Congo's violent kleptocracy at a crossroads

At fifteen minutes to midnight on New Year’s Eve, early fireworks went off in the Democratic Republic of Congo. These weren’t to celebrate another new year, but rather the signing of an agreement that, if implemented, paves the way for the country’s first ever peaceful, democratic transition of power.

Many months in the making, the deal was an important achievement. The agreement has many variables: President Joseph Kabila committed to not hold a referendum to change the constitution to allow him to run again; the opposition agreed to not hold up the deal because of the pending legal case of one of its main leaders, Moïse Katumbi; all agreed to hold elections in 2017; and the government agreed to drop charges against several, though not all, political prisoners.

Before looking forward to the difficult process of implementation, it’s important to look back for a moment to understand what allowed this deal to come together.

Congo’s Catholic bishops provided highly competent mediation, but the negotiations also needed to be ripened, as the parties did not always see it in their interest to come to agreement. This leverage came in local and international forms: determined activism by Congolese pro-democracy movements LUCHA, FILIMBI, and others, who continued demonstrations in the face of protest bans and arrests of their leaders; carefully escalated international pressure and elevated policy attention from the U.S. and Europe, in particular by coordinated targeted sanctions spearheaded by U.S. envoy Tom Perriello and Belgian envoy Renier Nijskens; regional diplomacy and pressure, in particular by Angola; compromises by the opposition and the government; and, in the U.S., a significantly larger bipartisan Congressional, activist, and NGO constituency for democratic change than had ever before been seen for Congo.

Senators Markey, Durbin, Flake, and Coons, and Representatives Chris Smith, Bass, Royce, and Engel deserve praise for keeping up the pressure.

This Congolese-U.S.-European coordination – along with the threat of even more biting financial pressure from the Obama administration, Europe, and Trump team advisors – gave Kabila little wiggle room to maneuver, and just before the midnight deadline on December 31st, produced a signed agreement.

Every indication, however, is that Kabila will obstruct implementation of the deal, and the reality is that the Congolese government has a long history of reneging on agreements by sowing confusion in the implementation phase. The accord effectively ends Kabila’s political future, and it leaves his powerful family, business allies, and military top brass, many of whom have profited personally from lucrative illicit natural resource deals, in a state of limbo. Insiders to the talks say that Kabila’s team was thrown off by Katumbi’s last-minute gambit to not hold up the signing. Kabila is reportedly now unhappy with his negotiators for caving on his top issue: holding a referendum to change the constitution.

Excuses by the Congolese government as to why the accord cannot be implemented will likely include that it wasn't inclusive enough, that it violates the constitution in some way, and that an "implementation agreement" still needs to be negotiated. Congolese officials have already begun to issue statements along these lines. Kabila could also declare a state of emergency, arguing that conflict in eastern Congo is escalating and preventing democratic reform from taking place.

Going forward, it is critically important that the United States, Europe, and Congolese civil society hold the Congolese government and opposition to the main benchmarks they agreed to, and escalate financial and legal pressure against those who do not stick to them.

Five benchmarks are worth noting. First, the parties need to agree on an election day, and then adopt a realistic timetable for organizing the process.

They need to quickly decide on which elections will be held in 2017 (presidential, legislative, and/or local) and start the voter roll update.

Presidential elections are the priority, and experts have said the voter roll could be updated in 2017, but the presidency will likely try to delay these decisions and make excuses that there is not enough time to complete either task. They should also increase the transparency of the electoral process.

Second, the parties should soon set up an oversight committee for the accord. Members need to be chosen, and the parties need to lay out its precise authority.

Third, they should select a date for the change in prime ministers and transitional government. The opposition has chosen its candidate, and the government should now set a date in the near future for the handover.

Fourth, the legal cases of political prisoners/activists in exile must be resolved. The government must clear the charges of four key persons it agreed to, the bishops should continue their mediation on the other three cases, and the magistrate committee to deal with the other cases must be set up. Other LUCHA and FILIMBI activists should also be released. Fifth, the media that was shuttered must be re-opened. The government should now unblock the six Congolese media outlets and the signal of Radio France International that were shut down in 2016.

The international community breathed a sigh of relief that a deal was signed in Congo, but many in Congolese civil society express strong skepticism that the terms of the deal will not be fulfilled.

The U.S. and Europe played a critical role in the lead-up, and they must now stand ready to continue leveraging the process when needed, through anti-money laundering measures that would increase financial pressure, higher-level sanctions, and legal pressure.

Congo has been run as a violent kleptocracy for over a century, and that corrupt system ultimately must be dismantled for Congo to have a chance for long-term peace and stability. Implementing this agreement would be a good first step in that direction.