It has become a bit of a surreal experience to fly into Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, or DRC. Visitors are greeted by a modern terminal, opened in 2015 and capable of servicing 1 million passengers a year. The fresh tarmac of a 10-lane highway that glides commuters into the city center is lined with solar-powered streetlights and stops for a new public transit system. Clearly Kinshasa is trying its best return to its former glory, when it was admiringly called “la belle.”
On the surface, a lot has changed since the last presidential election in 2011. Air-conditioned shopping centers have opened along the Boulevard, the city’s most prestigious street, along with upmarket fashion boutiques and jewelers. Kinshasa’s nouveau riche down cocktails in trendy bars, and rents in certain parts of the city, which the government has ridded of street children and other undesirables, now surpass those in New York and Paris. Has DRC, notorious for its seemingly endless civil wars, finally turned a corner on its way toward peace and economic development?
Unfortunately not. The slums are still there, bordering the new highway from the airport, and diplomats and experts fear the arrival of a major new political crisis, akin to what took place in neighboring Burundi in April 2015, when youth-led protests erupted against a disputed third mandate for President Pierre Nkurunziza. Burundi’s security forces brutally suppressed the protests, and Nkurunziza was re-elected in a sham election in July 2015. Since then, the country has been on the brink of civil war. Hundreds of thousands have fled to neighboring countries, and thousands have been killed.
A “second Burundi,” involving massive unrest and loss of life, now seems possible in DRC, due to efforts by President Joseph Kabila, a close personal friend of Nkurunziza, to similarly extend his rule. Both the First Congo War (1996-1997) and the Second Congo War (1998-2003) started as rebellions in the country’s restless eastern provinces; those conflicts are sometimes called Africa’s World War, due to the involvement of nine neighboring countries and more than 20 armed groups, as well as the millions of victims they left behind. In contrast, today’s crisis originates in the political machinations of the capital, but it could still throw the region into chaos.
Kabila assumed the presidency after the death of his father and predecessor, Laurent Desire Kabila. He was re-elected in a disputed vote in 2011 to serve his second regular term. According to the constitution, his successor has to be elected in November 2016; a two-term limit bars Kabila from standing again.
But Kabila and his entourage, like their counterparts in Burundi, have given no indication that the president plans to step aside. On the contrary, government activity currently seems to revolve almost exclusively around securing Kabila’s position.
Elections or National Dialogue
“In our history we always had cases of postponed elections, and they were always constitutional,” DRC Minister of Justice Alexis Thambwe Mwamba explained in a regularly rebroadcast interview with RTNC, the government television channel. Mwamba is referring to the elections of 2006 and 2011, which took place only after delays for various but justified reasons like security, financing and organizational matters. In the end, Mwamba maintains, what follows the end of Kabila’s second term will be dictated by Article 70 of the DRC’s constitution, which states that the “president stays in office until the president-elect effectively assumes his functions.” This reading was confirmed by the Constitutional Court in May.
A “second Burundi,” involving massive unrest and loss of life, now seems possible in DRC, due to efforts by President Kabila to extend his rule.
Of course, the existence of a president-elect requires an election to be held, which, says Mwamba, is difficult under the current circumstances.
DRC’s electoral commission, known by its French acronym, CENI, has hit a bottleneck in its upcoming election calendar, in part due to catching up on other already postponed ballots. Provincial governors were due to be elected in August 2015, the first local elections since 1959. But those polls were first moved back to last October and then to March 2016, due to a $2 million hole in the budget that, according to CENI, made the postponement necessary.
In the meantime, the cards were reshuffled: In an extensive constitutional reform, the government redrew provincial boundaries, increasing their number from 11 to 26. Come election day, almost all governorships of the new provinces were carried by Kabila loyalists.
In addition to the redrawn provincial boundaries, the voting suffered from irregularities. An independent expert commission announced in March 2016 that voter rolls hadn’t been updated since 2011, leaving voters who have come of age since then—a considerable share of a country where two-thirds of the population is younger than 30—excluded. Other allegations of fraud concerned the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a Rwandan rebel group operating in eastern DRC that was reported to have bought up to 500,000 voter IDs from corrupt officials, handing them out to foreign-born fighters and their families.
Today’s crisis originates in the political machinations of the capital, and could throw the region into chaos.
Local and international experts agree that the voter registry needs to be overhauled before a credible election can take place, but this would require time and money: $200 million and at least a year, according to CENI. The government requested funding for the task from the European Union at the end of 2015, but, according to diplomats, missed a crucial deadline in filing the paperwork. The money consequently won’t arrive in Kinshasa until 2017, leading CENI’s chair, Corneille Nangaa Yobelu, to announce in July that elections won’t take place this year.
As if to give comparisons to Burundi even more credibility, at a rally marking Kabila’s 45th birthday on June 4, Henri Mova Sakani, the secretary-general of the ruling People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy (PPRD), mooted the possibility of holding a constitutional referendum on an amendment to allow the president to run again.
Divide and Rule
Instead of elections, Kabila announced during a rare address to the nation in late 2015 that he would convene a so-called Inclusive National Political Dialogue among the country’s important national actors “to guarantee peace, stability and development.”
Kabila’s roundtable, which has yet to be scheduled, is supposed to discuss, among other proposals, the possibility of a transitional government, installed via a constitutional amendment. However, Kabila’s opponents fear that this would give the president the opportunity he needs to change the term limit, or legitimize an extended interim period with him as head of state.
The opposition is seething. Major opposition parties have refused to attend the gatherings, and accuse the government of a slow slide toward a de facto third term for Kabila.
Opposition politicians and members of civil society have formed the Front Citoyen 2016, a loose umbrella organization that has organized events like “ville mort,” or dead city: a general strike, in which large parts of the population of major cities stayed at home for a day in February, to demonstrate against the government.
But DRC’s notoriously fractured opposition hasn’t really managed to overcome its divisions. In parallel to Front Citoyen 2016, another group of opposition parties, many of which have supported Kabila in the past, came together under the label G7 to announce a rival candidate to Kabila: Moise Katumbi, former governor of Katanga, the country’s richest province in terms of minerals, which was split into four different entities under the aforementioned provincial reform.
Katumbi is a former ally of Kabila and a political heavyweight. He has the financial resources to mount a serious challenge to the presidency; he owns DRC’s most successful soccer club, TP Mazembe, and has stakes in several copper mines. Administrative experience, local popularity and ties to DRC’s influential diaspora have earned him the image of the country’s most promising politician in a generation. In a public burning of bridges, Katumbi sent an open letter to Kabila in 2015, demanding his resignation within the constitutional term limit.
Kabila and his entourage, like their counterparts in Burundi, have given no indication that the president plans to step aside.
In response, the government has spared no opportunity to undermine Katumbi. A court in Katanga’s provincial capital, Lubumbashi, found him guilty of selling a house without owning it. In front of the courthouse, Katumbi was attacked with tear gas by police, who also arrested his bodyguards, some of whom were U.S. citizens. As a consequence, Katumbi faced a new lawsuit for charges of treason, with the government accusing him of hiring foreign mercenaries. “The trial was conducted with the sole aim to try to prevent my candidacy and damage my reputation,” Katumbi said.
Before the outcome of the trial was announced, Katumbi fled to South Africa, ostensibly for a medical check-up. In an interview he alleged that he was injected with poisonous substances by the government, but he had reportedly been struggling with a chronic disease for some time. In the past he has undergone treatment abroad for extended periods of time.
He is currently in Paris, officially still for medical reasons. But in an open letter published on June 30, DRC’s independence day, he promised to return home soon. By the end of 2016 at the latest, he defiantly wrote, “Kabila won’t lead the DRC anymore.”
But Katumbi is still a ways off from uniting the opposition behind him. The two most significant opposition players historically speaking, 83-year-old Etienne Tshisekedi of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress party and Vital Kamerhe of the Union for the Congolese Nation (UNC) party, have maintained their distance from him. Both have already claimed the mantel of Kabila’s main challenger.
Tshisekedi’s camp even initiated its own umbrella movement, the Rassemblement, launched on June 9 in Brussels. Kamerhe sent an observer, but didn’t endorse the effort until a few weeks later, when the UNC’s general secretary, Jean-Bertrand Ewanga, announced his party’s support for the movement. Kamerhe stood at his shoulder during the announcement but didn’t say a word, a reflection of the continued differences among the opposition over how best to counter Kabila.
The younger generation, which accounts for more than two-thirds of DRC’s 70 million people, is fed up with this disjointed and self-centered approach that has historically proven to be highly ineffective in challenging the status quo. They have started to form alternative movements. Filimbi, or Whistle—previously known as La Lucha or Struggle for Change, and DRC’s largest national student movement—led countrywide protests against a possible constitutional change and third mandate for Kabila in early 2015. These demonstrations were brutally suppressed by the regime; 42 protesters were killed by security forces. Fred Bauma and Yves Makwambala, the leaders of Filimbi, were arrested by the secret service and remain in custody without official charges.
“The continued detention of Fred Bauma and Yves Makwambala a year after their arrest is a stark reminder of the Congolese authorities’ willingness to silence peaceful protest,” Ida Sawyer, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watchsays. “The authorities should immediately drop the baseless charges and release Bauma, Makwambala and other activists and politicians held solely for peacefully expressing their political views.”
Minister for Communications Lambert Mende has a different view: Filimbi was planning “terrorist activities” and a “violent insurrection,” he claims, without providing evidence to back up these allegations.
Meanwhile, a judiciary tainted by corruption makes a fair trial unlikely for all of those arrested.
“Clientelism has undermined our justice system,” says Venane Kalenga of the Congolese human rights organization Lawyers Coalition for Access to Justice. “Even though the constitution theoretically guarantees the independence of the judiciary, it is still politicians who decide [outcomes].” Kalenga describes how civil society activists are intimidated by security services, threatened or even disappeared. “The whole country faces a crisis of legitimacy at the end of Kabila’s second term.” He, like so many others, is afraid that renewed protests will again lead to mass arrests and that the situation may develop into a second Burundi.
The younger generation is fed up with a disjointed and self-centered approach that has historically proven to be highly ineffective in challenging the status quo.
Experts see strong indications that Kabila plans to follow in Nkurunziza’s footsteps, and has already positioned his most important pieces on the board. Like Nkurunziza, Kabila certainly has experience surviving a treacherous political situation. He first ascended to the presidency after his father was killed by one of his own bodyguards in 2001. Since then, the younger Kabila has had to keep the precarious balance among DRC’s powerful generals intact. None of them can be allowed to accumulate too much influence, or they may be tempted to take the top job for themselves. But at the same time, Kabila also has to strengthen his own allies in the armed forces, to be able to rely on the army’s loyalty in a situation of crisis.
To counter public opposition during the coming election cycle, Kabila embarked on an ambitious security sector reform program in 2014. The powerful general and Kabila ally Gabriel Amisi, also known as Tango Four, became responsible for the defense of Kinshasa, traditionally the location of major anti-government protests. Gen. Philimon Yav, the most important member of the influential Yav clan—from which the elder Kabila’s most loyal officers traditionally hailed—is now responsible for the southern part of the country, including the mineral-rich and strategically important region of Katanga. Both military zones received shipments of new tanks in April, according to author interviews with diplomats and United Nations experts.
The Economy: A Ticking Time Bomb
This underscores the fact that the prelude to the election won’t be decided exclusively in Kinshasa, but also in Katanga, home to Katumbi and Kabila, whose wife and twin sister have become more economically and politically influential there in recent years.
Katanga is located in DRC’s so-called copper belt, home to Africa’s largest reserves. The crash of copper prices beginning in 2015 has had catastrophic consequences for DRC’s finances. Copper production dropped for the first time in six years, a slide that reached about 20 percent by April 2016 and will likely continue this year. Copper and cobalt had accounted for 79 percent of the DRC’s exports in the first half of 2015, and the mining sector as a whole is responsible for about 20 percent of GDP. The government had to scale back its 2015 growth estimate from over 10 percent to 7.7 percent. Mining companies in the copper belt have had to stop production, because they can’t pay their workers anymore. In a recent report, the London-based NGO Global Witness revealed that DRC’s government is trying to hawk mining concessions at dumping prices to Russian and Chinese investors to retain liquidity.
The continued low copper prices are costing DRC more than $200 million per year—more than two-thirds of the total government revenue of $320 million. Financial analysts fear that the government won’t be able to pay government employees and, even more importantly, soldiers anytime soon. This will further escalate tensions around the elections, because it increases the risk of a split in the armed forces, but also a return to the kind of predatory behavior that has characterized the army for decades.
“The whole country faces a crisis of legitimacy at the end of Kabila’s second term.”
The administrative reform that split Katanga into four provinces also has a negative impact on the sector. The 249-mile journey from the main mining hub of Kolwezi to the Zambian border now crosses two provinces, Haut-Katanga and Lulaba, instead of one, doubling the informal taxes that transport companies have to pay at province borders. The measure also changes the power balance between Katanga’s ethnic groups and may intensify conflict over land, political posts and jobs.
The first signs of a potential nationwide financial crisis appeared in early 2016 when DRC’s third-largest bank, BIAC, had to close for a short time in March, after the central bank didn’t extend its line of credit. BIAC had to limit withdrawals to $500 per customer per day, triggering a bank run.
Since the days of hyperinflation under former dictator Mobuto Sese Seko, who was deposed in a coup in 1997, the Congolese don’t have a lot of faith in the banking system. Savings are accumulated in U.S. dollars, not in Congolese francs. But dollars are hard to come by these days—another consequence of the export crisis. BIAC customers besieged the bank’s cash machines for weeks to secure their savings.
Exchange rates are now deteriorating, and the price of food, which DRC largely imports, is climbing in the capital, another contribution to rising tensions.
A Shot Across the Bow for Kabila
During the elections of 2006 and 2011, the U.N. played a pivotal role, almost single-handedly conducting the electoral process. In 2011, the U.N. mission in DRC, known as MONUSCO, supported the effort financially and logistically, but showed buyer’s remorse when the result turned out to be tainted by widespread fraud and irregularities. For the coming cycle, the international community will likely stay almost completely on the sidelines as a result, though the major players—the U.N., EU and U.S.—have yet to announce whether or not they’ll be present.
This is only one example of how relations between the Congolese government and the international community have reached rock bottom. In 2015, differences with the U.N. came to a head around the question of military operations against the FDLR in the East. As MONUSCO’s 2013 mandate envisioned, it was expected that peacekeepers and Congolese soldiers would fight shoulder to shoulder, in part due to concerns over the DRC armed forces’ human rights record. But Kabila frustrated these plans, even threatening during the height of his dispute with Martin Kobler, the U.N.’s top official in DRC at the time, to expel U.N. soldiers completely.
Kinshasa, DRC, July 31, 2016 (AP photo by John Bompengo).
MONUSCO is the largest and most expensive U.N. mission in the world, fielding 22,000 troops and thousands of civilian personnel. Last year, the U.N. Security Council decided to withdraw 1,700 soldiers from the mission, and Kabila continues to favor a complete withdrawal of U.N. forces.
MONUSCO’s current mandate, which was renewed in March 2016, makes reference to the elections and puts pressure on Kabila to respect the constitution and the electoral calendar, arguing that “the humanitarian situation remains of great concern, as well as the delays in preparing for the November presidential elections.”
In 2011, MONUSCO supported the election, but showed buyer’s remorse when the result turned out to be tainted by widespread fraud and irregularities.
Maman Sidikou, Kobler’s successor and MONUSCO’s top official, voices similar concerns. “First, credible and meaningful political dialogue is needed to overcome the impasse in the electoral process,” he said. “A strong message on the need for political consensus and an agreed, sustainable way forward will be important, while also emphasizing the link between a credible electoral process and upholding fundamental human rights.”
But Kabila won’t be chased out of office by a few stern words from Washington, and local and international observers watch clouds gather on the horizon with trepidation. Political tensions are almost guaranteed to escalate, and it remains to be seen if the country will fall back into widespread chaos and violence.
Against that backdrop, Burundi’s descent into violence serves as a worst-case scenario for DRC, not least because it offers encouragement for Kabila to stay his course. After all, the international community’s reaction, including that of the regional East African Community and the African Union, has been indecisive and shown no appetite for forceful intervention, taking the U.N.’s strongest threat off the table. As presidents across the continent take pains to extend their own terms, Kabila’s attempt to hold onto power seems increasingly par for the course—and likely to succeed.
The forces protecting Kabila’s bid for a third term extend beyond the presidency. Army generals, Kabila’s family members and political allies—all will need assurances that his successor won’t harm their political and financial interests or try to settle old scores, of which there are many. Not all of these assurances can realistically be given, and so every change to the status quo will face powerful spoilers who have often demonstrated in the past that they are willing to throw the country into chaos to protect their own interests.
To prevent a complete meltdown, the international community will probably have to go along with Kabila’s dialogue-focused approach, even though it clearly is an attempt at stalling the whole election process. A transitional period with Kabila as interim president looks like the most likely compromise at this time, although this only postpones, rather than solves, the question of when, how and with which candidates the next elections will take place.