Photo by Moses Sawasawa.
As far as the health of the planet is concerned, there are two reasons why the Democratic Republic of Congo matters.
First: Beneath its vast land mass lies the world’s largest deposits of cobalt. This rare blue-grey metal is an essential component of the lithium-ion batteries that are supposed to power the green energy revolution. At our current level of technology, going from fossil fuels towards things like solar power and electric vehicles depends on a steady supply of cobalt. No cobalt, no green revolution.
Second: Atop its vast land mass is the world’s second-largest rainforest. Rainforests absorb carbon dioxide and emit oxygen. Keeping them alive is one of the most effective things we can do to keep global heating under control. If other continents had done a better job of preserving their own forests, we might not be in this mess at all.
In other words: what happens in the DRC matters, not just for its people, but for everyone who calls this planet home.
That being said, Congolese citizens do have a few more immediate concerns as they head to the polls on 20 December.
Despite – or because of – its extraordinary natural resources, it remains one of the world’s five poorest countries. Corruption and squandering of public resources “persists and remains largely unpunished”, according to Amnesty International. And a violent conflict with various militia groups, centred in but not limited to the east, shows no sign of abating.
This state of affairs is hardly a resounding endorsement of President Félix Tshisekedi, the incumbent who is running for a second term in office.
His election in 2018 was controversial: independent observers determined that he had finished second, behind another opposition candidate, Martin Fayulu. Nonetheless, the courts and the electoral commission gave the vote to Tshisekedi, perhaps thinking that he would go easy on outgoing president Joseph Kabila, who has been implicated in multiple corruption scandals but has yet to face any prosecution.
If the vote goes ahead on 20 December as scheduled – logistical challenges, including the insecurity in the east, make this uncertain – then Tshisekedi is likely to be declared the winner again, if only because of the electoral advantages conferred by incumbency.
The electoral commission is packed with Tshisekedi loyalists, according to the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies, and opposition leaders complain that both it and the courts are biased in the president’s favour.
These opposition leaders include Fayulu – described by his supporters as “the elected president” – who has promised to right the alleged wrong of the 2018 vote; Moïse Katumbi, the businessman and former Katanga governor who was once one of Tshisekedi’s closest allies; and Denis Mukwege, the Nobel peace prize-winning doctor and activist.
Whoever does end up occupying – or remaining within – the palatial Palais de la Nation has a daunting task ahead of him. The DRC is one of the hardest countries in the world to govern, given its size (it is the second-largest country in Africa, after Algeria), population (96-million people), and poverty level (per capita GDP is just $586.5 – a fifth of Nigeria’s).
But the incoming administration also has an extraordinary opportunity to transform the prospects of the country and the people that live there. If it is able to leverage all that cobalt, and those rainforests, into meaningful development and redistribution of wealth, then the DRC could be transformed for generations to come.
To do that, the next president will have to do better than almost all of this country’s rulers to date. From Belgium’s King Leopold to Mobutu Sese Seko to Joseph Kabila, the land’s natural resources have too often been used for the personal enrichment of a tiny elite.
To make things even more complicated, the DRC will not be left to its own devices while it figures out how to govern itself better. The vast mineral riches on offer, coupled with the dizzying new revenue-generating possibilities of unregulated carbon-offset markets, have attracted the attention of exploitative companies and countries, none of whom appear to have the best interests of the Congolese people at heart.
Some illustrative examples: Chinese state-owned companies have signed multibillion-dollar deals to secure access to cobalt mines. But they have already been implicated in corrupt and fraudulent practices.
Neighbouring countries, most notably Rwanda, are accused of stoking conflict and then taking advantage of the chaos to export Congolese minerals as their own.
Glencore, the Swiss-based mining company, is aggressively pushing ahead with new mining ventures in the DRC, even after it was forced to pay $180-million to settle cases of corruption there.
The United States and Europe tacitly endorsed the last election, even when independent observers concluded it had been stolen, in the interests of stability – but whose stability, exactly? Certainly not that of the nearly 7-million people who are currently internally displaced within the DRC – the highest number ever recorded, according to the International Organisation for Migration.
There is little evidence from his first term to suggest that Tshisekedi is capable of surmounting these considerable challenges. A number of his allies and aides have been implicated in major corruption scandals. Insecurity has worsened, with the national army repeatedly implicated in civilian massacres amid dubious alliances with some militia groups. The same old companies appear to be doing the same old dodgy deals.
But the cobalt keeps flowing. The rainforests are not disappearing as quickly as they could. While that may not translate into any material benefit for the country’s residents, it is all that a brutally indifferent world appears to require from the DRC – regardless of who wins the election.