Powershift in Congo
President Kabila steps down after 17 years in power, leaving a potential vacuum.
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is a country situated in central Africa, with a semi-presidential government. The Congo is a former Belgian Colony and is the largest francophone country in the world, with a population of seventy-eight million. The DRC has seen long periods of political and economic instability since its independence in 1960. The incumbent President, Joseph Kabila, is the son of Laurent-Desire Kabila, a Congolese revolutionary who restored democracy after thirty-two years of military dictatorship.
Joseph Kabila ascended to the presidency in 2001, just ten days after his father was assassinated by one of his bodyguards. In these seventeen years, Joseph Kabila has faced a constant armed struggle in Eastern Congo against rebel militias who are reportedly funded by neighbouring Uganda and Rwanda. Kabila’s seventeen-year administration is marred with a complex web of corruption allegations, the worsening humanitarian situation and an overall failure to govern. The UN, US and a host of African leaders have made it clear President Kabila has overstayed his welcome and urged him not to run for a third term this December.
The Congo has struggled with reliable leadership since its independence in 1960. The thirty-two years of military dictatorship scarred the psyche of the nation and a redemption of democracy was unable to mend the trouble with insurgents and rebel militias. President Kabila has been unable to tackle the rebels in Eastern Congo, who have waged an expensive and dragging war with the country. The Congo’s last major strategic victory was in 2013 when they managed to defeat a large rebel group, the M23. That victory was short-lived as by 2016, Congo was facing numerous rebel groups operating on multiple fronts, stretching the already inadequate Congolese army.
President Kabila has enjoyed virtually no consequences for his poor management of the country’s resources, as was evident in his electoral victories in 2006 and 2011. The Congolese constitution prohibits any person from holding office for more than two consecutive terms; Kinshasa exploded in violent protests in September 2016 when the national electoral authority announced that the next elections won be held until early 2018. President Kabila was due to step down on 27 November 2016 but continued to stay in power as it was not possible to ascertain “the number of voters” as per the electoral commission’s Vice President.
The Kabila administration has been accused of carrying out violent crackdowns against dissents, political opponents and even religious movements. In May 2017, The Council of Europe sanctioned the DRC for “Serious human rights violations” when the religious group Bundu Dia Kongo was subjected to police violence in the southern Province of Kasai.
However, the pressing aspect of President Kabila’s announcement is the question over Congo’s ability to conduct credible, free and fair elections. President Kabila’s seventeen-year term has hidden the damaging shortfalls of Congo’s democratic institutions and his resignation will strain an already fragile electoral system. Elections in the past have been characterised by violence on party grounds, and with the absence of a clear frontrunner, or a sense of order, the election could become a stage for score-settling violence, especially against members or supporters of Kabila’s party.
The Congo is an extremely resource-rich country, but its citizens are among the world’s poorest. The resignation of President Kabila may lead to a more progressive, development-oriented President, but it may also result in an administration which is indifferent towards its natural resources in favour of lucrative (but highly exploitative) foreign investment. It remains to be seen if Congo’s democratic institutions can weather the storm of the elections this December.
Our assessment of the situation in Congo Is that President Kabila’s resignation is the step in the right direction for the country. His administration has failed in its duties and it is a welcome change for the Congo to have the opportunity to elect a new President. However, we also feel that President Kabila’s regime was a dam which kept the flood at bay; if democratic systems fail in Congo, we feel that the violence may become more intense, more common and more brutal. We believe that this is the Congo’s moment to decide the course of its future; should it manage to hold on to its democratic roots, the Congo stands to benefit greatly.