A fraying, fragile peace agreement in Congo

Political tensions in the Democratic Republic of Congo rose throughout 2016 as President Joseph Kabila made clear he had no intention of relinquishing power at the end of his term. His attempts to change the constitution and to delay elections were met with civilian protests and international sanctions. Kabila’s last legitimate day in office was both hoped-for and feared.  Would he step down?

Kabila did not step down on December 19th, and on December 20th protestors took to the streets.  Within a few days the protestors were overwhelmed by government military forces. Forty-two protestors were shot and killed; hundreds more were arrested.  Prolonged, widespread violence did not occur; yet the country was without a plan for a transition of power.

The Congolese Catholic bishops (CENCO) were called upon to negotiate a working peace plan. On New Year’s Eve an agreement was reached and signed by government representatives, leaders of the opposition parties and members of civil society.  The agreement required that Kabila would not seek a third term, that elections would be held in 2017, and that a transitional government would be installed in 2017.  Kabila did not sign the agreement.

Now, two months into the new year, there are signs that this fragile agreement is fraying. Mr. Tshisekedi, a long-time politician in Congo and the key leader of the opposition party, died on February 2.  Mr. Tschisekedi was involved the creation of the New Year’s Eve agreement and was expected to have led the transitional government.  On February 14, the Congolese budget minister said the government coffers were empty and that it would be “difficult to gather” the money necessary to organize elections in 2017.  Last, there has been a disturbing increase in military executions of unarmed civilians in the Kasai province of central Congo.  A chilling video of these executions spread quickly and widely around the world.  Both the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the U.S. State Department have called for the government of DRC to investigate and halt these human rights violations.

Will the New Year’s Eve peace agreement hold?  This issue was debated on January 18, 2017 at an event co-hosted by the Enough Project and the Atlantic Council titled, “DRC’s CENCO Agreement:  A Foundation for Real Political Transition?”  Sasha Lezhnev, Enough Project’s Associate Director of Policy observed, “It is important to remember that Congo has been run in many ways as a violent kleptocracy for decades, and even a fully implemented CENCO agreement would not fundamentally change those dynamics. Key governance and transparency reforms, as well as consequences for those who perpetrate violence and corruption, must be encouraged and monitored to reverse the effects of this longstanding system. . . The United States, the European Union, regional African governments, and the Congolese government and opposition must work together to ensure a peaceful transition of power in Congo in 2017 and a transparent system of governance moving forward.”