Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary-general, and nine former African presidents have warned that the “future of the Democratic Republic of Congo is in grave danger” because of President Joseph Kabila’s apparent determination to cling to power.
In rare public criticism of an African leader, Mr Annan said in a statement they felt “obliged to sound the alarm before it’s too late” to address what has become “an acute political crisis” in the sprawling, resource-rich country.
The signatories included Thabo Mbeki and Olusegun Obasanjo, former presidents of South Africa and Nigeria respectively.
Mr Kabila should have stepped down last December at the end of his constitutional mandate. But he refused because no election had been held to choose a successor and the courts ruled he could remain in office.
Dozens died in anti-Kabila protests across the country last year but anarchy was averted after a deal was struck on December 31 between the president and the opposition. They agreed Mr Kabila could remain as president and the opposition would select the prime minister of a transitional government to organise elections by the end of this year.
But Mr Kabila simply chose an opposition leader, Bruno Tshibala, as prime minister, infuriating the majority of the opposition. Diplomats and analysts say it is in effect impossible for elections to be held this year because the voter registration is unlikely to be completed in time.
“Both the spirit and the letter of the agreement are not being respected thereby endangering a non-violent political transition, which we believe is vital for the future stability and prosperity of the DRC,” the former leaders wrote.
Voter registration has been delayed partly by a 10-month-long rebellion in the Kasai region. Hundreds of people have been killed and more than 1.3m have fled their homes.
Hans Hoebeke, of the International Crisis Group, a think-tank, said the former leaders’ statement could be influential if it “bridges the gap between sitting African leaders, who are putting little pressure on Kabila, and the west, who are imposing sanctions on officials and demanding an election”.
The African Union has publicly backed Mr Tshibala’s government but there are signs that some regional leaders might be losing patience with Mr Kabila, who took office in 2001 after his father, Laurent Kabila, was assassinated and has made no definitive statement of his intentions.
The son-in-law of the president of Angola, the country that has most influence over Mr Kabila, has become increasingly critical of Mr Kabila and several leaders have met Moise Katumbi, the self-exiled opposition leader who wants to run for president.
One Kinshasa-based diplomat said the uncertainty was likely to last until Mr Kabila “decides whether he makes a big play to stay in power”. “Is he going to try and change the constitution and rule through a state of emergency or is he going to sort his way into finding a loyal successor?” he said. “I’m not sure even he’s decided and the clock is ticking.”
The crisis has been exacerbated by the rapidly deteriorating economy. Exports of commodities such as copper have picked up in recent months but not enough to ease the pressure on the Congolese franc. The currency has slumped about 25 per cent against the US dollar in the past six months, as demand for imports, particularly of basic foodstuffs, soars.