a chaotic power transition that may occur if 45-year-old were to step down, he said.

“No one [in the opposition] is saying what should happen afterward,” Balumuene said. “They don’t give any solution for what happens next.”

While time is running out for a consensus to be reached, the panel remained cautiously optimistic. Kabila, for instance, could leave office and run again after someone else serves in the country’s top role. The constitution bars three consecutive president terms but puts no limit on a total.

“There’s an opportunity for everyone in this scenario to walk away a winner,” Perriello said. “[But] political uncertainty is rarely the ally of stability.”

Photo at top: U.N. Dispatch