For the past 17 years, President Joseph Kabila has ruled the Democratic Republic of Congo with a rod of iron — and copper and cobalt: the main exports of the mineral-rich but acutely poor state. The president was meant to have held elections back in November 2016, and his failure to has pushed the already-beleaguered state further into chaos.
In a rare statement, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has warned that Kabila’s refusal to hold elections “represents a threat to the stability, prosperity and peace of the Great Lakes region, and indeed for Africa as a whole.” Unless Kabila leaves power peacefully, Annan warns, the “future of the Democratic Republic of the Congo is in grave danger.” Harsh words, especially coming from a man who is more content operating behind the scenes.
In the last few months, numerous prison breaks have been reported – the most recent in Kinshasa and in the south-western part of the country – while government violence against civilian protests has led to the imposition of sanctions against senior Congolese officials by the United States and European Union.
The situation in Congo grows more and more dire. In March, two UN officials were found dead in Kasai, where as many as 3,000 may have been killed in five months worth of brutal internecine violence; troops in Kinshasa are shown videos depicting mounds of severed heads and mutilated corpses to fire them up. The UN estimates that over 1.2 million people have been displaced from the three Kasai provinces, where violence broke out after the security services killed a tribal chief and militia leader known as Kamuina Nsapu, or the “Black Ant.”
It is hard to escape comparisons with the buildup to the First and Second Congo Wars, which shook not just the Congo, but the entire continent. Kasai is not just any region — it is an opposition stronghold, and home to the veteran opposition leader Étienne Tshisekedi, who was succeeded by his son Félix after his death in February. One of the last acts of the elder Tshisekedi was to broker a deal with Kinshasa. On the last day of 2016, Kabila agreed to hold fair and free elections, and not to stand — he has passed his term limit, for all that it is worth. But voter registration, already difficult in a country so unstable as Congo, is all but impossible in Kasai. And both sides agree on one thing: if Kasai can’t vote, Congo can’t vote.
Unless Kabila leaves power peacefully, Annan warns, the “future of the Democratic Republic of the Congo is in grave danger.”
The Democratic Republic of Congo is no stranger to dodgy electoral politics — the country has borne witness to far more coups and political assassinations than it has peaceful transitions of power. The first five years of independence set the stage for the next few decades, as tribal and militia leaders scrambled to gain control of Congo’s vast mineral wealth. Out of this chaos emerged Joseph Mobutu, who was inaugurated as president in 1965. The thirty long years that followed were, simply put, grim. Mobutu, in his signature leopard-skin toque, abused his power to amass vast amounts of personal wealth at the expense of the Congolese people, who had to endure famine and disease, endemic corruption, and some of the poorest standards of living in the world. By the time that Rwandan forces overthrew his government in 1997, installing Laurent-Désiré Kabila — the father of Joseph Kabila — as president and expelling him from the country, Mobutu had left behind a country in ruins.
Little more than a year after the First Congo War saw Mobutu thrust out of power, the Second Congo War erupted, dragging much of Africa into its wake. The deadliest conflict since World War II left Congo in tatters. It also brought Joseph Kabila to power in the wake of his father’s assassination. Congolese citizens and international observers hoped that his government would effect a transformation, leaving Congo a modern, democratic, and prosperous state. It was not to be.
Fast-forward to 2017, and the citizens of the DRC are wondering if Kabila is intending to cling to power forever. After all, he would only be following his neighbors’ example. In January 2015, protests erupted after the president attempted to change the constitution, acting to delay elections. Human Rights Watch reported at the time that 36 people were killed in the ensuing government crackdown. 2016 came and went, without elections, but with an agreement to hold them. Since then, however, relationships between the government and the opposition have deteriorated. It was reported on June 17 that the Lord’s Resistance Army had stepped up attacks in the DRC. Shortly after that, the US received new reports incriminating Congolese soldiers in the rape and murder of women and children in Central Kasai.
It remains to be seen whether Kabila will ensure a peaceful transition of power or stand by as his country falls back into chaos once again. He could step aside gracefully and allow elections to take place towards the end of 2018. Or, he could further cling to power. Or, be ousted in a coup. None of these options is alien in the region. Since November though, the Congolese franc has fallen in value by over 50% – everyone is broke, and the shelves are empty. Kabila’s actions will now determine the future of Congo, and of East Africa.