Defusing a Ticking Time Bomb in Kinshasa

An opposition leader in exile, a group of Catholic bishops-turned-diplomats, and the ‘last best hope’ to avert the coming crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo.


World leaders typically don’t get much advance notice of exploding crises. But when it comes to the Democratic Republic of the Congo they do, and with a specific date: Dec. 19. That’s when President Joseph Kabila is constitutionally obliged to leave office after 15 years. Just one problem: The 45-year-old leader plans to stay in power well past his expiration date, despite his widespread unpopularity and the specter of massive nationwide protests. It’s enough to push the country over the brink and into crisis, unless a group of Catholic bishops can broker a last-ditch political agreement to keep the coming storm in check.

The United States and the international community are pinning their dwindling hopes for the DRC on the National Episcopal Conference of the Congo, or CENCO. The Congolese organization of Catholic bishops is mediating talks between Kabila’s ruling party and the coalition of opposition parties known as the “Rassemblement” in an attempt to broker a power-transition agreement before Dec. 19. It comes after the president failed to organize elections before the December deadline, culminating two years of failed political dialogues and an impasse between the ruling and opposition parties.

“Supporting CENCO’s effort is our top priority from now until Dec. 19,” Tom Perriello, the State Department Special Envoy for the Great Lakes Region of Africa, told the U.S. Congress Tuesday. He called it “the best effort and perhaps the last effort” to broker a deal before the deadline sparks mass protests and instability in a country still scarred by a devastating civil war that ended thirteen years ago.”

If the CENCO gambit fails, the prospects of violent protests could catalyze a “true regional crisis,” Perriello said. “If this gets settled in the streets, we think that would be a disaster.” The DRC got a grim preview in September when anti-government protesters clashed with security forces, leaving more than 50 people dead. The last presidential election in 2011, which Kabila won amid disputed results, also culminated in violent protests and the deaths of dozens.

At first glance, the Catholic Church may seem like an odd choice to take on high-stakes diplomacy. But in the DRC, it makes perfect sense.

“A large percentage of the population in the DRC is Catholic,” Sasha Lezhnev, a conflict analyst at the Enough Project and a frequent traveler to the DRC, told Foreign Policy. “They have trust across the political spectrum and the [Catholic Church] remains an extremely powerful entity.” Pope Francis has even weighed in, urging a civil resolution to the crisis in a September meeting with Kabila in the Vatican.

Despite the political clout of the divine diplomats, many fear Kabila won’t step down. “The signs are he will stay in office and put down the protest movements,” Jennifer Cooke, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told FP. That doesn’t bode well for a country still slowly recovering from a disastrous war. From 1998 to 2003, more than 5 million people were killed in the Second Congo War. The conflict, dubbed “Africa’s world war,” boiled over to neighboring countries, drawing in Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Angola, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Sudan.

The Dec. 19 protests “could erupt into violence,” Cooke said. “And depending on how the state responds, it could spiral very quickly.”

The situation has the potential to get really ugly, Lezhnev told FP. “Congolese politicians across the political spectrum have links to various youth gangs, armed militias, and units of the Congolese army — some of which act like armed militias,” he said. “The real danger is that those protests escalate, crackdowns escalate, some politicians use some unit of the Congolese army to brutally crack down some other faction … and it spirals from there.”

The United States and the international community are already bracing for impact. Perriello said that Washington is working with the U.N. and its peacekeeping mission in the DRC, MONUSCO, on “contingency planning for a worse-case scenario.” But he warned that may not cut it, since there are fewer than 20,000 peacekeepers scattered across a country of nearly 80 million people.

The specter of violence hasn’t dissuaded prominent opposition leaders from rallying supporters for protests. On Tuesday, one of the DRC’s most prominent opposition leaders, Moise Katumbi, said the protests will move forward if Kabila digs his heels in.

“On the 19th, we don’t need to have more blood. We need a peaceful transition of power,” Katumbi said, speaking in Washington, D.C. at the Atlantic Council.

He used his platform in Washington to lambast Kabila. “The government has not taken a single step, physical or administrative, to prepare for the elections as required by the constitution,” he said. “On the contrary, the current regime has become more corrupt, intolerant, repressive and violent.”

Katumbi is the former governor of Katanga, once one of the DRC’s most powerful and wealthy provinces before it was split into smaller provinces in 2015 — an apparent move by Kabila to dilute the region’s political clout. He was a Kabila ally until he decided to mount his bid for the presidency in 2015. In June, when Katumbi fled the country for medical reasons and fears of government retribution, he was convicted in absentia to three years in prison for allegedly selling a house which he didn’t own.

But Kabila’s regime may have trumped up the charges. The presiding judge has since gone into hiding after saying the conviction was a government-led political ploy to take Katumbi out of the presidential race. (Two Congolese journalists were also jailed after airing an interview with the politician-in-exile in July.)

Katumbi has been on the lam ever since, but said he plans to return to his country for the Dec. 19 protests, despite the prospect of jail time.

“Jailing him when he entered the country would only escalate the level of frustration, and I’m not sure Kabila would want that,” said Lezhnev. “Katumbi is a very popular public figure so it makes sense he’s returning home,” he added. “The people need to hear from him.”

Being out of the country hasn’t hurt Katumbi’s popularity back home; a poll this month found 33 percent would vote for him, far ahead of other opposition leaders, while Kabila himself trailed at 7.8 percent.

Katumbi said the opposition would curb its protests if all sides reached a CENCO-brokered agreement, even if it left Kabila in power a little longer. “My job is to support the deal,” Katumbi said. If a deal is reached, “we are not going to break the country,” he added, appearing to suggest the opposition would call off protests.

But the chances of reaching an agreement are slim. “There is a deep reservoir of distrust between both sides that any agreement that is reached will be respected,” Perriello said, including “a respect for President Kabila and his family after he leaves power.”

Fear of reprisal may be one factor contributing to Kabila’s attempt to prolong his hold of power. Katumbi sought to assuage that concern, pledging to leave Kabila and his family alone after the election. “I need President Kabila to stay in the country … to give us advice,” Katumbi said, adding that the president did “some good” for the country.

“I’m not going to target anyone,” Katumbi said when pressed on the fate of Kabila and his family, if he won the presidency. Instead, he said he’d target corruption and rule-of-law issues if elected.

That’s a tall order in a country like the DRC. Despite being laden with valuable minerals and natural resources, the DRC’s corruption and political instability deter the foreign direct investment needed to help the country pull itself out of an economic hole. The DRC came in 147th out of 168 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, and the World Bank ranked it 184th out of 189 countries in its Ease of Doing Business Index, behind Afghanistan but ahead of Venezuela, Somalia, and Libya.

Like those preceding him, Kabila has “redirected billions of dollars” from the state, and “used brutal violence at times to gain or maintain the ultimate prize: control of the state and its vast natural resource base,” according to a report published in October by the Enough Project, a nongovernmental organization based in Washington.

Added to the mix is the country’s dismal record on human rights. In its 2015 human rights report, the State Department excoriated the Kabila regime for its “severe problem” of press crackdowns and human rights abuses, including sexual violence and torture, particularly at the hands of the state security forces.

Kabila tried to reach his own “national dialogue” agreement outside of the CENCO process. He appointed an opposition party member as prime minister and pledged to hold elections in 2018. In a national address on Nov. 15, he said the proposed agreement “sets out realistic and responsible perspectives, both for the organizations of elections and for the stability of the institutions during the pre-electoral, electoral, and post-electoral period.”

But neither U.S. officials nor opposition leaders are buying it. Kabila’s proposal “did not provide adequate guarantees about the president’s commitment to leave power,” Perriello said, adding there is “great resistance from the population” to the delay the elections to April 2018.

Still, officials and experts are holding out a small glimmer of hope. “If CENCO, the regional players including Angola, Rwanda, the United States, and EU can speak with one voice … to find an acceptable compromise, Kabila may listen to that,” Cooke said.

Sanctions could play a big role in Kabila’s calculus. “If it looks like Kabila won’t be able to move money or his business partners would be put under sanction … there’d be a much higher percentage chance of him accepting a deal,” Lezhnev said. “The chance of Kabila agreeing to a deal is at maybe a five percent chance of happening now, but with the help of sanctions, if things aren’t going his way, it could go to 50 or 60 percent.”

The United States has slapped sanctions on three of Kabila’s cronies so far, but is considering adding others to the list, according to Perriello. The European Union threatened to follow suit in October unless elections are held in 2017.

Katumbi also holds out hope, in temporary exile, for an international hand to push Kabila from office and avert the coming crisis. “He will only succeed in the end if the world looks the other way,” Katumbi said. “I am here today to urge the United States and other democratic countries to not look the other way.”

Photo credit: MUSTAFA MULOPWE/AFP/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola