By Phil Stewart
KINSHASA (Reuters) - The United States urged Democratic Republic of Congo on Sunday to stick to its constitution that sets terms limits for the president, as speculation grows that Joseph Kabila may seek a third term.
Highlighting an issue that exists in several African countries where leaders have sought to extend their rule beyond constitutional limits, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry pledged $30 million in aid aimed in part at ensuring "credible" elections in 2016.
Kabila has not announced his intentions for the 2016 poll but, with his political fortunes sharply improved after last year's defeat of the M23 rebel group, there are growing opposition fears he might try to remain in power.
"(Kabila) has an opportunity which he understands to be able to put the country on a continued path of democracy," Kerry told reporters after talks with the Congolese leader in Kinshasa.
Kerry stressed that the legacy of Kabila, who in 2006 won Congo's first democratic elections since independence but was heavily criticized over fraud-tarnished polls five years later, must go beyond security gains.
"I believe it is clear to him that the United States of America feels very strongly - as do other people - that the constitutional process needs to be respected and adhered to."
"We're a country with term limits. We live by them ... and we encourage other countries to adhere to their constitution," he added.
Kerry did not explicity say Kabila should not seek a third term, but U.S. special envoy to the Great Lakes region Russ Feingold, made the point clear.
"President Obama, when he was here last year made a very important statement: What Africa needs is not strong men but strong institutions," Feingold told reporters travelling with Kerry on his tour of Africa.
"One of those strong institutions is a credible method of executive succession, executive term limits."
The speculation in Congo is hardly an exception. There is widespread public expectation that Burkina Faso's Blaise Compaore and Burundi's Pierre Nkurunziza will seek constitutional changes in order to stay in power.
Rwanda's President Paul Kagame has also refused to rule out running for a third term when his mandate expires in 2017.
Kerry said the $30 million in U.S. aid, which was expected to be delivered mostly to non-governmental organizations, would support elections as well as recovery and reconstruction programs in the remote and conflict-hit east.
A U.S. official said Washington reserved the right to withhold funds if the process were not transparent and credible.
(Editing by Joe Bavier and Robin Pomeroy)