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?

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Copycat Constitutional Revisionists

As readers will know, the DR Congo is currently embroiled in endless debate over a constitutional revision that dare not speak its name. While neither President Kabila nor his party have officially proposed to change the term limits included in the current constitution, we can safely assume that they are at the very least considering it.

As a reminder: Kabila, who has been in power since 2001, and has been twice elected to 5-year terms (2006-2011, 2011-2016), is bound by the current constitution to stand down in 2016. Not only does Article 70 of the constitution say that the president has to step down after two terms, but Article 220 explicitly prohibits any revision of those term limits.

While some members of Kabila's inner circle and presidential majority have already come out in favor of a revision of those term limits––none more vociferously than the head of his PPRD political party, Evariste Boshab––many others both among among the president's allies and the opposition have opposed it. (A list of those positions will be posted here soon).

But the Congo is not the only country facing this problem––many of its peers in Africa are debating similar revisions, and the results elsewhere will certainly have an impact on the Congo. (Listen to Senegalese civil society activist Fadel Barro on this topic here).

  • Republic of the Congo: President Denis-Sassou Nguesso, in power between 1979-1992 and again since 1997, will finish his term in August 2016. After that, he, like Kabila, is limited by Article 57 to step down, and according to Article 185 of the same constitution, the number of presidential terms cannot be revised (he is also too old to stand for another term, according to Article 58). However, he has said: "In any case, the constitution, if it has to be changed, has to be changed through a popular referendum. And if there is a popular referendum, I don't see which is the force of democracy that could be disappointed by the popular will expressed through a referendum;"
  • Burundi: President Pierre Nkurunziza is in a slightly different situation––he will have completed his second term in August 2015. However, the Burundian constitution is slightly ambiguous: it says the president is elected by a popular vote to two terms of five years. Nkurunziza was elected to his first term by the national assembly, and so argues he has only served one of his two constitutionally-allowed terms;
  • Burkina Faso: Only yesterday, the burkinabé interior minister said that President Blaise Compaoré, in power since 1987, would seek to change the constitution so he could have another term. He currently would have to step down in 2015;
  • Rwanda: President Paul Kagame, who has officially been in power since 2003, will have completed the two seven-year terms allowed by the constitution in 2017. It is telling that debate about a constitutional revision has already been raging, a good three years ahead of the end of his term. This week, three smaller parties––all allied to the ruling RPF––came out in favor of a constitutional revision, while Kagame himself has said: "I don't know of any country where the constitution is immutable;"
If Kabila tries to stay, he would be in notorious company: Eleven countries in Africa have tried to revise the term limits in their constitutions––seven have succeeded (Burkina Faso, Chad, Togo, Namibia, Uganda, Guinea, and Gabon) while four have failed (Nigeria, Zambia, Malawi, and Senegal). 

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

String of massacres reportedly kills over 80 around Beni

Over the past month, over 80 civilians have been killed in Beni territory of North Kivu, civil society organizations report. Most point the finger at the Ugandan Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) rebels, who have been based in this area––their main redoubt was in the Ruwenzori mountains along the border with Uganda––since 1995. The attacks have displaced over 30,000 people, according to a United Nations source, and many of the victims, including young children, were hacked to death with machetes and hatchets.

This is by far the worst spate of violence in recent months in the Congo––for comparison, during the nineteen months of the M23 rebellion, the UN reported 116 fatalities at the hands of those rebels. And yet, many questions remain about these recent killings.

ADF attacks over last month (red); ADF base of operations pre-2014 (blue polygon); ADF Kamango attack December 2013 (blue)
A few facts are clear: Following their defeat of the M23 in November 2013, the Congolese army launched a large offensive against the ADF on 16 January, 2014. These operations––which were controversial, as the UN peacekeeping mission wanted to prioritize operations against the FDLR––allowed the Congolese government to take back ADF strongholds that had been occupied for years. The Congolese army declared victory on March 13, 2014, when the army destroyed their last military base in the Ruwenzori mountains.

Fighting was very heavy, and the Congolese army suffered at least 217 fatalities in this period. The Congolese government initially said they killed 531 rebels during those operations. A UN official I spoke to yesterday suggested that the figures of ADF killed cited by the Congolese were now around 700, a figure that Uganda authorities deem to be credible, although the UN Group of Experts said in June 2014 that casualty figures were most likely inflated.

It is also clear that the ADF are no strangers to brutality. In mid-2013, they reportedly beheaded five people around the village of Kamango, where according to local civil society they also killed 40 people on Christmas day in 2013.

According to sources within the UN, the ADF appears to have split into three parts, with some having fled northwards into Ituri, while others try to maintain their supply lines into Uganda. The same UN source, who has been following the ADF attacks closely, said that these atrocities smacked of desperation, since the group may have lost up to 80% of its troops in the past year. "We estimate them to be around 150 strong now," he suggested. Other UN sources have placed the number higher, at 500, but still considerably lower than the 1,200 estimated in January 2014.

So what prompted this latest killing spree? Some suggest that it was intended to distract from Congolese army operations, which have continued to the southwest of Beni. This sort of strategic violence would also serve to discredit the Congolese army, which would be exposed as unable to protect its population, and would require redeployment of troops. This is certainly a possibility––probably the most likely one––although the pace of FARDC "Sokola" ("Clean") operations has slowed considerably since March 2014. Another hypothesis links the massacres to the FARDC operations earlier this year, suggesting that they were simply revenge attacks, without strategic purpose. Finally, some local leaders have suggested that the attacks may have been carried out in complicity with––or perhaps even entirely by––Congolese army officers, who are upset that they were passed over in the recent army shuffle.

Whatever the reason, the ADF has now taken on a much higher priority for both the Congolese army and the UN. Senior MONUSCO commanders were on their way to Beni yesterday to assess the situation. Relations between the UN peacekeeping mission and their Congolese counterparts had soured in recent months, especially since the head of the mission Martin Kobler turned his attention toward the electoral process. The commander in charge of Operation Sokola, General Muhindo Akili Muondos, has cooler relations with the UN than both General Lucien Bauma and Colonel Mamadou Ndala, the previous commanders of North Kivu and Operation Sokola, respectively. On their part, the local population has complained that the local UN troops are rarely seen patrolling and never at night.

For more information on the ADF, the International Crisis Group published a report on the group in 2012 here. One of the important takeaways from that report––and the reporting by the UN Group of Experts––is that, despite the presence of foreign Islamists within the group, the links to Al-Qaeda and Al-Shabaab have probably been exaggerated.

Congo Siasa: Back Online

We're back! 

After ten months of absence, Congo Siasa is opening its doors again today. Over the coming months, you will notice some changes to the layout and content of the blog. Besides your usual prattle about Congolese politics, these new features will include:
  • A new, more engaging layout with pictures and graphics;
  • More guest blogging from the Congo and beyond;
  • Podcasts and audio interviews with key players in Congolese politics.
It will take a few months to have completed all these changes, but that will not prevent us from providing commentary and analysis on current affairs.

A last note: Due to the high level of spam, all comments will now have to be approved before being put online. This may cause slight delays. 

Aksanti kwa kuvumilia; melesi pona kozela.