Time is running out for Africa’s poorest major nation.
The struggle to control the continent’s largest copper mines and the world’s most extensive cobalt reserves inflicted years of civil war on the Democratic Republic of Congo. And in a mockery of his nation’s name, President Joseph Kabila is risking a return to that chaos by officially placing democracy on hold.
The government says it hasn’t had a chance to update the electoral register in time for elections scheduled for November. Instead, it has hounded the main opposition leader out of the country. Moïse Katumbi fled to South Africa for medical leave last week after being charged with hiring mercenaries, which left him risking imprisonment or death at home.
Amid mounting tension, Congolese are taking to the streets today and demanding that the President step down. Pressure is set to follow from overseas in the form of sanction threats and stalling on badly needed World Bank assistance.
Kabila has ratcheted up hostility against the opposition since it united behind Katumbi. Until this point, a lack of cohesion among the opposition ranks meant Kabila had it relatively easy. While the combined opposition votes would have been sufficient to defeat Kabila in the 2006 and 2011 elections, he still won at least a 20% lead over the second-place candidate.
But Kabila would have no such luck against Katumbi. The charismatic former Governor of the mineral-rich Katanga region also owns TP Mazembe, the first African football team to play in the FIFA Club World Cup finals.
Katumbi has managed to win the support of the “G-7 coalition” of parties, the Collectif des Nationalistes and the Alternance pour la République 2016. He’s reached out further in an attempt to join forces with Étienne Tshisekedi’s Union for Democracy & Social Progress and Vital Kamerhe’s Union for the Congolese Nation.
In his determination for an unconstitutional third term as president, Kabila has moved swiftly to prevent the former governor from running. On the day Katumbi announced his candidacy earlier this month, Justice Minister Alexis Thambwe announced that he had ordered a probe into Katumbi’s alleged recruitment of foreign mercenaries.
According to Thambwe, the government “has proof” of “Katumbi’s involvement in the recruitment of mercenaries, including several retired American soldiers” in a purported coup plot.
While the DRC has observed a moratorium on capital punishment for over a decade, the charges could carry the death penalty. Under Congolese law, a candidate cannot take part in the presidential race if they have been found guilty of a crime.
Despite attempts by the US Embassy in Kinshasa to scotch the charges, Katumbi was hauled before the Lubumbashi Prosecutor General’s office every other day for a week this month. There, security forces beat his supporters and sprayed tear gas. Katumbi was admitted to hospital on May 13, suffering the effects of tear gas inhalation.
Though Kabila has yet to comment publicly on his political future, it’s clear he’s seeking to retain power for as long as possible. The electoral commission, known as CENI, announced in January that voting scheduled for November would be postponed for approximately 16 months in order to update the voter roll.
Few expect an election even then. In a highly questionable interpretation of the constitution, the Constitutional Court declared on May 11 that if elections are not held in November, Kabila has the right to remain in power beyond the end of his mandate on Dec. 19.
Bringing criminal cases against political opponents is a favored old trick. Two years ago, leading opposition figure Vital Kamerhe was indicted for defamation and faced up to three years imprisonment.
Just a year ago, Katumbi was named on a list of 20 politicians accused of fraud, corruption and money laundering. Before the 2011 election, he was accused of money laundering, arms trafficking and financing illegally armed groups. His bank accounts were seized by the state.
This time around, there is some semblance of truth behind allegations of Katumbi hiring protection.
Standing for president in the DRC is a dangerous undertaking and Katumbi did, in fact, contract a group of ex-US military security advisors through Jones Group International, a consultancy run by General James L. Jones Jr.
Jones, a personal friend of Katumbi, served as Barrack Obama’s National Security Advisor until 2010.
According to their own accounts, the men were unarmed and were deployed by Katumbi to assess the best position for surveillance cameras and plan escape routes.
“You Won’t Scare Us!”
The brouhaha demanded US attention particularly after Darryl Lewis, an American security advisor under contract to Katumbi, was arrested during a demonstration in Lubumbashi. The US Embassy in Kinshasa responded May 5 by expressing “deep concern” over the incident.
The Embassy added that it was “looking actively” at imposing sanctions on a number of Kabila’s key allies.
The potential list includes Kabila’s brother and twin sister (both of whom are MPs); Interior Minister Évariste Boshab; Communications Minister Lambert Mende; Chairman of the state mining company, Albert Yuma Mulimbi; and the notorious Israeli diamond tycoon, Dan Gertler.
The DRC response was, to put it mildly, undiplomatic. “You can come up with anything you like – sanctions or whatever,” fired back Henri Mova Sakanyi, the Secretary General of Kabila’s party, the PPRD. “You won’t scare us!”
Without sanctions, Washington’s powers of persuasion have proven limited. The US has tried numerous times to convince Kabila to hold elections on time and criticized attempts to extend his tenure, through talks with Secretary of State John Kerry and President Obama. State Department Spokesman John Kirby has been vocal on the need for timely and credible elections.
With the regime showing no sign of bowing to international pressure, Olivier Kamitatu, a former DRC Planning Minister and a staunch Katumbi supporter, led a delegation of opposition politicians to the US earlier in May calling for more pressure on Kabila.
The unfortunate most likely course of events is a continued targeting of dissent with brutal police force, arbitrary arrests and the prosecution of key opposition leaders, triggering a round of US sanctions against Kabila associates in 2017.
Such persecution and civil society tensions within the key economic hubs of Kinshasa and Lubumbashi don’t bode well for the DRC’s economic outlook. The country has done little in recent years to actively improve its economy, in part because it has benefited from annual GDP growth well above 7.2% since 2012. But the 2015 commodities crash has severely undermined public finances.
The government is seeking between $250 million and $500 million of World Bank assistance, in addition to $100 million from the African Development Bank to help revive its flagging economy. Its dire need for external support and investment to stave off a deep recession is ultimately the best hope for influencing Kabila back on the path to democracy.
For now, however, Kabila appears fixated on protecting his own economic interests, rather than those of his country.
The author is Luke Doogan, Africa Analyst at West Sands Advisory Limited. After working in the energy industry in Ghana, Luke has focused on investigating the intricacies of how informal networks exert influence over political and commercial decision-making throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. West Sands is a business intelligence, investigations and political advisory firm that has, since 2006, helped clients identify opportunities and reduce risk in emerging and frontier markets.