Political parties in Congo signed a deal late Saturday that calls for President Joseph Kabila to leave power after an election that now will be held by the end of this year, 2017 instead of mid-2018 as his party originally proposed.
The New Year's Eve agreement comes after months of unrest that left dozens dead and threatened to further destabilise the vast Central African nation with a painful history of dictatorship and civil war.
DRC’s Catholic Bishops mediated the talks to reach a compromise. Initially, the Bishops had imposed a Christmas deadline. The negotiations reached a stalemate, though, and resumed Thursday under mounting pressure to avoid major violence amid opposition calls for Kabila to step down.
Officials announced that a deal had been reached Saturday evening on the major issues though representatives did not sign it until around 11 p.m. local time on New Year's Eve.
Archbishop Marcel Utembi Tapa, President of the Bishops’ Episcopal Conference, CENCO, hailed the progress but acknowledged the challenges still ahead with implementation.
“It's one thing to have a political compromise but putting it into place is another,” he said.
Neither Kabila nor opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi was to personally sign the agreement Saturday. And even before the night was over, some members of Kabila's party were already casting doubt on the feasibility of the electoral deadline.
“Elections in 2017, yes. But not to lie, the questions (about the dates) are highly technical. If they won't work, there will be an evaluation. It's why we have adopted a council to follow up on the agreement,” said Ramazani Shadari, the Deputy Prime Minister of the interior and a member of Kabila's party.
Kabila became president in 2001 after the assassination of his father and was constitutionally barred from seeking another term after his mandate expired on 19 December 2016. However, no presidential election was held in November, and a court ruled he could stay in office until such a ballot could be organised.
The president's party said that elections were not possible before mid-2018 because of logistical and financial challenges in organising the vote. An angry opposition took to the streets demanding that elections be held as soon as possible.
In his New Year's message to the Congolese people, Kabila reasserted his commitment to democracy even as opponents accused him of prolonging his rule through a technicality.
“The source of legitimacy is only through the people at the ballot box,” he said Saturday.
Under the deal, the vote will be organised by the end of 2017 though some details still need to be finalised. That process could reveal other disputes, and opposition leader Étienne Tshisekedi already has signalled that his supporters “will only be satisfied the day the transfer of power will happen.”
Still, the agreement to not modify the constitution effectively blocks Kabila from rewriting it so that he can seek a third term. This is a major victory for the opposition.