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Will he stay or will he go? Mixed messages from President Kabila

With exactly five months left in his term, President Joseph Kabila appears as a man unsure of what he wants, except perhaps more time to figure out what he wants.

As a reminder, his constitutional term ends on December 19 this year. But Kabila and his entourage has been ambiguous after what their intentions are. As a reminder, here are some of their statements:

  •  “I have given my word of honor in promulgating this constitution that I would not touch it. Power wears you out. You have to know when to step down.” (Joseph Kabila, 2007)
  • “I will repeat what President Kabila told us: In 2016, there will be a civilized passing of the torch between an incoming and outgoing president. There will not be more than two consecutive mandates.” (Lambert Mende, minister of communication, 2014)
  • “One can’t change the inviolable (intangibles) dispositions of the constitution. Article 220 [that limits the number of presidential terms]is inviolable. President Kabila will leave after the next elections.” (Aubin Minaku, president of the national assembly, 2013)

So far, that’s pretty clear. However:

  • “If a constitution cannot change to adapt itself to the socio-political realities, one should expect sclerosis and political stagnation.” (Evariste Boshab, secretary-general of the PPRD, 2013)
  •  “Any constitution can be revised. It is the people who ultimately hold sovereign power. For any question, small or large, that requires changing the laws of the Republic, that requires changing the constitution, we will submit these to Congress or to the people for a referendum. We aim to keep power and will will do everything to stay in power by the means of the ballot box.” (Aubun Minaku, president of the national assembly, 2014) 
  • “Pay attention! The day is coming, and that day is not far off, when the sovereign people will decide, and we will all bow to its will. If the people decides to hold a referendum, it will do it. The people of Congo-Brazzaville did it, the Rwandan people did it, the Burundian people did it.” (Henri Mova Sakanyi, secretary-general of the PPRD, June 2016)

That last statement, made at a rally in Kinshasa celebrating Kabila’s 45th birthday, caused a lot of commotion. (The audience was quoted as shouting “there will not be elections!”) Shortly afterwards, Kabila went on a tour of the eastern Congo, culminating in independence day celebrations in Kindu. The president was greeted in Kalemie and Kindu with signs enjoining him to prolong his mandate––”The Province of Tanganyika Welcomes President Joseph Kabila and Supports a Referendum” read one very large one. In Kindu, people chanted “Zidi kudumu” (stay on).

Kabila himself, however, has been much more circumspect, telling his audience in Kalemie that there will indeed be elections, but refusing to address the question of his own political future.

Then, last week, the president sent his special envoy Kikaya bin Karubi to Washington, DC to mend fences with the US government, which had imposed sanctions (a travel ban and assets freeze) against Kinshasa Police Inspector Céléstin Kanyama on June 23. Kikaya met with State Department officials, including Assistant Secretary of State Linda Thomas-Greenfield. He was quoted in the press as saying that Kabila will “eventually step down,” but that elections cannot be held this year due to delays in the electoral process. In his private meetings, Kikaya was more explicit, saying that Kabila will not seek a third term and will stand down as soon as elections are held.

Who should we believe? And why has there been so much back-and-forth within the president’s camp? If Kabila had categorically made up his mind not to change the constitution, one would not have seen Mova rousing the crowds in Kinshasa with talk of a 3rd term, or see 40 x20 meter large banners flown to Kalemie to exhort Kabila to hold a referendum. It is more likely, and in line with Kabila’s style of leadership that Kabila has not yet made up his mind about what he will do, and is floating various test balloons, catering to different audiences––soft-peddling with western diplomats while going hard to popular audiences––with different messengers.

The American audience has been unforgiving. During Kikaya’s visit to Washington, US Congress decided to vote another resolution, this one asking the government to expand their sanctions to “core figures in the government” if they “undermine democratic processes or institutions.” While this bill was largely symbolic, as the government had plenty of leeway to impose sanctions under Executive Order 13617. But it was a clear bipartisan expression of a policy toward the Congo, dispelling the notion, held by some in Kinshasa, that a Trump presidency would bring reprieve.