This Country Is a Powder Keg, and Its Leader’s Holding the Match
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because we don’t need more geopolitical sparks in this world.
Protesters are throwing stones in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, security forces are firing back tear gas and flame-engulfed barricades are becoming a regular sight on the streets of Goma and Kinshasa. President Joseph Kabila, who assumed office in 2001, after his father’s assassination, has made nothing but promises. A presidential election is due this year, but Kabila — constitutionally barred from a third term — appears hellbent on sticking. And Congolese civil society has responded: “Non, ça suffit!”
Just another leader turned dictator? Yes, but this one rules a state at the heart of the African continent — and one surrounded by regional instability — which means Kabila’s the one holding a match in a powder keg.
The Congolese are fed up with economic hardship, for starters. The Congo enjoyed a 9 percent growth in GDP in 2014, according to the World Bank, yet it remains among the poorest in the world, with gross national income per capita at just $680 that year. Add to that the loss of everyday liberties spurred by arbitrary arrests, and sometimes deaths, of opposition voices and a high court decision giving their illustrious leader a legal footing for staying put — at least for a while.
It’s been just over a decade since the Second Congo War ended, claiming an estimated 5.4 million lives, and with ISIS and al-Qaida increasingly looking to make inroads amid chaos, a big ball of mess in Sub-Saharan Africa is far from ideal. As Martinican philosopher Frantz Fanon once said: “Africa is shaped like a gun, and Congo is the trigger. If that explosive trigger bursts, it’s the whole of Africa that will explode.” It’s a point Gérard Prunier, senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, backs up: “If you don’t care about the Congo, the Congo will care about you.”
Kabila claims he’ll respect term limits but wants to get a few things done before he holds presidential elections, namely launching a national census — a massive undertaking — and holding local elections. But Congo hasn’t even begun to prepare for the logistical maneuvers needed (think voter registration, printing and distributing of ballot papers, etc.) for any election, a process that has taken upward of 18 months in the past. So ballots are unlikely to drop until at least next year, says Phil Clark, a regional expert and associate professor in comparative and international politics at SOAS, University of London. Prunier figures Kabila could hold out as long as four years.
But Kabila’s biggest problem might be that civil society doesn’t want him to run. Recent months have seen increased protests and police crackdowns, yet Congolese civil society isn’t backing down. And if and when Kabila asks the military — a poorly paid, poorly trained ragtag team — to suppress widespread rebellion, it’ll likely lead to more chaos. The military suffers internal divisions and insubordination as it is, experts say. So while Prunier suspects the soldiers would help quash protests, he predicts they’ll do it for their own purpose, not Kabila’s, which could lead to mass looting.
If there’s a war on his eastern border, that could legitimize the proclamation of a state of emergency.
Gérard Prunier, senior fellow, Atlantic Council’s Africa Center
In the past, Kabila’s had little to fear from a disjointed and fractured opposition. But this time around, Moïse Katumbi, the former two-term governor of the Katanga Province, is enjoying the rise as a unity figure — something “quite new in Congolese politics,” Clark says. Having stepped down from the governorship when his time was up, Katumbi, among DRC’s richest men and the owner of a popular soccer club, was looking like Kabila’s worst nightmare. Until, that is, Kabila charged his opponent with trying to hire mercenaries and undermine state security, which led to Katumbi quitting DRC and going to London. It could become a permanent exile, Clark says, “because he fears for his safety in the DRC.” Meanwhile, protesters will likely blame Katumbi’s flight on Kabila, which could escalate the situation.
Kabila still needs excuses to delay elections, and for those, Prunier points to the eastern border, noting that he’ll likely jump at the chance to declare a state of emergency in DRC — whether it’s trumped-up genocidal charges in Burundi, Rwanda’s response to such charges or any cross-border violence. “If there’s a war on his eastern border, that could legitimize the proclamation of a state of emergency,” Prunier says. Also, the Kivu regions in eastern DRC have already seen an escalation in non-election-related violence in recent months. The fear, Clark says, is that if you add election-related mayhem to an already volatile situation, it could lead to mass internal displacement, which historically has led to more conflict, starvation and disease.
Sure, some hope that Kabila’s patronage network will dry up and that he’ll still go before things turn even uglier. Donors are pulling out funding ever so gradually, and with the recent downturn in mineral prices, “there is some pressure on how long Congo can sustain this,” says Kevin Amirehsani, a senior analyst at Global Risk Insights. But with a court ruling saying he can stay as caretaker until elections are held, and his strong opponent fleeing, Kabila has little incentive to speed things up.
Experts believe he’ll instead monopolize on domestic and regional uncertainties, perhaps even welcoming them. Anything that could destabilize DRC, in other words, will grant Kabila, whose office did not respond to our request for comment, another reason for glissement — French for slippage, or delay.