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Kabila’s Strengths and Vulnerabilities as DRC Deadline Nears
Kabila’s Strengths and Vulnerabilities as DRC Deadline Nears
Stabilising the Democratic Republic of Congo after an Apex Power Struggle
Stabilising the Democratic Republic of Congo after an Apex Power Struggle
Op-Ed / Africa

Kabila’s Strengths and Vulnerabilities as DRC Deadline Nears

Originally published in Independent Online

Protests have been announced for December 19, the day President Joseph Kabila’s mandate is supposed to end. What should we expect?

For many, December 19 should be the end of Kabila’s second and last term in office. Opposition parties and civil society groups are invoking article 64 of the constitution, which places with the people the “duty” to defend the country against unconstitutional rule. Large demonstrations in January 2015 and this September revealed a popular mood against Kabila’s attempts to amend the constitution, which would allow him to stay in power. Both series of protests were violently repressed and dozens killed. After September, demonstrations were banned and some organisers were arrested or prohibited from domestic travel. This repression has dampened popular mobilisation.

This reliance on security and intelligence will continue and pro-regime youth groups are being mobilised in Kinshasa. Without a consensual agreement on the date of elections and the transition period, the opposition is bound to call for protests: its credibility is at stake. So protests and violence are almost inevitable. But there are signs that repression has had an impact and December 19 may not be as explosive as some expect.

The ruling majority portrays the 19th as a “normal” day, noting the constitutional court ruled that the president will remain in office until his replacement is elected. While the court’s independence is heavily contested, this interpretation is an important underpinning of the AU-backed the October 18 agreement which put the new election dates in April 2018, leaving President Kabila with full powers.

What is your prognosis for violence and political instability over the coming year?

Even if the regime contains unrest in December, tension will remain high. The economic crisis will put more pressure on families. Increased numbers of people will question state institutions’ legitimacy, so we can expect to see pockets of violence around the country gain ground. In North Kivu in the east, where the state is doing little to protect local communities, Mai Mai community defence militia are taking actions against predatory armed groups. While dispersed violence, however, is far from civil war, the regime could hunker down and survive, the more dangerous the outlook gets.

What drives President Kabila and the people around him to remain in power?

Congo has never known a peaceful democratic handover of power. Winner-takes-all politics, lack of transparency, violence, corruption and instability all mean a change at the top can have enormous consequences. So the status quo is preferable for the regime, unless change can be managed from within.

Kabila has no popular or regional political base, although he was once respected for having helped end the civil war. His entourage fears he would have little chance of winning an election. And losing, in their eyes, means likely prosecution for corruption and human rights violations. The loser of the 2006 elections, Jean-Pierre Bemba, was prosecuted by the International Criminal Court.

What is the role of the opposition in the current crisis?

The main opposition is calling for Kabila to leave well before April 2018. But it has struggled to maintain unity. The current umbrella group, the Rassemblement, formed in June 2016, is led by UDPS leader Etienne Tshisekedi and includes the former governor of Katanga, Moise Katumbi. It refused to participate in the AU mediated National Dialogue launched in September 2016. But other opposition figures, including Samy Badibanga (a dissident from the UDPS) did take part. Badibanga was appointed prime minister in November, a move probably calculated to further divide the opposition by tempting some into government. A limited mobilisation on December 19 risks weakening the opposition’s credibility.

Youth groups, in particular Lutte pour le changement (Lucha), continue to play a prominent role, but have struggled to put down deeper roots. Targeted repression has hampered their development but contributed to their credibility.

There has been emphasis on the need for dialogue and inclusivity. Do attempts at mediation, such as the recent process managed by the Catholic Church, still stand a chance?

All actors agree on the need for dialogue. But when it comes to the details, agreement is rarely found. The Rassemblement refused to participate in the September dialogue which they saw as an attempt to legitimise the government’s desire to stay in power. So the resulting agreement of October 18 has not been signed by the opposition - hence the new Catholic Church initiative.

This process is however also deadlocked. The church has now called for direct talks, which the president has accepted in principle. So while agreement may be reached on second order issues such as political prisoners, positions on fundamentals are still far apart. The Rassemblement’s view - that the president should remain for up to a year, but with limited power - is a more pragmatic position, but the regime feels under little pressure to make concessions.

How does political tension affect the country?

Tension is more apparent in big cities. People have used gatherings, such as football matches, to express their desire for political change. The regime has deployed police and the military to deter protest, or to counter it with violence.

As the regime focuses on maintaining power, the neutralisation of armed groups in the east has taken a back seat, thereby further weakening the government's legitimacy. This is mostly felt in Beni, North Kivu, where nearly 1000 have been killed since 2014. These killings have also eroded the credibility of the UN mission (Monusco).

The country’s economic crisis could also have more impact on popular mobilisation. If the worsening situation triggers hunger riots, this will have a more unpredictable outcome than organised political protests.

What is the regional dimension of the DRC crisis?

The region is concerned about the security implications of the DRC’s political crisis escalating. Immediate neighbours worry about refugees. The region and AU have both supported dialogue. Angola continues to support mediation. Regional organisations have accepted the October 18 agreement, but seemingly put little pressure on Kabila to step down. They show little faith in the opposition and support the status quo for now. The opposition, meanwhile, focuses its attention more on the EU and the US, regarded as defenders of democracy.

In the east, Rwanda and Uganda are not interfering as they once did, which led South Africa to intervene through the UN.

What has been the role of the international community and Monusco, the UN’s largest peacekeeping mission?

The US and, to a lesser extent, the EU, pressured the government to organise elections within the constitutional timeframe. As this has had little effect, both have supported inclusive dialogue and called for elections in 2017. Unlike African powers, they have criticised the October 18 agreement, for delaying the electoral timetable into 2018. To increase pressure, the US has adopted targeted sanctions.

The EU has stated it is willing to follow suit. Sanctions have caused some unease within government, as has the increased recent publicity over corruption scandals. The direct political impact has, however, been limited. Repression continues. This is a reminder of the decreasing influence of Western actors on the continent.

The UN mission and Special Representative have played a discrete role. Monusco and joint human rights office observers have publicised human rights abuses in Kinshasa and other cities, with some dissuasive impact. The South African-led military component, has expanded its presence in Kinshasa. But if urban violence breaks out, the UN mission will struggle to protect civilians.

* This text corrects the original published version that dropped the words "for the regime" in the sentence "So the status quo is preferable for the regime, unless change can be managed from within".

Read the PDF version here.

Commentary / Africa

Stabilising the Democratic Republic of Congo after an Apex Power Struggle

As power shifts into the hands of DR Congo’s President Tshisekedi, the risk of conflict with Kabila supporters still looms. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2021 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to assist the government in fighting corruption and help keep the two camps on speaking terms. 

In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), power is finally shifting into the hands of President Félix Tshisekedi, but it is unclear if stability will follow. Two years into his term of office, Tshisekedi is taking bold steps to consolidate his authority and diminish the influence of his predecessor Joseph Kabila, who has continued to control institutions and revenue streams since stepping down after elections in 2018. Tshisekedi capped recent moves to strengthen his own position, including installing three allies as Constitutional Court judges, by exiting a coalition with Kabila. The way is now open for him to form a new parliamentary majority, which in turn will allow him to make ministerial and military appointments more freely and ideally pursue the reform the country desperately needs. But the risk of conflict with Kabila’s camp still looms. Moreover, even as Tshisekedi promises change, some allies or potential allies appear set on feeding off state funds and expropriating property, thus deepening the kleptocracy that has ruined the country and invited past rebellions. Armed groups continue to plague the country’s east, the crucible of prior wars. The struggle between the president and his predecessor may exacerbate this problem as the two camps could enlist rebels to stoke trouble or intimidate opponents.

To push President Tshisekedi and his government toward reform, while avoiding a return to conflict, the EU and its member states should: 

  • Assist the Congolese government in fighting widespread corruption by allocating some funding available under the EU’s 2021-2027 budget cycle to relevant projects, including support for the newly established anti-corruption agency, and pressing officials to allow it to operate independently. 
     
  • Step up efforts to keep Tshisekedi and Kabila on speaking terms. While pushing for independent anti-corruption efforts, the EU should simultaneously encourage the president to continue engaging with his former coalition partner to demonstrate that he will not use these measures as a political tool to punish rivals. The conversation could be broadened to focus on how both could prevent their allies from using armed groups for political gain.
     
  • Offer financial and technical support to a community-based and coherent national disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) process, to further ensure that politicians do not use Congolese armed groups and militias for their own purposes.
     

Consolidating Power, Dealing with Corruption

After two years of sparring with Kabila, President Tshisekedi has gained the upper hand. The two leaders reportedly cut a backroom deal after the 2018 elections to share power in a coalition government, but continuous tensions marked their alliance. Kabila’s bloc had an overwhelming majority in both houses of parliament, and also controlled many key cabinet positions, including the prime minister’s office. The former president, now a senator for life, also retained the loyalties of numerous army officers and employees of state-owned companies, giving him uninterrupted access to the country’s wealth. But in mid-2020 dynamics started to shift. Pressured by his own party, which wants to show progress ahead of 2023 elections, and encouraged by the U.S., Tshisekedi started to clip his predecessor’s wings. In July, he blocked a Kabila ally’s appointment as electoral commission head; three months later, he pushed through three constitutional court judges against the former president’s wishes. Finally, in December, Tshisekedi ended his coalition with Kabila, having pulled many of the latter’s parliamentary supporters into his own camp. In a clear sign that power is shifting in Tshisekedi’s favour, deputies then voted to remove Jeannine Mabunda, another Kabila backer, as the National Assembly speaker and, on 27 January 2021, passed a vote of no confidence in Prime Minister Sylvestre Ilunga, a Kabila ally. Tshisekedi now seeks a new parliamentary majority.

In consolidating power, however, Tshisekedi risks repeating his predecessor’s errors.

In consolidating power, however, Tshisekedi risks repeating his predecessor’s errors, if his entrenchment in power becomes a means for his allies to indulge in their own corruption and abuse. Diplomats and other sources tell Crisis Group that members of Tshisekedi’s entourage are allegedly squandering state funds and enriching themselves ever more rapidly. Now that he is relying on former Kabila supporters in addition to his own original backers, Tshisekedi will likely also need to extend the former president’s ex-affiliates some form of patronage to keep them loyal, potentially using state resources to secure their continued support. Meanwhile, there are signs that he may be taking a more repressive turn, clamping down on dissent. In the past year, the authorities cracked down on opposition members and critics. Security forces used tear gas to disperse crowds during two demonstrations organised by opposition leader Martin Fayulu. In May, they arrested a leader of Kabila’s youth league who stated that Tshisekedi had not won the elections and in July, youth members of Tshisekedi’s party beat demonstrators who were asking the governor of Kasai province, a Tshisekedi ally, to resign. In November, authorities arrested a famous singer who had released a song that could be interpreted as criticising Tshisekedi for turning against Kabila. 

Dangers

While Congolese and external actors are surprised by the speed with which Tshisekedi has been able to sideline Kabila, the former president is unlikely to go quietly. Kabila built a vast political, military and financial network during his eighteen years in power. He still commands loyalty throughout the security services. Diplomats and Congolese military sources fear that his camp could activate rebel networks in the east or in the mineral-rich provinces once known as Katanga. Tshisekedi, who knows that networks in the army have cooperated with rebels for years, has tried to bring the military under his control, replacing the Republican Guard’s head, a Kabila loyalist, and removing his predecessor’s confidantes from other influential posts. In December, commanders in the third operational zone covering the eastern provinces, long known as hardened Kabila backers, instead expressed their support for Tshisekedi. It is unclear, however, what the switch of allegiance will mean in practice. 

Meanwhile, dozens of Congolese and foreign armed groups remain active in the country’s troubled east. Of this plethora of groups, some have strong military capacities and political influence, derived from alliances with provincial and national politicians and businessmen, while others are militias without serious political goals, often active in remote areas. Some are embedded in society, while others are more predatory toward the local population. Lastly, some have connections in neighbouring Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi, meaning that the DRC remains vulnerable to proxy conflicts playing out in its territory. Tshisekedi stressed his determination to dismantle these groups when he assumed office. But, seemingly distracted by Kinshasa politics and hindered by the task’s vastness and complexity, he has so far failed to deliver on this promise. The COVID-19 outbreak has stymied his attempts to reach out to and improve relations among leaders in neighbouring countries, which also could help calm tensions in the DRC’s east, though he could give these efforts a boost when he assumes the chair of the African Union in February. On the other hand, there is a risk that Tshisekedi will decide to deploy former rebels, some of whom have returned to Kinshasa at his invitation, to fend off Kabila-backed opponents if he feels the need. 

How the EU Can Help

Relations between the EU and the DRC cooled as the Kabila era drew to a close, but with Tshisekedi in power, Brussels has begun to re-engage. Its December 2019 Foreign Affairs Council conclusions proposed advancing political dialogue with the DRC and called for renewed efforts to promote respect for human rights, democratic principles, the rule of law and good governance. EU and member state officials have already held one formal dialogue with their Congolese government counterparts in October 2020, with a follow-up scheduled for June 2021. 

Brussels should step up efforts to encourage Tshisekedi to continue rooting out corruption and prosecuting the major theft of public funds.

In particular, Brussels should step up efforts to encourage Tshisekedi to continue rooting out corruption and prosecuting the major theft of public funds. The president himself has an interest in doing so: it would allow him to present the clean-up as an accomplishment going into elections in 2023. There are dangers to such reforms, however, notably that Congolese elites and people view them as partisan or a means of score settling. They could also stir up a violent reaction. At the same time, Tshisekedi may be tempted to allow his old and new allies to enrich themselves as he seeks to build a new coalition and free himself from his predecessor’s influence. He should refrain from doing so. Allowing corruption to spread would seriously damage his chances of re-election in 2023.

The EU can contribute toward successful anti-graft efforts. It should do as much as it can to create space for the newly established anti-corruption agency to operate independently. Brussels should make support to the agency, created by presidential decree in March 2020 and funded by the presidency, conditional on clear benchmarks. Selection of the agency’s staff should be transparent, and the agency should increase its financial independence, allowing it to also investigate the president’s entourage if needed. The EU should push for all corruption investigations to proceed on the basis of evidence, not political expedience. Ideally – and assuming credible allegations or evidence exist – the commission should undertake investigations into individuals from different political factions. Kabila allies already claim that the Tshisekedi camp is threatening to sue them for corruption to force them to join the new majority. The Tshisekedi government will have to strike a fine balance, accompanying investigations with negotiations aimed at retaining a minimum of trust with its erstwhile coalition partners. Such talks could also explore how to rein in armed groups and advance DDR. The EU could encourage and support such talks.

Support by the EU and its member states for a community-based and coherent DDR process could assist Tshisekedi in his core pledge to dismantle armed groups. The government has put the launch of a nationally coordinated DDR plan, which merges existing programs, on hold, while Tshisekedi tries to identify a new parliamentary majority. The draft plan seems to have taken international concerns into account; it offers neither an amnesty for armed group members who committed grave human rights violations, nor automatic reintegration of former combatants in the army – both of which donors feared. Under Kabila, international partners were reluctant to contribute, because the government often misused the funds and did not deliver the desired results. With Tshisekedi in charge, they should give authorities another chance. Kinshasa will need outside financing and technical assistance to make DDR work. In case of support to the new DDR plan, coordination among the EU and its member states will be crucial.