Did Kabila Just Bring Democracy to Congo?

The country’s strongman plans to step down, but the United States must tread carefully.

A supporter of Congolese leader Joseph Kabila holds a picture of the president outside Parliament in Kinshasa on July 19.
A supporter of Congolese leader Joseph Kabila holds a picture of the president outside Parliament in Kinshasa on July 19. Junior D. Kannah/AFP/Getty Images

In recent years, one of the chief questions in African politics was whether the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s president, Joseph Kabila, would “leave through the front door”—that is, step down voluntarily, rather than being forced out through a military coup, an invasion, or even an assassination. After all, since the 75 brutal years of Belgian rule came to an end in 1960, every one of Congo’s leaders has left through the back door. Congo’s first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, was deposed in a coup in 1960, just months after he took office. He was executed soon after that. Mobutu Sese Seko, Congo’s extravagantly corrupt dictator who held power for 32 years, was overthrown by a coalition of rebels and invading armies in 1997. His successor, Laurent-Désiré Kabila, Joseph’s father, was assassinated by a teenage bodyguard in 2001. Never in its history has Congo experienced a peaceful transfer of power.

The prospects that it might do so soon grew brighter last week, when a government spokesman announced that Kabila will not stand for elections scheduled for this December. Instead, he has endorsed a candidate, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, from his own party. Kabila has taken an unexpected first step toward walking out the front door. Now, the very same Western governments and international organizations that can claim some credit for pushing him toward the exit should make sure he steps through it—and applaud him when he does.

For years, Kabila delayed a vote that, according to the country’s constitution, was supposed to take place in November 2016. His government made an art of generating excuses for delay, offering laughable constitutional arguments and absurd claims of logistical difficulties—everything short of “the dog ate my ballot.” Kabila co-opted those members of the political opposition he could and sidelined those he could not. Within his own ruling coalition, he ensured that no successor emerged.

The Congolese came up with their own term for Kabila’s stalling tactics, calling them glissement (slipping), but the play for an extra term was part of a regional trend. In recent years, the leaders of Burundi, Cameroon, the Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda have maneuvered to stay in power long after their constitutions said they should have gone. In Burundi, the president’s push for a third term set off violent riots and a coup attempt. Yet the stakes were always much higher in Congo, a country the size of Western Europe and home to some 83 million people.

As Congo’s electoral timeline stretched longer and longer, the resulting political crisis threatened to engulf the whole country. Armed violence has been a permanent feature of Kabila’s Congo, thanks above all to the weakness of the state, but it had recently become more widespread, and the economy had begun cratering. And still, Kabila showed no signs of stepping down as president.

Ironically, he never wanted the job in the first place. Kabila was raised in Uganda and Tanzania, where his father lived in exile after giving up on leading a Marxist rebellion in Congo. He therefore spoke little French and even less Lingala, Congo’s most prominent African language, a deficit that would have put a damper on his political ambitions—had he harbored any. As one longtime Africa expert at the U.S. State Department once told me, “Probably his greatest aspiration was to own a fleet of taxis in Dar es Salaam.” After Laurent-Désiré Kabila’s assassination, however, the late president’s advisors settled on Kabila fils as successor during a late-night meeting. “The final hurdle was convincing Joseph himself of the plan,” a U.S. diplomatic cable at the time reported. “This proved to be more difficult than expected as Joseph was initially ‘very resistant’ to the idea.”

Why the change of heart once in office? Fear was one motivation for holding on to power. Kabila was well aware of the violent ends his predecessors met, and out of power, he could have wound up in prison or dead. To step down was to enter the great unknown, and so, for the sake of his personal safety, he chose to temporize.

Money probably played a role in his thinking, too. As detailed in a 2017 report from the Congo Research Group at New York University (published in collaboration with Bloomberg), Kabila’s family has been lining its pockets through a vast and legally complicated collection of businesses in Congo, including luxury hotels, fast-food restaurants, mobile phone networks, and insurance companies. Then there are the far more profitable off-the-books schemes—namely, corrupt mining deals that divert billions of dollars of state revenues into private bank accounts. Congo is the world’s top producer of cobalt and Africa’s top producer of copper, and every year, it exports hundreds of millions of dollars of oil, diamonds, gold, and coltan (an ore used in electronics). There is a lot of cash moving around and little transparency.

As Kabila dug in, he faced greater pressure to leave. He is deeply unpopular—one poll released in March found that 74 percent of Congolese wanted him to relinquish power immediately—and protesters took to the streets to express their displeasure, braving live fire from security forces. Youth activist groups gained strength. Kabila responded by rounding up critics and stocking up on water cannons, riot gear, and tear gas. Western governments, for their part, steadily ratcheted up sanctions against Congolese officials, freezing their assets and restricting their travel. In June, the U.S. State Department imposed fresh sanctions and visa bans on several unidentified “senior DRC officials,” and in the last week, the Trump administration signaled that sanctions targeting Kabila’s family and assets would be forthcoming if he formally declared his candidacy.

We may never know precisely which factors weighed most on Kabila’s thinking, but the sanctions clearly hit their targets. Congo’s foreign minister complained about them publicly, and other officials did so privately when meeting with Western diplomats. The United States laid down a sharp redline, making it clear that Kabila had to hold elections before the end of this year. On this front, give credit where credit is due: Despite U.S. President Donald Trump’s pro-authoritarian bent, his ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, has made pushing for a transition in Congo a priority.

Kabila being Kabila, however, one cannot be certain elections will be held until they actually are. Some activists worry that his announcement was merely a way to navigate the immediate crisis posed by the deadline for registering to run, and that he could still find a way to renege on his promise.

And even if elections do finally take place, there is no guarantee they will be free and fair. The last round of elections, held in 2011, were not: Turnout rates in some districts were suspiciously high, and hundreds of thousands of paper ballots disappeared. This time, the electoral commission, whose head is appointed by Kabila, is planning on using electronic voting machines, which could be easier to tamper with. Moreover, popular opposition figures may not be able to run. Moïse Katumbi, a former ally of Kabila who served as governor of Katanga province from 2007 to 2015, has been barred from entering Congo after being convicted on charges that are widely believed to be politically motivated. Jean-Pierre Bemba, the leader of a rebel group-turned-political party, just returned to the country from ten years in The Hague after the International Criminal Court acquitted him of war crimes. He has had his eligibility as a candidate questioned and the road to his house blocked.

Almost certainly, only in a rigged election could Kabila’s chosen successor, Ramazani, win. That would be worrisome: he is a staunch Kabila loyalist whom the European Union sanctioned last year on account of his responsibility as interior minister for rounding up activists and committing other human rights violations. If Ramazani did become president, it’s possible Kabila could continue to pull the strings from behind the scenes, in the way that Vladimir Putin skirted term limits in Russia by serving as prime minister while Dmitry Medvedev was president. Indeed, there is some precedent for such an arrangement in Congo: For five years after Lumumba was ousted, a president held formal office while Mobutu acted as the power behind the throne. And Ramazani seems like good puppet material, since he has no political base of his own.

Yet even if one of the opposition candidates became president—which, to be clear, would be a very-good-case scenario—Congo would not be righted overnight. It will not be easy to strengthen the state and stamp out the county’s persistent conflicts, thus obviating the need for what is currently the world’s largest and most expensive U.N. peacekeeping mission. The problem of violence, while exacerbated by Kabila, predates him, as do the drivers of conflict, including ethnic tensions, foreign intervention, and resource competition.

Nor will corruption disappear anytime soon. Mobutu once admonished officials to “steal cleverly,” and theft is still endemic to Congolese political culture. “Here, if a street kid steals a telephone, a watch, or your voice recorder, he is in prison that same evening,” Jérôme Sekana Pene Papa, a financial journalist, told me in Kinshasa last year. “But someone who embezzles 3 or 5 million dollars? Several weeks later, he’s named to another position.”

Those would be good problems to have. They are many “ifs” down the road. In the coming months, the name of the game for outsiders with influence should be to do everything possible to ensure that elections are held on time and are as competitive as is realistically possible and, above all, to deter Kabila from breaking his promise not to run. That means sticking to clear redlines, not tolerating excuses, calling out any repression, and insisting that global and regional organizations be allowed to monitor the vote.

Once Kabila follows through on his promise, however, the international community will have to change its tune. Some will no doubt call for commissions to prosecute Kabila for the many human rights abuses that have taken place on his watch and for the profligate corruption that has impoverished so many Congolese. Tempting as justice may be, it would be a mistake to try to hold Kabila to account for his disastrous rule.

If the pressure that Western governments and international organizations put on Kabila turns out to have worked, the strategy will have succeeded because it held out the promise of a viable off-ramp for him. Yet if that off-ramp turns out to be a dead end, then future attempts at persuading dictatorial leaders to step down will suffer. Consider the bad precedent that the United States set in Libya: After convincing Muammar al-Qaddafi to eliminate his nuclear weapons program in 2003, Washington helped topple him eight years later, a lesson that is unlikely to be lost on, say, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. If we want dictators to make concessions, then we will have to prove not just that they will be punished for defiance but also that they will be rewarded for compliance.

Mo Ibrahim, the Sudanese-born telecommunications billionaire and democracy activist, once told me that the solution to Africa’s democratic deficit might be to offer presidents-for-life the chance to become monarchs. They would agree to stay out of politics in exchange for the right to continue to live like kings. “If they are interested in the glamour of the office, and the helicopters, and limousine cars, maybe they’ll like it,” he said. Ibrahim was half-joking, but his point was correct: if it takes wasting money and foregoing justice to further the cause of democracy, then that is a tradeoff worth making.

Ever since its independence, Congo has been an international concern. In the 1960s, the country became an active front in the Cold War; in the 1970s and 1980s, the Western-backed dictatorship was a global embarrassment; and in the 1990s and early years of this century, Congo was the site of a bloody civil war involving nine African countries. Kabila’s announcement that he is stepping down represents the most promising sign to date that Congo has a chance of becoming something resembling a normal country, with its fate not imposed from without but chosen from within. Only once the West works itself out of a job will the country enjoy what it has been denied for too long: true independence.

Stuart A. Reid is a managing editor at Foreign Affairs.

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