Someone else's crisis

A unique experience for a Liberal Democrat Conference in recent years, another party is having the l

The first morning of Conference has a reassuring air about it. I had arrived the previous night after struggling through flash floods and rush hour traffic. This morning the sun was shining and all seemed right with the world.

Better still, and this is a unique experience for a Liberal Democrat Conference in recent years, another party was having a leadership crisis, not us. What will the media talk about now? Nick Clegg is secure in his office with the support of the party and nobody is taking out nomination papers to oppose him.

This year Liberal Democrat Conference has started a day early in an effort to make it more accessible to those who cannot get time off from their jobs. The first big debate therefore took place on the Saturday afternoon at which representatives discussed a wide range of radical initiatives to give UK Citizens a voice in Parliament.

Proposed measures include a more efficacious system of petitioning MPs and People’s Bills, whereby the six legislative proposals that receive the most petition signatures from registered voters in any given year would be guaranteed a second reading debate in the House of Commons. Proposals to give people the opportunity to veto unpopular Acts of Parliament through a referendum were rejected. Representatives were concerned that allowing people to trigger a plebiscite gathering one million signatures in 60 days would be open to abuse and would undermine the sovereignty of Parliament.

With Lembit Opik MP and Baroness Ros Scott lobbying behind the scenes for their respective Party Presidential campaigns I spent Saturday dodging canvassers for the respective camps before doing what Liberal Democrats like to do best. OK, it might take second place behind socialising in bars. I spoke at a fringe meeting on electoral reform.

At present the Welsh Assembly does not have the power to change the way that local Councils are elected. I tried to put that right through a private members bill only to see it voted down by Labour AMs. I am not giving up.

And then it was onto the blog awards. I was shortlisted for Best blog by a Liberal Democrat holding public office, the Tim Garden Award for short. It is the third successive year that I have been shortlisted for this award and was stunned to win it this year.

Although this is a Federal Conference it is also an opportunity to get publicity back home. All of the Welsh media have decamped here so we take every opportunity to get our message across. Sunday morning therefore involves a visit to a homeless hostel in Bournemouth followed by the launch of a new paper on affordable housing in Wales.

A confidential roundtable meeting with the Police Federation follows and then into the main hall to watch the Nick Clegg Question and Answer session. It really is a busy conference and because it is being held a week earlier than usual I am able to stay for the full five days without being called back to Welsh Assembly meetings.

Peter Black is Welsh Liberal Democrat Assembly Member for South Wales West

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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage