As President Joseph Kabila continues to hang on to power in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), two years and counting beyond the expiry of his constitutional term limit, the activists and politicians who want him to step down are beginning to wonder: Is there anyone who can persuade Kabila to put the country ahead of himself?
The list of those who have tried and failed is long and illustrious. Opposition parties are sidelined. Civil society and independent journalists have been largely ignored, or intimidated into silence. The Catholic Church, usually considered a major power broker in Congolese politics, has been unable to enforce the 2016 New Year’s Eve political agreement, which it mediated to much fanfare at the time. Popular protests have been brutally suppressed — nearly 200 people have died since 2015, and thousands more have been arrested.
On the international front, the European Union and the United States have imposed targeted sanctions on top Congolese officials, but these have not persuaded Kabila to change course.
His government has professed indifference as Belgium, the former coloniser, suspended all direct humanitarian bilateral aid.
Most of the levers of power have been pulled, and still Kabila sits pretty in Kinshasa, even as the country burns around him.
‘Young man, retire’
There is one lever left, however; one last power broker yet to come out against Kabila. This is the Southern African region, which has been characteristically silent as the political crisis in the DRC has worsened, and especially the region’s dominant power, South Africa, which maintains a large peacekeeping contingent there.
“There is a dynamic in international relations where we see the West coming up with pressure and imposing conditions, but then the Southern African Development Community [SADC] will be a little shy, out of some kind of solidarity that we fail to understand,” said Denis Kadima, executive director of the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa.
This was especially true under former president Jacob Zuma, who enjoyed a close personal relationship with Kabila.
“We have also heard about president Zuma having interests through his relatives in the DRC,” said Kadima.
Zuma’s nephew Khulubuse Zuma owns valuable DRC mining concessions.
“We are hoping that a new initiative will not be motivated by personal gain but by what is best for Congo’s stability,” Kadima added.
With Zuma gone, Congolese opposition leaders and civil society activists are now hoping that his successor, President Cyril Ramaphosa, will be a little less shy; that he might emulate the energetic involvement of former president Thabo Mbeki, who helped to broker the 2002 Sun City agreement, where a deal was signed between some of the warring factions as part of the Inter-Congolese Dialogue after four years of the Second Congolese War.
“South Africa can play a big role … Right now with the new dawn [being] pushed by President Ramaphosa, we feel that it’s a new opportunity,” said Sylvain Saluseke of Lutte pour le Changement, a Congolese youth movement. “Not only do we know that South Africa can do something [for us], but South Africa itself knows that it could depend on the DRC for economic expansion.”
Saluseke wants Ramaphosa, who is also the SADC chairperson, to encourage Kabila to organise credible elections, and then step aside. “Ramaphosa must just tell him, young man, go well in your retirement.”
Ida Sawyer, Human Rights Watch’s DRC researcher, said SADC support has been crucial in keeping Kabila in power. “Until now Kabila has appeared to rely on support from the region, including other leaders who have appeared to use violence and corruption to entrench their hold on power while attempting to maintain a facade of democracy.”
Ramaphosa represents change, said Sawyer — or at least the hope of change. “There are many concrete measures that Ramaphosa could take. One could be cutting bilateral support to the Congolese government if certain benchmarks aren’t met. South Africa could consider imposing targeted sanctions against top Congolese officials responsible for human rights abuses and corruption and election delays. Another possible threat would be to signal clearly that Kabila would not be recognised forever as the legitimate leader, showing that South Africa would support this proposal for a transition without Kabila.”
When the Mail & Guardian tried to get comment, the department of international relations and co-operation passed the query on to the president’s office, which failed to respond. This suggests that, although Ramaphosa may be taking the lead on the DRC portfolio, it is not especially high on his agenda.
“Ramaphosa isn’t shackled to personal economic interests in the DRC like Zuma, but the big question is how much political and economic capital he is willing to spend on reining in Kabila,” said Alex Fielding, a risk consultant with 4C Strategies, a company that specialises in risk and crisis management solutions.
“I fear that Ramaphosa will focus on domestic political goals and uniting the ANC before expending that capital in the DRC at the expense of Khulubuse Zuma and the pro-Zuma ANC faction.”
Strategy of chaos
Kabila took office in 2001 after his father Laurent-Désiré was assassinated. Kabila’s term in office officially expired in December 2016. But he did not organise the presidential elections necessary to replace him, arguing that the country did not have the technical ability or the financial resources to pull off a credible vote — even though it is his responsibility, as the head of government, to make the necessary arrangements.
Since then, Kabila has continued to delay. Elections are now scheduled for December 2018 but few observers believe that they will take place, given the lack of preparation and worsening insecurity. Fighting in the Kasais, the Kivus and Ituri provinces has displaced millions. The United Nations estimates that 13-million Congolese — more than 10% of the 78-million population — require humanitarian aid.
The government maintains that there is an electoral funding shortfall of $900-million.
“Elections in Congo are an illusion,” said Gérard Bisambu, head of elections watchdog Agir pour des élections Transparentes et Apaisées. “There’s no reality to the organisation of elections, looking at what’s happening now. All the talk we hear about the voters’ roll and the electoral calendar and the voting machines: this is nothing but marketing and publicity.”
Bisambu rattles off a litany of irregularities that mean the election cannot possibly go ahead on time. A key concern is the introduction of electronic voting machines, which may increase the potential for electoral fraud. Another is that the chronic insecurity will disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of potential voters.
“When we have insecurity, especially in north Kivu and the Kasais and Ituri, it’s very difficult to have elections. In Djugu, for example, where the violence in Ituri has been happening, 300 000 people have registered to vote, but how will they be able to vote on election day?” he asked.
It’s hard to escape the conclusion that much of the violence is politically motivated, said Bisambu — and designed to cause enough chaos to prevent elections from going ahead, thereby keeping the president in power.
Sawyer agrees: “Well-placed security and intelligence sources have described to Human Rights Watch official efforts to sow violence across the country in an apparent strategy of chaos to justify further delays.”
For now, that strategy of chaos appears to be working as the DRC becomes ever more unstable. And even assuming they do have the influence to make a difference, there is no sign yet that Ramaphosa, the South African government or SADC are planning to ride to the country’s rescue.