Joseph Kabila’s Ugly Legacy

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) faces a “crisis in governance” under President Joseph Kabila, said panelists at an event hosted by the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center on May 12, and, though Kabila is constitutionally ineligible for a third term as president, it’s becoming increasingly clear that he has no plans to step down when his second term expires at the end of this year.

The panel discussion coincided with the release of an Atlantic Council issue brief, Congo Blues: Scoring Kabila’s Rule, authored by Pierre Englebert, H. Russell Smith professor of international relations and professor of African politics at Pomona College. Africa Center Director J. Peter Pham and Richard Gittleman, president and executive director of United for Africa’s Democratic Future, joined Englebert on the panel to discuss the publication’s findings. The publication builds on a previous brief by Gérard Prunier, Why the Congo Matters, which makes the case for increased global engagement with the DRC.

Kabila has ruled the DRC since 2001, assuming the presidency following the assassination of his father, Laurent-Désiré Kabila, who had seized power in 1997. Joseph Kabila was elected for the first time in 2006 and then re-elected in a contentious election in 2011.

In the fifteen years that Kabila has ruled the county of around eighty million, he has done little to improve the lives of its citizens, the majority of whom remain desperately poor.

“There is not a strong desire to actually deliver effective governance,” said Englebert. Instead, Kabila focuses on “using the state as a resource-appropriation mechanism” and relies on violence to repress political opponents who threaten the regime’s access to the country’s vast resources. “The big thing that the government is doing, to put it very simply, is theft,” he said, and Kabila’s reliance on confusion, dithering, meaningless dialogue in the place of credible action, and absenteeism serves to guard his grip on power.

To a large extent, the Kabila regime is able to “exonerate itself” from this ineptitude by outsourcing its responsibilities. “Security is delegated to MONUSCO [the United Nations-led peacekeeping force in the DRC], development policies are delegated to donors and international and local NGOs, education and public health is largely delegated to church organizations,” said Englebert.

While the DRC has experienced commendable recent macroeconomic growth, and while the regime has made limited improvements to transparency and access to public services, Kabila’s government still operates “below the threshold of effective governance,” Englebert concluded.

What’s worse, Englebert added, while “violence and repression has been part of the DNA of this regime for a long time,” the increasing cooperation between actors in the country’s political opposition has begun to concern the regime, which has been more willing to resort to “significant repression and harassment of opponents.”

“To those people who believe there is open political space for dialogue, that’s just fiction,” said Gittleman.

Electoral confusion

Article 220 of the Congolese constitution prohibits the revision of presidential term limits beyond two five-year tenures. With the legal end of Kabila’s final term only months away, he has yet to announce whether a presidential election, scheduled for November, will take place.

Gittleman agreed with the other panelists’ observation of Kabila’s propensity for inaction and underscored Kabila’s tendency to use administrative technicalities as a stalling tactic.

In 2015, for example, Kabila announced that a national census was needed before the presidential election could take place, a process which would have likely delayed the election for several years. “So what happen[ed]? People take to the streets, many people are killed in the ensuing riots. That was a very costly lesson for President Kabila,” said Gittleman.

An Evolving Political Situation

The issue brief was launched in the wake of substantial political drama in the DRC. On May 2, a coalition of opposition political parties rallied behind opposition candidate Moïse Katumbi, a former regional governor of the mineral-rich Katanga province, and declared him a joint presidential candidate. Three days later, Katumbi officially announced his bid for the presidency, only to be immediately summoned to court on charges of hiring mercenaries to launch a coup d’état, including retired American solider Darryl Lewis, who has been detained by the regime’s intelligence agency. While the US Embassy in Kinshasa immediately contested the allegations, Lewis remains, at the time of this writing, in custody and without access to the embassy’s consular affairs office.

Over the past few days, Katumbi has regularly appeared in court in Lubumbashi, the capital city of the Katanga province, while thousands of his supports face tear gas and police truncheons outside. But there are signs that the international community may be ready to take action. On May 13, the United Kingdom’s special envoy to the Great Lakes region, Danae Dholakia, announced that Britain may seek European Union sanctions against those responsible for “actions or decisions involving violence against citizens and intimidation of the opposition.”

In any case, given the immense logistical challenges of organizing a national election across sub-Saharan Africa’s largest country, the window to make the November deadline could soon be closing. “Given the weakness of the administrative apparatus, it’s hard for me to imagine that they could do this properly, even with donor’s assistance, in a few months,” concluded Englebert.

Listen to a full audio recording of the event here.

Julian Wyss is a Program Assistant at the Africa Council’s Africa Center. Follow him on Twitter at @JulianSWyss.

Image: From left: J. Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa program, moderates a panel discussion with Pierre Englebert, H. Russell Smith professor of international relations and professor of African politics at Pomona College, and Richard Gittleman, president and executive director of United for Africa’s Democratic Future, at the Atlantic Council on May 12. (Atlantic Council/Julian Wyss)