/ 26 June 2017

Beleaguered Kabila finds a friend in Zuma

Presidents Jacob Zuma and Joseph Kabila.
Presidents Jacob Zuma and Joseph Kabila.

It has been a tough few weeks for Joseph Kabila. Two related challenges have left the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo looking unusually vulnerable on the diplomatic front — and could, perhaps, endanger his bid to remain in office long after the expiry of his second term (which officially ended on December 19 2016).

But as Sunday’s state visit to Pretoria demonstrated, Kabila still has one friend in the region: Jacob Zuma.

Kabila’s first problem is the ongoing violence in the Kasais, three provinces in the west of the country where his army is struggling to contain an armed insurrection. So far, estimates suggest that more at least 3 000 civilians have been killed in the fighting, with tens of thousands more fleeing across the border to find refuge in neighbouring in Angola. The United Nations (UN) has found evidence of 42 mass graves, and wants to investigate the possibility that government forces were implicated in war crimes or crimes against humanity.

Last week, the United Nations’ Human Rights Council — over the strenuous objections of the Congolese mission — gave the go-ahead for an independent international investigation of these alleged crimes. For Kabila, the consequences of this investigation could be severe. If his government is found to be culpable, then at best Kabila could be looking at new sanctions on top officials and possible International Criminal Court charges brought against the perpetrators of the crimes; at worst, Kabila himself, as commander-in-chief and therefore ultimately responsible for his army’s actions, could be indicted.

The violence in the Kasais has also prompted Kabila’s second headache, which is even more severe: a noticeable deterioration in relations with Angola. Angolan President José Eduardo dos Santos has been playing a key behind-the-scenes role in mediating the political crisis in the DRC, and has come to Kabila’s rescue on several occasions. His ulterior motive is obvious: any instability in the DRC could easily spill over its borders into Angola. But as the Kasais demonstrates, the DRC is already unstable — and that instability is already breaching Angola’s borders. Backing Kabila is no longer working for Luanda.

As Reuters reported last week: “A change of tone in Angola’s relationship with longtime ally Congo has left Congolese President Joseph Kabila more isolated than ever as he clings to power in his vast central African country…Luanda is frustrated by Kabila’s handling of several crises, including his failure to step aside when his mandate ended last December and a conflict in which refugees have poured across his country’s long border into Angola.”

All this bad news has left Kabila searching for friends. On Sunday in Pretoria, he found one. Jacob Zuma rolled out the red carpet — both literally and metaphorically — for his fellow head of state. The relationship between the pair has always been unusually amicable and goes beyond the diplomatic.

“The relationship between Zuma and Kabila is the best Joseph has in the region. In fact, it’s more of a personal relationship than a state to state relationship,” said Claude Kabemba, director of the Southern Africa Resource Watch.

Not only do the two presidents like each other, but there is also a business connection between their two families, by means of the commercial activities of Zuma’s nephew Khulubuse Zuma. There have long been question marks over the propriety of these activities.

At the state visit, Zuma and his Minister of International Relations and Co-operation Maite Nkoana-Mashabane remained silent on the issue of the alleged atrocities in the Kasais, and put no pressure at all on Kabila on the subject of elections. Nkoana Mashabane went so far as to liken Kabila’s situation to that of the ANC, and pledged full support. “The true solutions would be made in the DRC, found by the people of the DRC. All we can do is to support you as you go through this current political transition,” she said.

In the carefully-choreographed world of diplomatic protocol, the lavish welcome extended by Zuma amounts to a ringing endorsement of Kabila. “The silence from South Africa on the situation in Congo can be construed as an acceptance of Kabila’s behaviour,” said Kabemba. “It is a diplomatic victory for Kabila, but it’s a failure of foreign policy for South Africa in terms of showing leadership.”

Kabila returns to Kinshasa with plenty of work still to do if he really does want to carry on ruling the country. But with a public vote of confidence from South Africa, who maintain 1300 peacekeepers in the country as part of the UN mission, his position becomes just that little bit easier.