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Democratic Republic of Congo: The Kabila legacy

By Gregory Mthembu-Salter in Kinshasa
Posted on Wednesday, 4 November 2015 10:51

Joseph Kabila has been president of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for nearly 15 years. This makes the lavishly moustached Kabila the country’s second-longest serving head of state after Mobutu Sese Seko, who was president for 32 years, or third if one counts King Leopold II of Belgium, who was head of the Congo Free State for 23 years.

The Belgian government stepped in to take over from Leopold back then, in large part because of the scandals that engulfed his rule. Mobutu’s reign also ended in disgrace, with the president famed internationally for such extreme corruption that a new term was coined for it – kleptocracy. Mobutu was forced to flee the country in May 1997 in the face of a regional military assault ostensibly led by Kabila’s father, Laurent-Désiré Kabila.

How will history judge Joseph Kabila? The president is constitutionally obliged to leave office in December 2016, but the signs are that he may intend hanging on a while longer, courtesy of a murky political strategy of delays, confusion and stalling, known as ‘glissage’ (slippage).

Kabila has thus far refused to be drawn publicly on whether he will leave on time or stick around. Instead, he has often said that people should allow him to complete his mandate and to judge him on what he has done instead of speculating about what he might do in the future.

In a speech on 30 June commemorating the 55th anniversary of the country’s independence, Kabila proclaimed: “We have preserved national unity, national independence and safeguarded the national integrity of our large and beautiful country.”

When Kabila came to power, after the assassination of his father in January 2001, the DRC was engulfed in a war that had split the country in three and dragged in almost all its neighbouring states. Kabila, unlike his father, understood the risks and sued for peace.

Relative peace

Within a year, the war was over and the majority of foreign troops went home. In what must surely count as an achievement for Kabila, most of the country has been at peace most of the time ever since, though in the eastern provinces and Katanga several militia remain active. Some receive foreign backing and there has been continued, though increasingly sporadic, conflict.

How much this relative peace can be attributed to Kabila is debatable, not least because the world’s largest United Nations peacekeeping mission, which the body mandated to take on the rebel militia, has been in the DRC throughout his presidency.

Additionally, what peace there is in the east is fragile, and the national army remains a very long way from being a unified, professional and effective fighting force.

Back in 2001, the economy was in a disastrous state, with no growth, infrastructure broken, rapid inflation and a tanking currency. Soon after assuming office, Kabila called in the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and Western donors. The initial results of his reforms, at least, were impressive.

Inflation and the value of the Congolese franc stabilised, and new investment flowed into the mining, telecommunications, construction and infrastructure sectors.

According to John Kanyoni, the vice-president of the country’s chamber of mines: “These were courageous reforms, and they yielded good results. Our money has stabilised, and our economy has grown. The key challenge is to diversify our economy, since our growth is still too based on mining.”

The IMF suspended lending to Kabila’s government in 2012 over governance concerns, and the World Bank has a much-reduced presence.

Instead, there has been a strong tilt towards China, whose state-owned companies have built nearly all the new infrastructure that has sprung up in the country over the past decade.

The country’s real gross domestic product growth was an impressive 9% in 2014 and is indeed forecast to top 10% this year, making it one of the highest not only in Africa but the world. In 2014, the DRC was the biggest copper producer in Africa, beating its neighbour Zambia for the first time in decades.

Industrial gold production is rising too, but agricultural production remains critically weak. Kabila wants to remedy this with state-owned mega-farms, a handful of which have started operating near Kinshasa and in the east.

It remains to be seen, however, whether this can again become a viable, truly profitable and effective way to farm or whether the money would be better spent assisting existing smaller-scale agriculture.

There are no reliable statistics, but it is evident that unemployment and poverty have remained sky high. In Kinshasa townships like Limete, Matonge and Bandalungwa, the streets bustle till all hours with people looking for opportunities: hawkers, stall holders, porters, taxi touts, mechanics, hairdressers, musicians, gangsters and thieves.

The big economic questions for Kabila are whether the country’s impressive macroeconomic numbers are translating into broad-based improved well-being. Certainly, currency stability has helped.

Congolese no longer worry as they used to whether their hard-earned cash would be worthless the next morning. But the lived experience for millions remains one of poverty, weak-to-non-existent state social service provision and harassment from government agents.

Fundamental needs

According to opposition leader Vital Kamerhe: “The priority is to still to meet the fundamental needs of the population – access to food, work and healthcare.” The government is set to miss most of the Millennium Development Goals, which come to an end in 2015, but it reports that it has made the most progress in fields like infant vaccination and the primary school enrolment rate.

The DRC receives a level of scrutiny from investigative journalists and non-governmental organisations not often afforded to its neighbours. As a result, at least some of the financial dealings that apparently sustain its political system have been laid bare.

Bloomberg news agency and the London-based lobby group Global Witness have exposed numerous deals in which rich mining assets belonging to state-owned companies have been sold cheaply, more often than not to Israeli tycoon Dan Gertler, and then sold on for a vast profit.

Following a comparatively liberal phase during the previous decade, Kabila’s stance towards the popular expression of political opposition has hardened.

New York-based lobby group Human Rights Watch reported in July: “In recent months, Congolese security and intelligence officials have clamped down on peaceful activists, political leaders, and others who oppose attempts to allow […] Kabila to stay in power.”

Viewed globally, these elements make for a distinctly spotted Kabila legacy. Yet, in a region where many presidents are pulling out the creative stops to evade term limits and stay in office, were Kabila to leave quietly and on time the multiple concerns and criticisms that currently surround his rule could be eclipsed and he might still secure a glowing reputation as an African democrat.

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