Elections loom while the government and U.N. battle for influence
by PETER DÖRRIE
The Democratic Republic of the Congo has been the archetypal failed state for decades. When it comes up in public debate, even mentioning the country conjures images of corruption, war and suffering.
Two successive wars ravaged Africa’s largest nation in the 1990s and 2000s, killing as many as five million people. The second conflict is sometimes nicknamed Africa’s World War, because it sucked in a total of nine countries from across the continent — and more than 20 major armed groups.
While violence and armed conflict are hardly a thing of the past, the DRC today is much different from 2002 when the Sun City Agreement officially ended the Congo wars.
The United Nations peacekeeping force in Congo — known as MONUSCO — has a substantial presence in the country. The force includes more than 20,000 soldiers and about 900 civilian staff. The international force has played a huge role in improving security in the country.
But it’s a shaky and relative “peace.” Armed groups continue to fight in the dense forests and inaccessible hills of eastern Congo. The country could be an economic giant, given that it’s so rich in natural resources that Belgian colonial administrators referred to their colony as a “geological scandal.”
Instead, the violence is an extension of the country’s politics. Think of it like a Congolese version of Game of Thrones — with various political factions jockeying for access to resources — with the president’s faction on top.
The parliament and the prime minister are responsible for the actual law making. But the president wields tremendous power, not least because of his role as commander-in-chief of the military and his influence on the security apparatus at large.
Congo’s weak checks and balances also give the president and his inner circle almost unfettered access to state finances and control over the very lucrative mining sector.
Currently, Joseph Kabila holds the presidency. He took over from his father Laurent-Désiré in 2001 after one of the latter’s bodyguards fatally shot him. Kabila, who was the world’s youngest head of state at the time of taking office, was subsequently reelected in 2006 and 2011.
Both times, the voting was marred by irregularities and Kabila’s main adversaries, Jean-Pierre Bemba and Etienne Tshisekedi, disputed the results.
As per the DRC’s constitution, the next general election must be held in 2016. After already having served two regular terms, Kabila isn’t allowed to stand again. But neither Kabila nor his inner circle are currently willing to give up their privileged positions.
Jason Stearns, who has written a book on Congo’s wars — and worked as the coordinator of the United Nations’ group of experts on the country — told War Is Boring Kabila isn’t necessarily an autocrat. But that’s not exactly a compliment.
Kabila — just like every Congolese president before him — relies on a precarious set of alliances with certain military officers, political heavyweights, businessmen and foreign governments to stay in power.
“He really has his hands tied,” Stearns said. “He is not a dictator. He can play outside the law to divide and rule.”
Members of Kabila’s inner circle have floated the idea of outright changing the constitution — a move en vogue in Africa in recent years — to allow the president another term. But these trial balloons have been met with stern opposition even from his political allies, some of whom might think about succeeding Kabila themselves.
Political tensions can easily lead to violence in the DRC. When the government tried to change the electoral law in January — in a move perceived by the opposition as an attempt to stall the elections and prolong Kabila’s term — angry protesters took to the streets.
At least 36 people died in confrontations between the security forces, and opposition members and the government had to abandon parts of the planned reform.
At the same time, Kinshasha is also trying to limit the influence of the international community — especially the U.N.— on Congolese politics.
MONUSCO, under its current leader and German diplomat Martin Kobler, pioneered an aggressive approach to peacekeeping. Kobler negotiated the formation of the Force Intervention Brigade, a special peacekeeping unit staffed by soldiers from South Africa, Tanzania and Malawi.
In contrast to common peacekeepers, the FIB had the explicit mandate to engage — and eliminate — armed groups. This aggressive military component was embedded into a political deal that saw Rwanda withdraw support for the rebel group M23 — its proxy army in eastern Congo — which was subsequently destroyed in a Congolese military operation heavily supported by the FIB.
Kobler’s military strategy is generally regarded as quite successful, and to be sure, the country’s eastern regions have become more peaceful. But the operations haven’t come without a cost.
For one, the U.N. ceded much of its political influence by concentrating on a military approach to security far in the east. The Congolese government, long weary of U.N. meddling in national politics, happily took advantage. “The FIB gave people the illusion that [if] we only had more gunships we would have the solution,” Stearns says.
Now that the security situation throughout the country has improved, the Congolese government has argued that the U.N.’s presence is no longer needed in the country … at all.
When the U.N. Security Council recently debated the renewal of MONUSCO’s mandate, Congo pushed for a “significant withdrawal” of U.N. forces. The Security Council took a more cautious stance, but nonetheless reduced the force by 2,000 troops.
The U.N.’s position has weakened further because a large part of its leadership is leaving the country in 2015. Both Kobler and his military counterpart — Brazilian Gen. Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz — are expected to go on to new positions.
This type of rotation isn’t unusual, but the lack of continuity during the critical pre-election time is less than ideal for the U.N. “Everything the U.N. mission does depends on the will of the Congolese government to cooperate and currently that is non-existent,” Stearns said.
One of the most important military operations in recent months was a government offensive against the FDLR rebel group. This happened without MONUSCO troops — because the Congolese government gave command to two officers who are barred from cooperating with U.N. forces due to past human rights abuses.
These appointments could be another sign that Kabila is putting the elections above everything else. Congo’s army is notoriously ineffective — at least historically — and known more as a vehicle for its officers to enrich themselves than for its military prowess.
“The army is considerably better than four or five years ago,” Stearns said, “Not necessarily in terms of abuse, but in terms of efficiency.”
The government stopped the wholesale integration of armed groups, a practice that encouraged rebellions and desertions. With help of the U.N., the army’s logistics and training improved.
“I’m afraid that some of that progress is now being eroded,” Stearns said. “Because Kabila cares more about loyalty than professionalism in the run up to the elections.”
Stearns said he doesn’t think that Kabila will attempt to put himself on the ticket again. The president’s hold over the country isn’t strong enough. But both he and his entourage will do everything in their power to guard their interests throughout the election process.
Right now, Kabila is probably looking for a successor he can trust. Given that doesn’t have a close family member who could take his mantle, it might not be easy. One possible candidate would be the governor of Kabila’s home province Katanga, Moise Katumbi.
Katumbi, who has a considerable private fortune and is the owner of a successful soccer club, could garner wide support — and he’s a member of the presidential majority. Stearns said he believes that Katumbi is pragmatic enough to leave Kabila’s interests alone after succeeding him in office.
But Kabila continues to stall the electoral process, a clear indication that he hasn’t made his mind up yet. “His default position is to sit and wait,” Stearns said. “If Kabila decides today that he has found somebody he trusts, he would probably be best for him to have the elections as soon and as fair as possible.”
In any case, the opposition is divided and weak. Kabila’s two main opponents, Jean-Pierre Bemba and Etienne Tshisekedi are out of the picture. Bemba is in The Hague, where he stands accused of crimes against humanity, while Tshisekedi is said to be on his death bed.
With the U.N. isolated from the political process and the opposition without a leader who could unite it, Kabila could possibly drag out the electoral process as long as it pleases him. According to the Congolese constitution, the incumbent president remains in office until “the president-elect effectively assumes his functions.”
This tactic could endanger the progress that Congo has made since 2002 and lead to more violence, Stearns said. “Its important to highlight how critical the upcoming electoral process will be.”
It’ll be the first time in the DRC’s history that power will change hands as a result of a democratic election — if the process isn’t delayed or compromised too heavily.
“It could undermine everything that has been done during the peace process,” Stearns warned. “The stakes are extremely high.”