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Talk or Walk? Navigating Competing Imperatives

The dialogue politique, which began on September 1st in Kinshasa, succeeded in dividing the Congolese political class even before the talks began. Currently the 280 delegates to the dialogue include: the ruling coalition; part of the opposition; part of civil society; and “eminent personalities.” But that doesn’t say much––the dialogue has sowed chaos amid the political scene splitting opposition parties and civil society organizations. For example:

  • Two of the leaders of Vital Kamerhe’s UNC party have jumped ship and resigned their party positions (Claudel Lubaya and Jean-Bertrand Ewanga);
  • Several prominent civil society activists (Jerome Bonso and Jonas Tshiombela) have been accused of opportunism by their colleagues for joining the talks;
  • Six members of the MLC party are in attendance, defying their party leadership. The same goes for several prominent UDPS dissidents: Samy Badibanga, Albert Moleka and Bruno Mavungu (who created his own party just days before the dialogue began).

For now the dialogue is barely still on the rails. The Catholic Church issued a statement, saying that it would only continue to participate if the dialogue is inclusive and if targeting of political opponents ceased. The statement was vague, but if the church withdraws, it would be a major blow to any legitimacy the talks still have. The other main supporter of the talks is the international community––indeed, the International Support Group (EU, UN, AU, ICGLR, OIF, SADC) is part of facilitation for the talks. However, here too one can detect some wavering. The EU ambassador in Kinshasa suggested that the credibility of the dialogue would be compromised if it does not become more inclusive.

This is not to say that the talks are stalled. In the few days they have been meeting, despite the cacophony and acrimony, delegates have heard presentations making clear that it is impossible to hold elections within the constitutional timeframe. According to various election experts (and our report here), even if the election commission keeps the current voter registry, it will take them over 100 days to organize elections, which puts us well into December 2016. And a few areas of convergence are coming together: the government appears to be ready to say publicly that Kabila will not be a candidate in the upcoming elections, effectively bringing an end to the third term debate.

Of course, there is plenty of room for cynicism: even as the government has released some political prisoners, it has arrested others. There has been no agreement on how to render the electoral process itself more transparent. And it is very obvious that many participants (including one of the leaders of the ruling coalition here, but also some opposition leaders in private) in the dialogue are hoping for there to be a power-sharing coming out of the talks that would allow the to have a seat in government, resulting in a cumbersome and expensive arrangement that would have an interest in dragging out the transition as long as possible.

On balance, I think that talks are necessary. While it is true that the government is responsible for engineering delays in the electoral process, the process is so flawed that we need talks to fix it. Not just the voting registry, which contains 1,6 million dead people and is missing 7 million people who have come of voting age since 2011, but also the process itself: the election commission, the courts, and the media regulator are all politically biased. (Again, see our report here.)

Even members of the opposition––including the UDPS and the G7, the backbone of the Rassemblement––recognize in private that there should be talks. The question is when. These parties feel that there need to be more concessions before they can sit down with the government. Their list of demands, published on September 1st to coincide with the opening of the dialogue, is long. It includes freeing political prisoners and opening shuttered opposition media outlets. I would wager, however, that the crux is this: Moise Katumbi, the former deep-pocketed governor of Katanga who was sentenced in absentia in a highly dubious civil case in June this year. He is seen as the biggest challenge for Joseph Kabila’s coalition, which is therefore unlikely to reverse its decision.

Which means that the next few weeks will see an interesting, and potentially violent, mix of talking and walking, negotiations and protests. The Rassemblement is currently planning nationwide protests for September 19, the date on which the election commission should have initiated elections, and in the middle of the UN General Assembly in New York. Let’s see what happens.