Joseph Kabila, the president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, whose refusal to step down at the end of his mandate in 2016 resulted in ongoing, bloody street protests, will not stand in elections due to be held this year, a key aide has said.
Lambert Mende, the minister of communications, said Kabila, who has been in office since 2001, had never intended to seek a third term and would not seek to appoint a candidate to represent his interests in the polls, currently scheduled for December.
“This is not a kingdom, where the king appoints an heir. It is a democratic republic,” Mende told the Guardian on Wednesday.
Kabila’s second term as president expired in December 2016 and he has been accused of deliberately delaying preparations for a new poll. The central African country is in the grip of a worsening humanitarian crisis fuelled by inter-ethnic conflict and food insecurity.
A series of demonstrations calling for Kabila to step down have been brutally suppressed in recent weeks. Security forces killed seven people during protests on 31 December and six people while dispersing an anti-Kabila protest on 21 January.
The protests have been led by the Catholic church. Last month Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo, the most senior church official in DRC, described the country as “an open prison”.
The political instability and an escalation of inter-ethnic conflict have raised fears of Congo sliding back into wars like those of the 1990s when millions died, mostly from hunger and disease.
At least 30 people have been killed in two days of clashes between Hema herders and Lendu farmers in the north-eastern Ituri province. Aid agencies say violence in the east has forced thousands of people out of their homes and into neighbouring Burundi and Tanzania in recent weeks.
It is estimated that almost 8 million people – about 10% of DRC’s population – are affected by extreme hunger and more than 4 million children under the age of five are at risk of acute malnutrition.
There was repeated speculation that Kabila might seek to change the constitution and seek a third term or find an ally who could stand on his behalf.
According to the schedule set by the election commission, declarations of candidacy are due in July.
Analysts say Kabila and his close advisers may have decided to commit to elections. A new electoral law has received rapid parliamentary approval, voter registration has been completed without major disruption, and large sums have been allocated to the electoral commission.
Jason Stearns, an expert at the Congo Research Group at New York University, said government officials had begun to speak in clearer terms about Kabila’s departure.
“There is a sense that there has been a shift from a strategy of buying time to one of holding elections and making sure they turn out in [Kabila’s] favour. It’s a risk but a good strategy in some ways because holding elections is the one thing everyone can agree on, even if they are flawed,” Stearns said.
The shift follows significant international pressure. Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, met Kabila in Kinshasa in October and told him Washington would not accept elections later than December this year.
Ben Shepherd, of the Chatham House international affairs institute in London, said elections could be the moment for constructing a new “grand bargain” among DRC’s elite.
Some analysts say a new mining code that Kabila is expected to sign into law imminently is a carefully calibrated message to the west. The mining industry says it will raise royalties and taxes; DRC is the world’s biggest source of cobalt and Africa’s largest copper producer.
“It could be a shot across the bows of the international community or it may well be just that there’s a need for money to keep the show on the road and if the economy isn’t doing so well you turn to wherever you can find it,” Shepherd said.
The former DRC prime minister Samy Badibanga has called for an urgent conference of international donors, tentatively scheduled for May in Geneva.
“There are people dying every day. There are children dying of hunger, clinics burned down, villages destroyed. The attention is drawn to the elections … but the immediate priority is humanitarian. The crisis is being completely neglected,” he said.