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Democratic Republic of Congo at a crossroads

By Gregory Mthembu-Salter in Kinshasa
Posted on Thursday, 26 September 2013 12:43

On the 53rd anniversary of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) independence from Belgium on 30 June, President Joseph Kabila said the country has “all of the advantages necessary to join the ranks of the emerging markets”.

But there are competing narratives about whether the DRC can play this winning hand. One is a reformist story, told compellingly by prime minister Augustin Matata Ponyo.

According to this version, the country’s macroeconomic management is finally improving, resulting in gross domestic product (GDP) growth that puts the DRC in the African top five and a lower inflation rate than at any time since the 1960s.

The reformist narrative concedes that political governance is progressing more fitfully, but it maintains that it is advancing nonetheless.

This crowd argues that a competent and technocratic government is steadily replacing short-sighted bureaucratic rent seeking.

Another view sees a depressing slide back into dictatorship.

According to this narrative, the burgeoning business interests of President Joseph Kabila’s clans simply do not permit the president to retire since a different president might cancel the more controversial deals.

If that were true, it would mean Kabila would be obliged to change the constitution in order to run for, and win, a third presidential term.

Donors would need to decide whether to accept this and stay or denounce it and leave.

Either way, it would make the millions of dollars they have poured into elections since 2006 seem like an extraordinary waste of money.

In his interview, Matata Ponyo takes issue with this latter version of events, emphasising instead Kabila’s credentials as a tolerant democrat and the degree to which Matata Ponyo’s reform agenda has the backing of the president.

It is true that Kabila is criticised in the Congolese media in a way that would not be allowed across the river in Brazzaville, in Luanda or in Kigali.

And it is also true that Matata Ponyo has introduced significant reforms, including bancarisation, a policy of paying civil servants and soldiers electronically and directly into their bank accounts rather than in cash.

With senior civil servants and military officers in charge of distribution, it used to be a perfect recipe for embezzlement.

Katangans want prizes

If Kabila opts for a third term, however, he would need the backing of the party bosses of the Alliance pour la Majorité Présidentielle, the coalition that formed to back his presidential bid in 2006.

The price for that backing would include money and jobs, and the choicest job available is the prime minister’s.

Kinshasa’s rumour mill is busy with suggestions that Matata Ponyo’s time as prime minister is running out, and he himself concedes that “reforms can eat reformers”.

But a real GDP growth rate of 8.3% in 2013, despite constrained growth in the mining sector, and inflation from January to May of 0.3% in a country once known for hyper-inflation, speak for themselves.

Kabila would need to consider who else could maintain these figures before removing his prime minister.

A third term would also require the group that pushed Kabila into power – most of whom hail from northern Katanga province – to remain unified.

This may no longer be the case, following the 2012 death of Augustin Katumba Mwanke, Kabila’s premier political adviser and the orchestrator of the Katangan group.

The Katanga heavyweights include: Jean-Claude Masangu, the former central bank governor, who is now looking for a new job; Albert Yuma, the chairman of the board at Gécamines, the copper and cobalt mining parastatal; and suspended police chief John Numbi, who was caught up in the scandal surrounding the death of human rights campaigner Floribert Chebeya in 2010 and is now busy denying claims that he is involved in the financing of Katangan militias.

Without Katumba Mwanke to coordinate and balance competing ambitions, Kabila may struggle to retain their loyalties.

That is before Katanga’s governor Moïse Katumbi and his barely hidden presidential yearnings are factored into the mix.

Conflict in the kivus

Most of the country is at peace and has been for years, but violence has continued in some areas, particularly in the eastern Kivu provinces and Haut-Katanga.

In the Kivus, there is a combustive mix of local and regional causes of conflict.

There is strong evidence that the Rwandan government has been backing and may even have created the Mouvement du 23 Mars (M23), a Congolese rebel group consisting mostly of Nord-Kivu Tutsis.

The Rwandan government denies the charge.

In 1998, when the Rwandan government backed the predominantly Nord-Kivu Tutsi Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie (RCD) in its armed rebellion against the government of Laurent Kabila, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) intervened.

Angolan and Zimbabwean troops deployed under SADC auspices had halted and pushed back the Rwandan army, resulting in a stalemate that dragged on until 2002.

SADC resolved last year to intervene again, and the result is the slow deployment of a new intervention force in Nord-Kivu province consisting of troops from Tanzania, South Africa and Malawi.

The force has a Chapter VII mandate from the United Nations (UN), which is the most robust mandate a UN-backed mission can have.

M23 commander Sultani Makenga has said he is not scared of the intervention force and that his well-armed and strategically positioned troops can recapture Goma, the Nord-Kivu capital, any time.

For its part, the DRC government says it expects the intervention force to engage M23 and “impose peace”.

A quick victory for the intervention force is not impossible, but a protracted and bloody engagement seems more likely. That could result, at least in the short term, in humanitarian catastrophe.

Unlike in eastern DRC, militia violence in Haut-Katanga is explicitly linked to a demand for the secession of the province.

The Katanga Maï-Maï, like many citizens in the province, believe Kinshasa has been sucking the province dry since independence and that it and they would be wealthy if only they were free of Kinshasa’s yoke.

Unlike the M23, which has spokespeople, websites and the like, the Maï-Maï communicates poorly with the outside world. In the absence of clear information, rumours – some fantastical – abound.

But a march on Lubumbashi, the provincial capital, of hundreds of Maï-Maï combatants in March was real enough, alarming both Kinshasa and international mining companies.

The UN mission, now called the Mission de l’Organisation des Nations Unies pour la Stabilisation en République Démocratique du Congo (MONUSCO), has been in the country since 2000, has cost more than $12bn and shows no sign of leaving.

In the capital, Kinshasa, MONUSCO seems like an irrelevance, but its patrols provide a measure of re-assurance in Goma, Bukavu and other eastern towns.

The mission plans to shift most of its personnel to the east of the country over the next two years and to retain its national flight network, which is the best in the country.

Living off the land

An estimated 70% of Congolese live from agriculture, but there are no accurate statistics on production levels in the sector. Technocrats in the prime minister’s office say they are working on the

In the meantime, a controversial land law has been passed requiring a minimum 51% Congolese ownership of agricultural projects and farms. Investors are up in arms, and the government is re-examining the matter.

The country is a renowned ‘geological scandal’ with vast reserves of most minerals, including copper, cobalt, gold, diamonds, tin, tantalum, zinc and uranium.

Output from the mining sector is steadily rising, after a decade of new investment. The country’s copper output in 2012, estimated at 635,561tn, was more than double that of 2009. More production is coming on stream, but power availability and transport bottle-necks are major constraints on growth.

Majority shareholdings in a number of Katangan copper and cobalt mines formerly held by Gécamines, a state-owned mining company, have been sold off via controversial Israeli mining magnate Dan Gertler and might be at risk of confiscation if someone other than Kabila becomes president in 2016.

The DRC, which produces 22,000 barrels of oil per day, has laid claim to offshore oil fields producing 800,000 barrels a day.

The snag is that the oil fields are also claimed by Angola, the country’s aggressive and wealthy southern neighbour.

Independent analysts say the DRC has a good case, which may be why the Angolan government has touted the alternative solution of a common interest zone (CIZ) of fields producing less than 200,000 barrels per day that could be developed by both countries.

According to Congolese senators who have taken up the issue, if the DRC goes for the ZIC the country’s legal claim to all its offshore oil fields will fall away.

Rumours are circulating in Kinshasa that the deal has already been done, but Matata Ponyo insisted to The Africa Report that his government was still studying the issue. ●

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