The UK is ready to spend £17m ($24.25m) to help fund free and fair elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), but warned Kinshasa that it must first signal a desire to hold such a vote.
Like the US, the Congolese people are expecting presidential elections in November 2016, but a number of signs appear to suggest that the current president, Joseph Kabila, is seeking to hold on to power beyond his mandate. Under the current Congolese constitution, presidents can only a maximum of two terms.
The president has been in power since 2001 after taking over from his father, Laurent Kabila following his assassination. He won disputed elections in 2006 and 2011. The incumbent's mandate expires later this year.
Speaking exclusively to IBTimes UK on Facebook Live earlier today, the UK's special envoy to the Great Lakes region, Danae Dholakia, said: "We're still absolutely ready to spend [it] and we've been very very clear that we're absolutely ready to spend it. We want to use this money to ensure the electoral roll is updated, so all young people who are currently excluded can take part in these elections.
"We're absolutely poised to spend this money," she added. "We're absolutely poised to support these elections, but we need a signal that these elections are going ahead in a timely manner and there's a serious level of political will behind that."
UK warns of possibility of violence 'if democracy is flouted'
The DRC has seen violent and even deadly political crackdowns as people demand democratic change in a country which could experience its first peaceful transition of power if free and fair elections are held. Since 1998, an estimated 5.4m people have been killed in the DRC as a result of conflict-related causes, according to the International Rescue Committee (IRC).
The current Congolese constitution is popular and widely supported across the country. Warning of a potential return to its bloody past if presidential elections are not held, Dholakia said: "It's crucial that there are timely elections and the risk associated with this possibility of delay, this possibility of there being a lack of political will are that the people will essentially feel that the constitution is being flouted, that democracy is being flouted and there is a possibility of violence – real violence."
Last year, Amnesty International said opponents to Kabila standing for a third term were being subjected to arbitrary arrest and, in some cases, prolonged incommunicado detention. Opposition candidates have also been targeted by the ruling elite.
Last month, popular opposition figure, and former governor of the Katanga province, Moise Katumbi was charged with hiring foreign mercenaries as part of an alleged plot to topple Kabila. The G7 candidate dismissed the charges as a "grotesque lie" and Human Rights Watch (HRW) described the investigation into Katumbi as "politically motivated and [...] part of a broader crackdown against political opponents, activists and others," who oppose Kabila.
Bandi Mbubi, the founder of Congo Calling, which urges fair trade technology in a country with an estimated $24tn in natural resources, said the current leadership does not show any intention of wanting to hold free and fair elections.
Speaking during the live broadcast, Mbubi said: "From the behaviour the government has displayed you can actually see that the government does not want to have elections and because of that, it's really difficult to foresee how we can get a credible, accountable government in place.
"Once you go past the deadline set by the constitution, you really lose your legitimacy. It's really difficult to envisage a scenario where you can have a functioning government without a constitution from which it takes that power. So you would lose both the legality and the legitimacy."
UK weighs its options
The UK currently spends £1m a day in the DRC, making the country the second largest bilateral donor after the US. Last year, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) warned that the biggest risk to stability in the country is if the Congolese people's expectation of choosing a new president is not met.
When asked about the UK government's position – on Kabila remaining in power from 20 December 2016, after his mandate is over – Dholakia said: "It rather depends on the circumstances surrounding that. If there has been a serious discussion with the opposition, if there's been serious engagement with the opposition and there's been an agreement that there's a little delay for some reason or another with the opposition and that all political actors are content with that approach, then that's one thing.
"But if we just see a lack of political will, a lack of action, no elections and no signs of elections coming, that's another thing entirely. I think in that second circumstance, we'd need to do some serious rethinking about the nature and shape of our relationship with DRC, which would be very, very saddening and I hope that we don't get there."