There is a major crisis looming in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. President Joseph Kabila is facing a constitutionally imposed term limit, yet he clearly wants to stay in power. And unable to fundamentally change the constitution, it seems he is instead trying to delay national elections scheduled for November.

The DRC lies at the very center of Africa. It is a resource rich country that experienced Africa’s deadliest conflict, which officially ended in 2003. It is still emerging from that era, yet there could be major unrest should Kabila delay or disrupt the elections.

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Can Sanctions Work?

The United States and European Union have moved to impose sanctions on the Democratic Republic of the Congo as a result of the government’s continued delay of national elections. Last month in Kinshasa, the capital, opposition leaders and their supporters held mass demonstrations demanding that the government announce an election schedule and that President Kabila would step down by the constitutionally mandated deadline of December 19, 2016. In the crackdown that followed the protests, at least 44 people were killed.

The US and EU’s targeted sanctions may put pressure on the DRC government to hold elections as soon as possible, but they won’t be enough to ensure elections are held on time, which is what the opposition and population are demanding. So although these sanctions are a good strategy, the US and EU will also have to decide what further steps they will take — while there is still time.

The US and EU have both chosen a strategy of targeted sanctions directed at top officials responsible for violent suppression of political opposition in their support for Kabila’s continued hold on power. The US has already imposed sanctions on three senior officials recently, while the terms of sanctions to be implemented by the EU are currently being drawn up. These sanctions would put financial and diplomatic pressure on these individuals and, perhaps eventually, others in Kabila’s inner circle. The advantage of such a strategy is that it hones in on specific individuals, rather than cutting funds from bilateral aid programs that benefit poor or vulnerable populations in the country.

In recent months, prominent opposition leader Moïse Katumbi had been lobbying Washington for sanctions against government officials, while Kabila’s representation has been trying to avert them.

The Congolese have been protesting perceived attempts to delay elections at least since January 2015, when the government proposed a census be taken before the poll was held, and the previous year efforts to amend the constitution to allow Kabila to run for a third term were thwarted. In 2011, mere months before the last presidential elections, the second round was scrapped, giving Kabila a massive advantage in a field of eleven candidates. The change to the constitution may be seen as one of the first moves attempting to maintain the Kabila presidency. Although it was controversial and barely made it through parliament, political analyst Fidel Bafilemba described the international community at the time as “watching passively” as the amendment went through.

Since then — although it’s been known for more than ten years that Kabila’s tenure as president would end in 2016 — it seems that only relatively low key diplomatic pressure has been put on the government. For some time, the US and Europe have been cautiously supportive of Kabila. Bilateral partners told the government they were willing to help finance the elections in order to make sure they were held on time, and diplomats expressed support for a national dialogue (although the opposition viewed the dialogue as another tactic to delay elections).

On the one hand, the government faces many logistical challenges — such as lack of infrastructure, and the need to update the voter register to the tune of seven million new voters. Despite these hurdles it also seems determined to manage its own elections process without overwhelming outside assistance like in 2006, further fueling the suspicion of many Congolese that these are all just strategies for delaying elections. On the other hand, the international community has had a lot of time to pay attention and perhaps convince the government to accept coordinated assistance in preparation for this year — the road to November 2016 has been pretty clear for at least the past five years. Yet no substantial action has been taken until now. At worst, the sanctions will mean nothing but strained bilateral relations.

However, it is possible that incrementally increasing sanctions targeted at the right individuals will pressure the government to hold free and fair elections as soon as possible. The problem is that it’s obvious at this point they won’t be held on time in November, which leaves an enormous question mark over whether Kabila will step down in December. Whether they are held in 2017 as the EU is pushing for, or 2018 as announced on Sunday by the government, the situation is sure to get more tense either way. The sanctions may help, but they may also be too little too late.

“Major Unrest”

If Kabila does not step down by December 19, the opposition — and much of the population — in DRC will want the US and EU to step up their game. My contacts in eastern Congo continue to update me and they have unanimously warned of major unrest. Jean-Louis Nzweve, a researcher in North Kivu, told me that “the Constitution says if there is no new elected president [by December 20], Joseph Kabila is not to remain in power; instead, the transition will be chaired by the President of the Senate… and Security Council Resolution 2277 recommends that the Constitution be respected.” But in May of this year, the Constitutional Court ruled that Kabila could stay in power until the next election, whenever that happens to be; and a deal struck last week in the absence of the main opposition party set elections for April 2018.

In light of all this, Nzweve says, “If the United States, and other powers, really are determined to consolidate democracy, it is necessary that as of 20 December, they directly disown Kabila; that they cease to recognize him as the legal, legitimate president.”

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