Will Congo's Outgoing President Still Pull the Strings?

Will Congo's Outgoing President Still Pull the Strings?

Why you should care

Joseph Kabila has chosen Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, a close ally who lacks his own political base, as his successor.

Joseph Kabila broke a two-year silence on Wednesday by finally indicating that he would not run for re-election in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s long-delayed polls in December.

The president’s decision, which was welcomed by opposition politicians and Western governments, opens the door to the first transfer of power in the country in 17 years. But Kabila’s choice of successor has raised questions about his true intentions and willingness to relinquish control.

“Ultimately, Kabila ceded to national and international pressure,” says Martin Fayulu, an opposition leader and presidential candidate. “He could not resist the Congolese people and the international community any longer.”

Kabila was supposed to step down in 2016, but elections were delayed and he clung to power, leading to violent protests across the country, a slowdown in economic activity and creeping isolation. Last month Kabila delayed a visit by António Guterres, the UN secretary general, and refused to meet Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the UN.

If elections are held in December and Kabila hands over the reins to a democratically elected successor, Congo could begin rebuilding those fractured relations. Haley welcomed Wednesday’s announcement as a “historic opportunity” for Congo to grasp its first peaceful transfer of power.

[Shadary] does not have an enormous base that would bother Kabila, and he does not have the same wealth as others.

Martin Fayulu, an opposition leader

But Kabila’s choice of Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary to represent his ruling Common Front for Congo suggests he may have other ideas.

A former minister of the interior, Shadary was sanctioned by the EU in 2017 for his role in repressing political protests. He is also considered to be one of Kabila’s closest allies.

“Shadary is a divisive figure, both within the FCC grouping and internationally,” says Indigo Ellis, an Africa analyst at Verisk Maplecroft (Kabila’s Common Front for Congo is also known as the FCC). “Kabila will, therefore, almost certainly remain the string-puller behind the scenes.”

A founding member of the president’s party and former governor of the sparsely populated Maniema province in the east of the country, Shadary has been close to Kabila since the president’s father seized power in 1997, but he lacks his own political base.

Some members of the opposition believe that lack of personal support is the reason that more powerful figures in the coalition, such as Aubin Minaku, the head of the parliament, and former Prime Minister Matata Ponyo Mapon were overlooked.

“[Shadary] does not have an enormous base that would bother Kabila, and he does not have the same wealth as others,” says opposition leader Fayulu.

The FCC is a sprawling coalition of more than a dozen political parties, held together by the access to power and public positions that loyalty to the president provides. The selection of a successor therefore risked fracturing that loyalty and was shrouded in secrecy.

The coalition gathered at the president’s farm on Tuesday for two hours, but still no name emerged. Discussions were restricted to a tiny coterie of trusted advisers.

“Mr. Shadary was chosen by Kabila and Kabila alone,” says Patrick Muyaya, a lawmaker and member of the FCC. “I don’t think the coalition would have selected someone under sanction by the EU.”

For now the coalition appears to have accepted the choice.

What happens in Congo in the next five months is critical for regional stability and parts of the global economy. Congo neighbors nine countries and violence can easily spill over its borders. Fighting in the central Kasai region last year alone saw tens of thousands of Congolese flee across the frontier into Angola.

Congo is also Africa’s biggest copper producer and the source of more than 60 percent of the world’s cobalt, the critical ingredient in the lithium-ion batteries needed to power the next generation of electric vehicles.

The country has received billions of dollars in investment since Kabila came to power in 2001 but still struggled to overcome decades of conflict and corruption. Analysts say that a smooth exit is vital to ushering in a new period in Congo’s complicated history.

The prognosis is mixed. Kabila’s promised departure ends two years of uncertainty and should mean that further U.S. sanctions against his inner circle and an escalation in international tensions are avoided. At the same time it sets the stage for a vicious electoral battle between a frustrated opposition and a powerful but fragmented ruling coalition.

“President Kabila not presenting himself as a candidate is a crucial first step,” says Ida Sawyer, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “But tough pressure from DR Congo’s partners must continue for the country to see a truly democratic transition and to prevent more repression and bloodshed.”

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By Tom Wilson

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