- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 9, 2017

Congolese President Joseph Kabila wants to organize overdue elections to pick a successor by the end of the year, but outsiders should not underestimate the logistical hurdles the country faces in trying to secure a fair vote, a top adviser to Mr. Kabila said in an interview.

Mr. Kabila, who has been president of Africa’s second-largest country since succeeding his assassinated father more than 16 years ago, was supposed to step aside when his second full term ended in December. But elections have been put on hold because of political squabbling and another outbreak of violence, and the question of whether Mr. Kabila will ever step aside has become a major point of dispute between the president and his critics.

Raymond Tshibanda, a onetime Congolese foreign minister and now Mr. Kabila’s special envoy to the United States, said in an interview during a recent Washington visit that his country was still facing funding shortages and “capacity problems” in organizing elections, which could require registering close to 30 million more voters and cost $1.2 billion.

Many Congo watchers fear an extended political standoff could lead to a revival of the brutal civil wars in recent decades that rocked the country, killed millions and has been called the world’s deadliest fighting since the end of World War II.

Mr. Tshibanda maintained that some of the opposition groups in his country clamoring the loudest for quick elections aren’t really interested in a free and fair vote. He said they stand to benefit from the instability that would follow a “chaotic election.”

“Short cuts,” he said, “are not always the best road to travel. Sometimes you have to take your time.”

But tensions over the suspended elections are clearly mounting. Even as Mr. Tshibanda was making his pitch for patience, the Congolese government was announcing that the annual Independence Day military parade in Kinshasa was being canceled because of security concerns. The Kabila government has been battling rebel groups in the opposition-dominated Kasai region since mid-2016. Human rights groups said the fighting has killed more than 3,300 people and forced more than 1.3 million from their homes.

U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein said government-funded militias are fueling the violence in Kasai and are suspected of having carried out torture and mass killings in rebel villages.

Congo’s Catholic bishops, who have been vocal in their demands that elections must be quickly organized, met with Mr. Kabila on Friday, according to press reports, and once again the president said he was committed to elections to end the country’s political impasse. But once again, no date was given on when the vote could be held.

Congolese government officials, who have engaged a high-powered Washington lobbying firm to help tell their side of the story to the U.S. administration, say Mr. Kabila is getting a bad rap internationally. They note that, unlike other African leaders such as Rwanda’s Paul Kagame and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, Mr. Kabila has never tried to repudiate the constitutional limit on serving more than two terms.

With relative stability and a recent rebound in world commodity prices, the economy has “stabilized in the first half of 2017,” according to an analysis by Moody’s Investors Service last week, and real gross domestic product is projected to grow 3.5 percent this year and 5 percent next year.

“Yes, we have our problems, but we have never been so close to putting our country and the region on the path to sustainable growth and stability,” Mr. Tshibanda said.

Asked if he was optimistic that elections still can be held late this year or early next year, he replied, “I would not say ‘optimistic.’ I think that it will not be easy, but I do think we can pull it off.”

Even those who have their doubts about Mr. Kabila should look at the larger picture in a country that has over 80 million people and shares a border with nine other African states, he said.

“Doing good for Congo is doing good for Africa,” the envoy said. “And if Congo goes down the drain, we will take a big chunk of Africa with us.”

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