After succeeding his father who was assassinated in 2001, Joseph Kabila’s second and constitutionally last presidential term ended in 2016. Kabila’s retention to power sparked violent demonstrations in which security forces killed dozens of protesters. Over the past two years, the required power transfer was consecutively dodged as stakes were high for the ruling party to retain power in their ranks. Kabila eventually gave in to domestic and international pressure to step down and elections were set for 23 December 2018. The ruling coalition, Common Front for Congo, is putting forward Kabila’s loyal ally to run for president, Emmanuel Shadary, a former minister who is sanctioned by the EU for alleged human rights abuses. Nevertheless, Kabila does not rule out running for president again in the future, confirming the presumption that little will change inside the ruling party’s power ratio. After the opposition failed to unite behind one single candidate and popular figures like Jean-Pierre Bemba and Moïse Katumbi were prevented from standing as candidates, the two remaining major opposition candidates are Martin Fayulu and Felix Tshisekedi.
On 13 December, only ten days before the vote, an arson attack on a warehouse in Kinshasa destroyed voting material and about 7,000 voting computers. The opposition accuses the government of starting the arson to rationalise another election delay, although speculations on who is responsible go both ways. The electronic voting system was controversial given the physical and logistical restrictions, especially in rural areas (like uncertain electricity supply), and as they remained untested. Furthermore, last week tensions have started to mount after opposition rallies were attacked by security forces in Lubumbashi, Kalemie and Mbuji-Mayi, leading to deadly victims. A week before the elections, the U.S. Department of State ordered non-emergency U.S. government employees to leave Congo in fear of escalating violence, while the U.N. human rights chief called on Congolese authorities to halt violence and inflammatory speech. Eventually, only three days before election date, the electoral commission decided to postpone the vote for a week to 30 December, explained by the delayed voting material deployment following the fire. Once again, the opposition and civil society are frustrated by the series of postponements that might further enflame unrest.
The disappearance of electoral material and the renewed delay raise further questions about the credibility of these elections. Moreover, the level of violence used against opposition members and supporters is likely to accelerate in the coming days. Besides recent political tensions, violent rebel activity worsened over the course of 2018 in 10 out of 26 provinces (Kasaï, Kasaï Central, Kasaï Oriental, Sud-Kivu, Nord-Kivu, Ituri, Maniema, Tanganyika, Bas-Uélé and Haut-Uélé). Exacerbated by the Ebola outbreak in the east, Congo is on the brink of another humanitarian crisis.
In 2016, Credendo’s medium- to long-term risk classification for Congo was downgraded to category 7/7 and in November 2017, Credendo also downgraded its short-term political risk to this same category 7/7. Tight liquidity conditions together with the worsening security situation added to the non-payment risk. Indeed, foreign exchange reserves practically depleted in 2017 and reached merely 3 weeks of import cover in May 2018 (standard benchmark for healthy liquidity is 3 months of import cover). Moreover, the 55% inflation rate in 2017 (20% expected in 2018), deep currency depreciations and the detrimental business environment seriously increased the risk for more corporate failures in Congo. Targeted sanctions against Kabila and his entourage and the withdrawal of donor support have put additional strain on the available public funds and external liquidity.
A change of power through elections would be an historic first-time event in Congo, yet it remains unclear whether elections will eventually take place, and if they do, whether the process will have any credibility. Given the uncertainty, there is a high risk for accelerating protests and political violence in the weeks to come. In this context, Credendo’s risk classifications for the Democratic Republic of the Congo will remain unchanged at least in the near term.
Analyst: Louise Van Cauwenbergh – email@example.com