Civil society meets to discuss DRC crisis

On 17th November, civil society and human rights defenders from the Democratic Republic of Congo and southern Africa came together in Johannesburg to discuss the current political crisis in the DRC. The prospect of widespred unrest in the DRC has increased following a decision by the constitutional court, the electoral commission and the government to postpone elections initially scheduled for 2016 until April 2018. The view of the government is that it is not feasible to hold elections this year because the electoral commission needs to update the electoral register and financial support promised by several donors from the international community has not been secured. 

The government recently held a national dialogue with some members of the opposition party during which they agreed on a transition process and appointed a vice president from one of the opposition parties. The challenge is that the two main opposition parties and members of civil society organisations see the postponement of the elections as a constitutional coup and are calling for President Joseph Kabila to step down when his mandate officially comes to an end on 19th December. Despite their protestations, it is clear that Kabila intends to stay on at least until April 2018. In response, civil society groups and members of the opposition plan to defy a blanket government ban on protests in order to organise demonstrations before and after 19th December.

The authorities have used violence to stifle the debate on the extension of the Kabila's mandate since protests began in early 2014. Civil society groups and human rights defenders have been specifically targeted and detained during this period. The US has imposed sanctions on two members of the Kabila regime, and the EU may impose its own sanctions if violence is used against protesters in the days ahead. Civil society representatives at the meeting in South Africa believed that such sanctions will have little effect on the regime. For its part, South Africa, a country which played a key role in negotiations that ended the civil war in the DRC, is unlikely to take any action because of its support for the regime. 

The regional political bloc SADC has essentially approved the current transition plan and will not criticise the government. Only the AU, through its Security Council can exert pressure on the Kabila regime. Participants at the meeting talked about the need to join forces with civil society to call on the African Union Peace and Security Council to put pressure on the Kabila regime to stop using violence against its citizens. Civil society was also encouraged to work with the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights to exert pressure on president Kabila. Regardless, there is a distinct prospect of further violent repression of protests by the state ahead of 19th December.