SADC fiddles while the DRC burns

When a home catches fire, neighbours dash out to fight the blaze. They are motivated not only by a concern for the occupants’ welfare but also for their own — if the fire is not contained, it could engulf their homes too.

Why, then, does the Southern African Development Community (SADC), which assumes responsibility for the welfare of the region, refuse to attend to the runaway fire that is the crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)? That’s the question that SADC heads of state, who met for Summit in Namibia last week, have failed to answer throughout the three-year political and humanitarian crisis that has gripped the region’s largest and most troubled country.

The long-running armed conflict in various parts of the country involves militias supported by other players that include neighbouring states.

The political crisis, triggered by President Joseph Kabila’s grip on power and his brutal response to dissent, also threatens to destabilise Southern, Central and East Africa, in part because of the country’s geographical position. But SADC’s response has been lukewarm, at best, and, at times, simply silent.

Kabila’s constitutional term ended in December 2016, after he had served two terms and despite a church-brokered agreement to hold elections before the end of 2017. The Independent National Electoral Commission has now set them for December 23 this year.

Kabila, after months of refusing to declare whether he would step down, finally announced on August 8the deadline for registration of presidential candidates and that he would not run again.

But this is unlikely to have much effect on the crisis. Staunch Kabila loyalist and former interior minister Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, who is under European Union sanctions, is the ruling coalition’s candidate. The repression and abuse of fundamental rights remain a major concern and the political opposition and civil society continue to question whether the vote can be credible, free and fair.

Civicus Monitor, an online tool that tracks threats to civil society in all countries, has ranked civic freedom in the DRC as “closed”, the region’s worst rating. The space for civil society to operate in has shrunk sharply amid a violent crackdown on dissent. Security forces have used excessive force against peaceful protesters demanding Kabila’s departure and elections, including the use of live ammunition, arbitrary arrests and blocking the internet.

At least 16 people were killed by security forces during peaceful protests in late December 2017 and early 2018, including human rights defender Rossy Tshimanga Mukendi, and scores of people were arrested. The unfolding humanitarian crisis now has reportedly left about 4.2-million Congolese internally displaced and a staggering 13-million in need of humanitarian aid. Almost 10-million are severely food insecure, including about two million children, who are at risk of acute malnutrition.

Also, SADC countries such as Zambia, Angola, Tanzania and Malawi have had to accommodate thousands of Congolese refugees fleeing conflict and there are growing refugee populations in Zimbabwe and South Africa. Hence it would have made sense, in order to maintain regional stability, for SADC to have taken a strong position on the DRC.

During the last double troika summit in April this year, SADC leaders decided to cancel plans to send a special envoy to the DRC because they were “heartened” by Kabila’s reports of progress made in the preparations for the elections. Instead, they decided to send a special envoy, former Mozambican president Joachim Chissano, to Madagascar to mediate in that country’s political crisis and to extend SADC’s stabilisation mission in Lesotho.

SADC’s hands-off approach to the DRC crisis and Kabila’s role in it enabled the president to increase instability by overstaying his time in office for 18 months and brutally repressing protests.

One cannot ignore the effect of commercial interests in the political business of the country. Two prominent SADC members, Zimbabwe and South Africa, are cases in point, demonstrating that leaders’ personal business interests in the region obstruct meaningful action on the DRC.

As SADC chair last year, many had hoped to see South Africa take a decisive stand against Kabila. But the presidency of Jacob Zuma and his friendship with Kabila delivered little on democracy but a great deal in enormous personal business deals reportedly struck by Zuma’s relatives. South African media reported that Zuma’s nephew, Khulubuse Zuma, sealed a R100-billion oil deal during Zuma’s presidency.

The lukewarm approach to the crisis in the DRC appears to have emboldened Kabila to be able to ride roughshod over human rights.

Zuma’s successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, initially revived hope that South Africa would guide SADC to engage the DRC. Despite six months in office, Ramaphosa’s foreign policy on the country remains unclear but seems to be to give the DRC a chance to exercise democracy. Ramaphosa reportedly said recently that “indications are that these elections will be free and fair”. It is not clear what indications he was referring to.

Zimbabwe’s leaders are also among those who have benefited from mining in the DRC. President Emmerson Mnangagwa was named in United Nations Security Council reports on how mineral wealth was looted from the DRC, so it is hard to see how under his leadership Zimbabwe can speak out against or act over the crisis in DRC.

The greatest hope lies with Angola, which shares a 2 500km border with the DRC and hosts about 35 000 refugees from the neighbouring conflict-ridden Kasai province. Although Angola has backed Kabila in the past, it now sees him as a liability to long-term stability in the region and has changed its position.

But the Lourenço government will come up against SADC’s foot-dragging culture. After all, the organisation has long been known as an old boys’club — a league of political elites who make decisions or keep silent to protect each other and not the citizens of the region. SADC has not learnt its lesson from Zimbabwe, where its people rallied against its lack of intervention in the political crisis, which ended with Robert Mugabe being toppled by the army.

The question asked by Congolese and African civil society is: What will it take to see concrete action to end the crisis? With the angry condemnation of Zimbabweans in mind, the heads of state meeting in Windhoek might have wanted to consider taking steps to put out the DRC’s flames, lest the wind of change send them leaping on to the roof of SADC’s house.

Teldah Mawarire is an advocacy and campaigns officer with global civil society alliance, CIVICUS and Ine van Severen is a research officer with the global civil society alliance, CIVICUS.

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