The United States must work to avoid another ‘world war’ in Africa, says the Atlantic Council’s J. Peter Pham
The United States must ratchet up pressure on Congolese President Joseph Kabila in an attempt to convince him to leave office; a failure to do so would risk dragging the country and its neighbors into a costly war, said J. Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center.
Kabila’s decision to remain president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) beyond his constitutionally mandated two terms has sparked deadly protests across the country. Etienne Tshisekedi, a senior opposition leader, called on the Congolese people to peacefully resist an “illegal, illegitimate leader.” Nevertheless, hundreds of protesters have clashed with security forces.
Worried about the situation spiraling out of control and down a familiar path to civil war, Pham said that the United States must derecognize Kabila and go after his ill-gotten gains. “It is time to send a very clear and unambiguous signal because it is in the interest of the world not to get dragged into another Congo conflict, and have to deal with the loss of lives and the expense of peacekeeping,” he said.
An estimated 5 million people were killed in the DRC between 1997, when Mobutu Sese Seko was ousted after a 32-year rule, and 2003.
“Joseph Kabila has pushed us to this precipice. Let’s be very clear, he either does the right thing and surrenders power now or he will be removed out in some other way. The choice is his,” said Pham.
Kabila took power in 2001 after his father, Laurent Kabila, was assassinated by a bodyguard. He has served two five-year terms after elections in 2006 and 2011—the latter a highly disputed poll whose results were denounced by independent observers ranging from the country’s influential Roman Catholic bishops to the European Union’s election monitors. His final term expired on December 19.
Congo’s election commission has said, however, that it was unprepared to hold elections before 2018 because it will take at least until July of 2017 to update the voter rolls. In May, the constitutional court, appointed by Kabila, ruled that the incumbent could remain in office until a successor is elected. Kabila’s advisors say he believes stepping down before a successor is elected would violate the constitution, an interpretation disputed by many who point to the charter’s provisions for possible vacancies in the presidential office.
On this point the constitution is crystal clear, said Pham: “You serve your two terms and you get out.” Once the president’s second term ends, if a constitutional successor has not been elected, it is the duty of the president of the Senate to lead a transitional government whose principal responsibility is to organize elections within three months.
Kabila has formed a transitional government in which he has named a minor opposition leader, Samy Badibanga, prime minister. Under this arrangement, Kabila retains the presidency.
J. Peter Pham spoke in a phone interview with the New Atlanticist’s Ashish Kumar Sen. Here are excerpts from our interview.
Q: What is your assessment of the situation unfolding in the DRC?
Pham: This is a crisis that we knew was coming for a long, long time. I first wrote publicly about this looming crisis in 2014. The constitution of the Democratic Republic of the Congo is very clear. The president has, at most, two consecutive terms. Full stop. The text explicitly states that the limit on presidential terms is one of the parts of the constitution that cannot be changed.
We knew Kabila’s term was coming to an end and when the date certain was going to be. I warned that unless elections were held it would be taken as a signal that he was digging in his heels and planning to stay on beyond his limits. We have done two studies about the potential for conflict in the area and about the governance record of the current regime, both with a goal of raising awareness of what was at stake.
Q: If, as the election commission says, elections cannot be held until 2018 what is the way forward?
Pham: The constitution provides an alternative. If the president’s term ends, the government is taken over by the president of the Senate whose powers are carefully circumscribed and whose primary job is to organize elections within a very limited time. It is clear that the intent of drafters of the constitution and the overwhelming majority of Congolese who approved their work in an internationally-organized referendum was to head off the very possibility of the scheme that Joseph Kabila and his minions are trying to perpetrate. The election commission, appointed by this president, had all these years [to plan for the elections]. It wasn’t like it was a mystery that elections were due. The regime shouldn’t be allowed to remain in office because it failed in its duty to organize the elections. They also didn’t fund the elections. The budget last year for the rather questionable activities of the president was several times greater than the amount that was allocated for the electoral commission.
Q: Why is the transitional government formed by Kabila unacceptable?
Pham: The transitional government represents no one but a lame-duck president whose term has expired and who is banned from running again and one of the minor opposition leaders, both of whom each have at beat single-digit support. There was a very large scientific poll, the such first-ever conducted in the Congo, by the Congo Research Group at New York University that made it very clear that the vast majority of Congolese want Kabila out: 81 percent oppose any change to the constitution that would enable him another term in office and 74 percent say he should leave this year. The largest support went to Moïse Katumbi, the former governor of Katanga, who had the backing of 33 percent; the second-largest amount of support went to Etienne Tshisekedi, a longtime opposition leader aligned with Katumbi, who had the support of 18 percent. Between the two of them they not only had the two largest vote total but together formed the absolute majority of the country—and this in a system that only requires the winner to be first-past-the-post. These two leaders are not part of this so-called transitional government. In the same poll, Kabila was backed by just 7.8 percent of those interviewed.
There is also no provision in the constitution for a president whose term has expired to appoint a transitional government. The constitution is very clear. You serve your two terms and you get out. If elections are not held the president of the Senate takes over and has 120 days to organize the elections. You can’t wait till the expiration of your term and organize a new government under newly manufactured rules. How would people in the United States react if no elections had been held in November and then come January 20 President Obama were to say, “Well, we haven’t held elections so I am going to appoint a new government that will stay on for two more years and then we’ll get around to holding elections”?
Q: Is the national dialogue effectively over?
Pham: The only thing there is to dialogue about are the conditions under which Joseph Kabila surrenders power he is now holding illegally against the plain letter as well as the spirit of the constitution. Almost 90 percent of the Congolese people voted to approve the constitution, which was promulgated by Kabila himself after they ratified it. The Congolese people expressed their will. They wanted a president who had a two-term limit.
Q: Do you see the crisis in the DRC developing along the lines of Burkina Faso, where in 2014 protests ousted Blaise Compaore as he was trying to extend his 27-year rule?
Pham: I think it is far more dangerous. People forget that the last time Congo went into full political crisis, in the Second Congo War, nearly a dozen African countries were dragged into the conflict, plus various armed groups, and upwards of more than five million people lost their lives. It was, for good reason, called “Africa’s World War.” Given the fact that Kabila is staying on extra-constitutionally against the clear will of the Congolese people, he is bound to invite chaos.
Q: Is the country then back on the brink of a civil war?
Pham: It is on the brink of a very deep crisis that could conceivably lead to armed conflict. The thing for Kabila to do is to follow the constitution and get out of office and make way for the transitional government—not one of his own manufacture, but the one the constitution provides for.
Q: What should the international community do to defuse this crisis?
Pham: The United States led the way last summer sanctioning two officials complicit in the repression of political opposition and civil society. It has recently sanctioned two additional officials closely associated with the president, including his chief of security. The European Union has joined us in the latest round and the European Parliament has passed a toughly-worded resolution with wide support across party groups. It is time for the United States to get serious, and more specifically, to derecognize Joseph Kabila as the head of state of that country since by his own constitution he is no longer president.
The United States should also go after the assets—Jeffrey Gettleman of the New York Times has laid out considerable evidence of corruption in an extraordinary article which appeared over the weekend—of key members of the regime, including the president and his twin sister Jaynet, as well as to slap travel bans on them.
It is time to send a very clear and unambiguous signal because it is in the interest of the world not to get dragged into another Congo conflict and have to deal with the loss of lives and the expense of peacekeeping—to say nothing of the humanitarian tragedy that such an outbreak in violence would mean for the long-suffering Congolese people.
Joseph Kabila has pushed us to this precipice. Let’s be very clear, he either does the right thing and surrenders power now or he will be removed in some other way. The choice is his. Either way, there is no future for him in the Congolese presidency.
Ashish Kumar Sen is deputy director of communications at the Atlantic Council. You can follow him on Twitter @AshishSen.