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After Kabila: Democratic Republic of Congo

By Patrick Smith
Posted on Monday, 12 November 2018 16:50

On 23 December, Joseph Kabila is due to make history when he presides over national elections that are meant to signal his retirement from the presidency. It would be the first time that a Congolese president has left office without being forced to by a coup d’état, a rebellion or an assassin’s bullet. The political transition in the DRC will hand a new leader the power to affect the lives of more than 80 million fellow citizens, long-running conflicts that have destabilised the region and killed and displaced millions of people, and tens of billions of dollars in strategic mining and energy deals.

Because of the vast wealth he and his family have accumulated and worries that he could face prosecution for human rights abuses, Kabila has held on to power beyond the end of his second term in 2016. But his speech to the United Nations General Assembly on 25 September sounded like an oath for departure: “I reaffirm the irreversible character of holding the elections planned for the end of this year.” The follow-up commitment was more problematic: “Everything will be implemented in order to guarantee the peaceful and credible character of these polls.”

Even those activists and politicians who were convinced that ‘Plan A’ was for Kabila to stay in the presidency indefinitely now suggest that regional pressure has forced him and his allies to implement ‘Plan B’: the choosing of a dauphin, who would be under strict control.

Such is the scepticism about the pol­itical class, many Congolese still doubt the elections will take place on schedule, let alone be credible. Those doubts are rooted in bitter experience. First there was the failure of the Commission Electorale Nationale Indépendante (CENI) to organise voter registration and elections on time in 2016 when Kabila was due to stand down. Then some opposition parties struck a deal with the Majorité Présidentielle, giving Kabila another year. But the opposition lacked the muscle, alone, to keep Kabila to the deal. Regional pressure, from Angola, South Africa and, eventually, Zimbabwe, made a difference.

That trio dominate the Southern African Development Community (SADC), of which the DRC is a member. They argued that further attempts by Kabila to prolong his presidency would trigger more instability, with militias fighting in the east and other parts of the country. Adding pressure on Kinshasa was some indirect nudging from the European Union and the United States, although Kabila had declined to meet with Nikki Haley, then Washington’s envoy to the UN.

Opposition politicians accuse the government of stirring up hostilities, even distributing weapons to militias, to delay the elections and Kabila’s exit. “Who financed these militia groups?” asked leading oppositionist Moïse Katumbi, who has been barred from contesting or even entering the DRC. “It’s Kabila […] because he doesn’t want elections,” Katumbi tells The Africa Report. “Even if Kabila does go now, he’s going to leave total chaos,” he adds.

Devoted Dauphin

Kabila’s lengthy consultations within his Parti du Peuple pour la Reconstruction et la Démocratie (PPRD) resulted in the choice of the little-known former interior minister, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, as the party’s presidential candidate. A man of the security system who is under EU sanctions for human rights abuses, Shadary lacks his own base. That much was clear in his acceptance speech on 9 August: “It is the chance, before the Congolese people, to thank almighty God for the grace he has shown us and to thank sincerely and above all the moral authority of his excellency Joseph Kabila Kabange, an exceptional man.”

Then with a nod to outsiders, such as the UN, the African Union and the SADC, Shadary added: “He is keeping his word. He said there will be no problem and there will be no third term.” None of this suggests that, if elected, Shadary will deviate much from the Kabila playbook.

Other contenders, such as former prime minister Augustin Matata Ponyo, former vice-president Azarias Ruberwa or the current chairman of state mining company Gécamines, Albert Yuma Mulimbi, may have been more likely to plough their own furrows. Under the constitution, the president has wide-ranging powers of patronage in appointments and awarding of contracts.

Shadary’s candidacy is a message of continuity. Few expect him, if elected, to follow the example of João Laurenço in Angola and turn on the family of the outgoing president. Kabila will remain president of the PPRD, and could also vie for the presidential nomination in 2023 without breaking the clause that bars candidates from seeking more than two consecutive terms as president. 

For Floribert Anzuluni of the Filimbi citizens’ movement, a Kabila-Shadary transition will not defuse tension: “The real problem is that Kabila doesn’t want to step down. He wanted to stay in power without organising elections.”

Kabila’s designated successor would be isolated and a poor interlocutor says Anzuluni: “He has appointed a puppet to succeed him – a guy sanctioned by the EU, a guy without contacts with the partners outside the DRC.”

Some may quietly rejoice that Kabila has picked a candidate with little name recognition. In telephone polls conducted by the Congo Research Group at New York University in September, Congolese support for Shadary was running at 16%. For Félix Tshisekedi, leader of the opposition Union pour la Démocratie et le Progrès Social (UDPS), it was running at 36%. Earlier polls by the group had Tshisekedi and other opposition figures such as Katumbi or the Mouvement de Libération du Congo (MLC) leader, Jean-Pierre Bemba, far ahead of Kabila or a candidate chosen by him.

Not an energetic campaigner nor a compelling orator, Tshisekedi’s attraction to voters is because he is not from the Kabila camp, and that he is the son of the legendary opposition leader Étienne Tshisekedi. Félix’s advantage is that two of the other popular opposition candidates – Bemba and Katumbi – have been barred from contesting the election. The other leading oppositionist, Vital Kamerhe, is suspected of flirting with Kabila’s side, having once been a minister in his government.

On paper, the opposition candidates have agreed that the best chance of beating Kabila and his dauphin would be a national alliance backing one candidate. Civic groups such as the Conférence Nationale Episcopale du Congo (CENCO) encourage that. But a meeting of all the opposition parties due to be held in Johannesburg on 23 October was cancelled, as was an earlier rendezvous in Paris.

Some in Tshisekedi’s camp may calculate that he may not need an alliance to win, but that would assume optimum electoral conditions and a neutral referee enforcing clear rules. Although CENCO plans to field tens of thousands of observers for the elections, the group sounds alarms on several technical issues. The biggest is the use of hi-tech voting machines instead of paper ballots, and an audit showing that more than six million ­people could be disenfranchised because their fingerprints did not register on the biometric system while another six million on the electoral roll may be too young to vote.

At least 18 out of the 21 presidential candidates reject the use of voting ­machines in the 90,000 polling stations, questioning CENI’s $150m procurement deal with Gemalto, the Amsterdam-headquartered supplier. Critics also point to security weaknesses with the machines and suspicions that they could be used to rig the vote.

Katumbi warns that using voting ­machines in the face of mass opposition could trigger a boycott or worse: “A civil war could start […] people all over the country are not going to agree to results from these machines.” Citing electoral laws that prohibit electronic voting, Katumbi says the use of the machines would nullify the election. In a video that has gone viral on social media, Koffi Olomide, a musical star and friend of Katumbi, is backing the activist campaign against the voting machines.

Possible delays

With elections looming, it will take some hard bargaining between the government and the opposition to reach agreement over the machines. This latest stand-off has raised concerns that the vote could be delayed again, as UN officials and diplomats push for a compromise.

If a deal is struck and Kabila leaves office as scheduled, he would have earned himself a place in Congo’s history, according to author and Congo specialist Jason Stearns. “There are many different Joseph Kabilas, although one has the tendency to remember the one who is in power today,” says Stearns. “As a 29-year-old president, he talked with his enemies, invited in UN peacekeepers and opened up the economy. These decisions had a hugely beneficial impact on many Congolese and ushered in new democratic institutions and the first elections in 40 years.”

Stearns contrasts that Kabila with today’s more familiar version: “the man who has benefited, along with his narrow elite and to the exclusion of most Congolese, from recent multinational investment in the country, who has done little to reform his security services and deal with armed groups in the eastern Congo, and who has presided over the repression of the opposition and the co-option of leaders of all stripes.”

China’s rise to dominance in the DRC’s economy in the Kabila era has changed the country’s landscape beyond recognition, with new highways and railways. Chinese companies are mining some 60% of Congo’s cobalt, a key ingredient for batteries in electric cars.

Prospects for prosperity

Yet the elite networks of business, political and security interests identified by a UN investigation in 2002 maintain a wrestler’s grip over mineral riches and the contracts to extract them. This privatisation of Congo’s patrimony has accelerated under Kabila, and the state’s administrative capacity has remained chronically weak. Civil servants are paid a pittance and they extract rents in the form of bribes and contract commissions.

Many Congolese who grew up under Mobutu would concede that the political climate is more open: opposition newspapers and political tracts circulate widely, as does trenchant criticism of the regime on social media. But there are strict limits to this, as seen in the repression of protests calling for Kabila to hold elections and leave.

Optimists about the DRC, a select group, talk about incremental improvements and the gradual building of institutions. The bigger picture is the prospect of transforming one of the richest countries in Africa, in terms of natural resources, into a modern diversified economy.

That lies partly in the country’s combination of rich cobalt reserves, copper mines and its abundant hydroelectric capacity. A still-hazy vision of that future emerged in September when a Chinese-Spanish consortium announced its plans to raise some $18bn to build the Inga III dam, which could generate 11,000MW, making it one of the biggest hydropower projects in the world.

It would both provide energy and promote economic integration. South Africa has already signed a deal to purchase 2,500MW from the Inga project and energy minister Jeff Radebe says it is ready to double that order.

That is the vision and the opportunity for Congo’s transformation. But first its political class and their partisans have to agree on how to organise credible elections this year. That is proving even trickier than raising $18bn for a gargantuan dam.

This article first appeared in the November 2018 print edition of The Africa Report magazine

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