Congolese President Joseph Kabila at the United Nations on April 22. (Mary Altaffer/Associated Press)

PROGRESS TOWARD stable and democratic governance in Africa has been repeatedly interrupted by the attempts of rulers to remain in power after their constitutional terms expire. The latest episode came in Burundi, which still dances on the brink of conflict months after President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to run for an unconstitutional third term. Now the continent’s troubled giant, Congo, appears headed down a similar path.

President Joseph Kabila, whose term ends this year, has raised fears that he will attempt to stay in power past the constitutional limit of two terms. In January of last year, Congolese security forces brutally cracked down on protests in the capital, Kinshasa, after a draft law was released that would have drawn out the electoral process by requiring a nationwide census before holding elections, which could have taken years. Forty people were killed. The census requirement was withdrawn, but Mr. Kabila has still not publicly announced whether he will seek another term or respect the constitution and step down.

Mr. Kabila late last year called for an “inclusive national political dialogue,” supposedly to organize a committee to help set an election timetable and discuss funding. But these efforts have borne little fruit — most of Congo’s opposition parties refused to participate — and to date, no firm date for the elections has been set. Instead, Mr. Kabila’s government now claims that the election must be postponed due to what it claims is the need to reconfigure the voting registry, a process that the Congolese electoral commission says could take 13 to 16 months and cost as much as $290 million.

The resource-rich Congo, which is home to 68 million people in a territory nearly the size of Western Europe, has been racked with political instability for the better part of the past 50 years. Should Mr. Kabila, who has been in power since the assassination of his father, Laurent, in 2001, step down by Dec. 19 as the constitution mandates, he could help usher in the first democratic transfer of executive power in Congo since its independence. He could set an important precedent not only for peace in Congo but also for democracy on the continent.

Last week at the United Nations, Secretary of State John F. Kerry stressed the need for “timely and credible elections” in a meeting with Mr. Kabila, according to a State Department spokesman. The Obama administration should be pressing for specific actions by the president, including the fixing of a firm timetable for the elections, a public commitment to leave office when his term ends, and allowing the Congolese people to express themselves freely without threats or crackdowns on peaceful protest.

Congo is at a critical juncture in its history. Mr. Kabila must decide whether he will take his country down the path of peace and respect for the rule of law or set it on a course toward political chaos. Africa, and the world for that matter, cannot afford the latter.