So far, this has been a miserable year – another miserable year – for opponents of Joseph Kabila. The Congolese President’s strategy of delaying elections through technical delays is working perfectly.
He is already seven months beyond the expiry of his second term, and shows no sign of scheduling a vote this year.
Meanwhile, his appointment of Bruno Tshibala – a minor opposition leader – as Prime Minister in April was a masterstroke that left the rest of the opposition in disarray, and effectively dismantled the 31 December peace accord that was supposed to allow the opposition itself to choose the PM.
It helped Kabila too that Etienne Tshisekedi, Kabila’s arch-rival and one of the few opposition figures with any kind of national appeal, died in February. Although Tshisekedi was eventually succeeded by his son Felix, Tshisekedi junior is a political novice with little of his father’s national profile, and has struggled to convince other parties to rally behind him.
This context is what makes last week’s meeting of the Rassemblement opposition coalition so important. Rassemblement does not include all opposition parties, but it does include most of them. If a unified front is the best way to tackle an entrenched incumbent – and Muhammadu Buhari’s victory in the 2015 Nigerian election is the best recent proof that it is – then Rassemblement is the closest thing to it.
At the meeting in Kinshasa, the coalition made it clear that Kabila would not have it all his own way. They agreed on an action plan to remove him from office before the end of the year, and to force an election.
The action plan is heavy on political rhetoric. Once that is stripped away, there are three main steps to it.
Step 1: A two-day ‘ville morte’ general strike, on August 8 and 9. In French, ‘ville-morte’ means ‘dead city’: the goal is a mass stayaway that will turn the country’s urban areas into ghost towns. This is intended as a warning, said a Rassemblement spokesperson.
Step 2: Demonstrations against Kabila’s continued rule in every major town and city, including in all four districts of the capital Kinshasa. This is planned for August 20.
Step 3: If, by 1 October, Kabila has not scheduled elections for later in 2017, then the opposition coalition will begin a campaign of civil disobedience, encouraging supporters to withhold taxes and refuse to pay for public services like electricity and water.
Reactions to the opposition’s new plan of action have been mixed. “On the one hand, it’s important that the opposition maintains some kind of public presence and public pressure. We haven’t really seen anything like this since April, and it’s partially because when Kabila slammed the accord into the wall by nominating Tshibala [as Prime Minister] it had no plan B. It’s encouraging because it seems the opposition has rallied, it has put itself back in the game,” said Stephanie Wolters, an analyst at the Institute for Security Studies.
But on the other hand, the opposition’s well-worn tactics are unlikely to scare Kabila.
“It’s a tall order to get people to rally to two mass actions. Civil disobedience is an interesting concept but when you have a country like Congo where the tax base is so small anyway, can it have any impact?” said Wolters.
This point is especially powerful in light of the recent Global Witness report which found that more than 20% of the DRC’s oil revenues – some $750-million over the past three years – has been lost due to corruption and mismanagement. The stolen funds are being distributed through corrupt networks linked to President Kabila.
In other words, Kabila is not reliant on tax money.
Wolters added that chronic political instability over the last couple of years have left people disillusioned with politicians on all sides of the dispute: “The problem is that within the country this [plan of action] is the kind of thing that people are increasingly writing off as politicians maneuvering for power. The population is exhausted, the economy is a disaster, the news out of the Kasais [a central region where the government is fighting militia groups] is horrible, people are hearing the government say there will not be elections this year…what people don’t want is action for the sake of action.”