Painting by Cheri Samba

Lokuta eyaka na ascenseur, kasi vérité eyei na escalier mpe ekomi. Lies come up in the elevator; the truth takes the stairs but gets here eventually. - Koffi Olomide

Ésthetique eboma vélo. Aesthetics will kill a bicycle. - Felix Wazekwa

Monday, October 27, 2014

Who wants to change the Congolese constitution?

President Kabila has not confirmed it himself, but most Congolese today believe it to be true: The incumbent, in power since 2001––and democratically elected in 2006 and (controversially) in 2011–– would like to be able to stay on for another term. To do so, he would have to change the constitution, which, in Article 220, explicitly forbids tampering with presidential term limits. 

If he does want to change the term limits, he could either do through the legal avenue : having a joint session of the senate and national assembly approve the revision by a three-fifths majority––although this would be an obvious violation of Article 220. Or, as proponents of a revision have pointed out, by submitting a revision or an entirely new constitution to a popular referendum. Finally, he could simply circumvent the question by changing other articles in the constitution––the length of the mandate, for example, or how the president is elected (he could be appointed by parliament, as in Angola or South Africa)––and then say that he can serve for another two terms under this new dispensation.

However, the debate surrounding the constitutional revision has split the political elite. As Jean-Claude Muyambo, head of the SCODE political party and member of the president's camp, (over) states: "We can no longer speak of the majority and opposition, there are two camps: Those who say yes to changing the constitution and those who say no."

So who falls on either side?


First, I should say again that President Kabila himself has not come out in favor of a constitutional revision, and it appears that, in typical fashion, he is allowing the various political leaders hash it out before he makes a move. That hashing out has become increasingly acrimonious. 

The most vocal proponent of changing the constitution is Evariste Boshab, the head of Kabila's main political party, the PPRD. Boshab is also a constitutional lawyer and the author of the 2013 book, "Entre révision de la constitution et l'inanition de la nation," which its critics argue was a gambit in changing presidential term limits. Whereas Boshab a year ago said he had never challenged Article 220, he is now on the record as doing exactly that. 

Other political luminaries have stepped in the fray, as well: Théodore Mugalu, the head of President Kabila's "maison civile" (he administers Kabila's personal affairs) has taken to the airwaves and church lecterns (he is a protestant minister) to argue that the country needs a new constitution. Kin-Kiey Mulumba, the minister of telecommunications and ICT, has even launched a new association, "Kabila Désir"––it's slogan is, "Kabila, we still need you" (posa na yo nanu esili te). 

Some are much more cautious in their support, an indication of how delicate the subject has become––Richard Muyej, the current interior minister, has said that a revision of Article 220 would in theory be possible through a popular referendum, although he has not explicitly endorsed such a change. Others, like parliamentarian and Kabila ally Henri-Thomas Lokondo, have said that, since no official request for a constitutional revision has been made, people should stop debating a non-issue.

A rare voice from civil society in favor of changing Article 220 has been Monsignor Marini Bodho, the head of the Church of Christ in the Congo (ECC), the largest protestant association in the country. He argues that as society changes, so must also the laws that govern it. Marini was the president of the senate during the 2003 to 2006 transition and is widely considered to be close to Kabila. 


The voices opposing a constitutional revision are far more numerous and louder. They include the Catholic Church, whose Cardinal Monsengwo has entered the political fray in a major way, asking through the Congolese Episcopal Conference for all church leaders across the country to oppose any change to Article 220. The Catholic Church is divided––as the debate of the 2011 election fiasco showed––but so far no other major cleric has countered Monsengwo's call. 

Numerous Congolese civil society groups across the country––including in Kabila's home province of Katanga––have chimed in, as well. After a seminar in Kinshasa in early September, 650 non-profits (including most of the biggest Congolese NGOs) signed a statement opposing any constitutional revision that would "jeopardize the accomplishments made in the consolidation of democracy and rule of law." Not without a sense of irony, they quoted Boshab himself in arguing against a referendum, saying that referenda often end up as plebiscites over the person asking the question rather than the question itself. Most recently, the famous fistula surgeon Dr Denis Mukwege––the recent winner of the European Union's Sakharov Prize––has come out against the constitutional revision, as well. 

Of course, the political opposition has made much hay out of a potential revision––Martin Fayulu and Vital Kamerhe launched a coalition of opposition parties called "Don't Touch My Constitution!" (although the two have since fallen out), and opposition stalwarts like Jean Claude Mvuemba and Felix Tshisekedi mention the potential revision at every rally. 

Perhaps more troubling for Kabila is the discord that the question has stirred within his own political coalition. One of the largest political parties in that structure, the MSR of Pierre Lumbi, has called for an open debate over the matter, implying that it was not happy with Boshab's stance. A respected parliamentarian and lawyer, Christophe Lutundula, has argued that Article 220 represents everything the country has fought for since independence in 1960 and should not be changed. Other political parties leaders within the presidential coalition to have come out against a revision include Jean-Claude Muyambo, leader of SCODE and Modest Bahati, leader of AFDC. 

Finally, Léon Kengo wa Dondo, the current leader of the senate and former prime minister under Mobutu, opened the current session of the senate with a harsh indictment of any attempt to change crucial articles of the constitution. This came as a surprise, as Kengo is currently negotiating for his party to leave the opposition and enter into the much-delayed government of national cohesion.

On the international level, critics of constitutional revision have received support from the United States, in particular. US Special Envoy Russ Feingold came out strong against a revision of Article 220,   a position reinforced by statement made by Secretary of State John Kerry and Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, Linda Thomas Greenfield. The new UN Special Envoy, Said Djinnit, agrees, as do the other special envoys Koen Vervaeke (European Union) and Boubacar Diarra (African Union), albeit less vociferously. 

Nonetheless, a recent Jeune Afrique article quotas Kabila's itinerant Ambassador Séraphin Ngwej as saying: "What our counterparts say during the day, they don't repeat at night. Once the microphones are turned off, the speech changes." In private, some Kabila allies speculate that the bark of those diplomats will be much worse than their bite. "After all, what will they do? Cut humanitarian aid? Withdraw their peacekeeping mission?" One told me. 

In sum, the potential revision of presidential term limits is quickly becoming the biggest political battle in the Congo, and perhaps the biggest challenge President Kabila has faced. So far, he has few allies if he choses to go down that road. His biggest asset would be the fear of those in power that there is no heir apparent, and that their interests would not be guaranteed if Kabila steps down. As for the opponents of a revision, the question is: Can they muster the leverage needed––either through street protest or international sanction––to prevent such a move?

1 comment:

blaise said...

I wonder if MP's calculations have just changed after Burkina Faso's development. My take is that no one want to be prosecute by the ICC for shooting at civilians.

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