Tom Perriello is the former special envoy to the African Great Lakes region in the Obama administration and current executive director of U.S. programs for the Open Society Foundation. Cindy McCain is chair of the board of trustees at the McCain Institute for International Leadership at Arizona State University.
A new year should promise closure and renewal. For the third straight year, 81 million people in Congo will be awaiting a new chapter, a chance for their first peaceful, democratic transition of power. For the third straight year, Congolese President Joseph Kabila is breaking that promise, escalating repression to extend his unconstitutional stay in power, even as doing so risks widespread violence.
Last week, Kabila’s electoral commission delayed scheduled elections by one week, citing a suspicious fire that reportedly destroyed 80 percent of the voting machines that were to be used in the capital, Kinshasa. The delay until Dec. 30 included no guarantees that this additional time would meaningfully increase the possibility of holding credible elections. Worse yet, the electoral commission has now unveiled a plan to exclude multiple major cities from voting, citing health and security challenges, and to simply declare a winner before these opposition strongholds are able to vote.. The Dec. 30 delay was, we must remember, made in the wake of the government’s repeated guarantee that it was on pace for “perfect elections.”
Kabila has made a volatile security situation worse. His security forces have killed nearly 300 people during largely peaceful protests since 2015, including at least seven killed during campaign rallies this month. Hundreds have been arrested for making peaceful demands for credible elections. Many were held for weeks or months under horrible conditions, while new arrests continue. Kabila deployed military units to intimidate citizens and barred Martin Fayulu, one of the leading opposition candidates, from meeting with supporters in Katanga and Maniema provinces, while Kabila’s allies suspended all campaigning in Kinshasa as the campaign peaked.
In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech this month, Congolese surgeon Denis Mukwege stated: “My country is being systematically looted with the complicity of people claiming to be our leaders. Looted for their power, their wealth and their glory.”
The Congolese people are taking the risks and leading this struggle, but they are also asking that the continent and the rest of the international community not turn a blind eye. More than 40 million Congolese registered to vote for these elections. Thousands of legitimate candidates are vying for seats at the national and provincial levels. The Congolese have been patient, but they expect to vote and choose a new generation of leaders.
In the United States, bipartisan leadership in Congress has played a crucial role in mitigating violence and repression in Congo through the threat and use of targeted sanctions, as well as bipartisan efforts to combat rampant sexual violence and the trafficking of conflict minerals in eastern Congo. This bipartisan leadership is needed now more than ever — to stand for a cause and unite to support the Congolese people.
In this spirit, we encourage American diplomats, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the special envoy for Africa’s Great Lakes region, J. Peter Pham, to publicly condemn the election delays and call on Kabila to order his security forces to back off and stop killing people. The reckless actions of this government place not just national but also regional stability in jeopardy.
These diplomatic statements must be combined with consequences in the form of individual sanctions on Kabila, his family and his closest associates. Individual sanctions remain a diplomatic lever that have already proved highly effective during earlier crises. Executive orders have already been used to sanction those who undermine Congo’s democracy, and the enforcement provisions in the Global Magnitsky Act should be applied to those who commit serious human rights violations. The willingness to apply individual sanctions, including visa travel bans, on key officials should be communicated ahead of additional violence, not in its possible wake.
The United States should also bolster its regional diplomacy to ensure that the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the African Union (AU) and the United Nations peacekeeping mission (MONUSCO) are in the strongest possible position to safeguard credible elections and civilian safety.
Congress has been a productive force in American diplomacy so far in Congo. The House passed the DRC Democracy and Accountability Act in November, which promotes credible elections in Congo and calls for high-level sanctions against those who undermine those elections. Next month, the Senate can and should act on this legislation in support of the Congolese people and Congolese democracy.
This most recent delay, like all the ones before it, is unacceptable. The delays are designed for Kabila to buy yet more time in office. Even though he has had seven years to prepare for an election, he has shown little will to organize an acceptable election and leave office.
This being the case, the continent and the rest of the international community are hearing from ever more Congolese who believe it is time for a new approach. If this latest deadline of Dec. 30 produces the same result — no credible elections and more repression — the DRC’s election commissioners and Kabila himself ought to resign, with SADC and the AU stepping in, backed by the UN and key member states, to facilitate political dialogue toward a transitional government with the sole task of organizing credible elections in the shortest time frame possible.
As attacks on democracy rise, we can stand united with those Congolese people who are taking such great risks to exercise the freedom to choose their own leaders and design their own future. On these universal aspirations, we should unite to stand with the Congolese who dare — despite years of violence, Ebola and endemic corruption — to believe that a new year could bring a new chapter of accountable, democratic governance.