KINSHASA, Congo — U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley on Friday demanded that this authoritarian nation hold delayed national elections next year, saying continued international backing for a nation that hosts the largest United Nations peacekeeping mission is at stake.
"The president must say that we're going to have elections in 2018," Haley said ahead of a meeting with President Joseph Kabila, whose term expired last year without a vote. "We will not support with funding, resources, anything, if the calendar does not specifically specify no later than 2018 for these elections to happen."
It was one of the strongest messages yet from the United States to the leader of this nominal democracy plagued by political repression and where corruption and the detention of journalists is commonplace.
"This is not a democracy unless the people's voices are heard," Haley said. "We will not support, we will not condone, elections being put off any longer."
She later met alone with Kabila at his palatial waterside compound, which includes an enormous statue of his assassinated father out front.
"It was a firm, candid conversation," Haley said in an interview afterward. "We had a conversation about what it's like to be a leader. We had a conversation about what is a democracy. We had a conversation about the quality of life of people. We had a conversation about the importance of elections."
Kabila does not meet regularly with visiting Western representatives. The unexpectedly long 90-minute session with Haley was more notable because of her public warnings and criticism of a leader she partly blames for a searing humanitarian crisis she witnessed firsthand on Thursday.
Haley cried after visiting a United Nations camp housing about 15,000 Congolese forced from their homes by unrest in North Kivu, the remote, lush and dangerous center of cyclical violence that has included mass rape and the abduction of children for use as soldiers and sex slaves.
U.N. agencies count 4.5 million Congolese displaced within the country or elsewhere as refugees.
Haley walked through muddy, rock-strewn Mungote camp with a woman identified only as Angelique, who told Haley she had been raped in front of her seven children and abandoned by her husband. None of them can leave the camp for fear of various armed groups that prey on locals, the woman said.
Haley, looking stricken, hugged Angelique and stood with an arm around her as she cried quietly.
When she boarded a U.N. helicopter to leave, scores of children, some in rags, ran to the edge of the landing zone to wave.
Aboard the helicopter, Haley cried and put her head in her hands.
"The reason I got emotional today was the hundred-plus kids that were chasing our cars and seeing us off. All I kept thinking was, what's going to happen to them?" Haley said afterward. "The sad reality, as it looks now, is that they are going to end up just like their parents."
Congo was Haley's final stop on a three-nation visit to Africa focused on delivering tough messages about the limits of U.S. support and countering the spread of violent extremism on the continent. She also visited Ethiopia and South Sudan.
In Congo, Haley met with the national election commission and with Catholic elders attempting to broker a solution to the election impasse. She warned against prolonging elections into 2019 or after, saying that would risk the loss of international legitimacy.
Kabila has held power since 2001, following the assassination of his father, longtime dictator Laurent Kabila. At 46, he is among the youngest of Africa's strongmen. He blames election delays on problems with voter registration and poor security.
Aid groups and political observers here say they doubt he will submit to elections anytime soon, and the vocal political opposition accuses him of trying to do an end run around constitutional bars to a third term.
Congo government spokesman Lambert Mende said the government wants an election as soon as possible.
"It's not up to the government, nor to Ms. Haley, to organize the elections," Mende said in a statement, according to Reuters. "I don't think that we can be subjected to these kinds of diktats."
The head of the U.N. peacekeeping force in Congo has said that international donors have put forward only about 6 percent of the estimated $123 million needed to support an election.
"Every day we don't have elections in this country, another woman gets raped, another child becomes a soldier," Haley said. "All of this has to stop, and the only way they will stop is if we have peaceful elections."