Democratic Transition in the Congo

June 30, 2015 Updated: April 23, 2016

When one speaks of the Congo, it is expected that they speak also of Joseph Conrad. His colonial caricature, ‘Heart of Darkness’, published over a hundred years ago, remains the most recognisable reference point for what was then the Belgian Congo, later Zaire, and now the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Not merely indicative of the laziness of our thought, this tired cliché in fact speaks volumes about the nature of the humanitarian crises that have defined the Congo both before and after independence. To put it simply: some conflicts lie just beyond the reach of public interest; the detail and scale of certain violence removes it too far from our everyday lives, and makes empathy just too hard. This has never been truer than with the absolute and enduring collapse of the Congolese state – a country whose future is now entirely contingent upon the good will of Joseph Kabila.

From the outside, the conflict in the Congo has the appearance of a civil war, and that certainly is the easiest way to explain it. The violence is, however, far more complex. Congo’s two wars have drawn-in over twenty different armed groups, and nine separate countries; therein attracting the label of ‘Africa’s First World War’: description matched by the suffering, with 2.5 million displaced people, and over 4 million deaths (at the height of the conflict 40,000 deaths were being reported each month). However, the battles themselves have been fought almost entirely within Congolese borders and for intrinsically Congolese reasons.

To convolute matters further, the wars have been both deeply ideological whilst simultaneously being reduced almost entirely to the petty theft of resources. Recognising the strategic importance of the Congo, Che Guevara travelled the country in 1965 trying to mobilise a socialist uprising. Emaciated and stricken with malaria, he would leave after only a few months, bemoaning the material concerns of the population, along with the unbridgeable divides of tribal loyalty. The opening words of his personal diary for this period are, “this is the history of failure”.

However, Guevara did manage to somewhat foresee the future, writing “the only man who has genuine qualities of a mass leader is, in my view, Kabila”. The man he was referring to was Laurent Kabila, the father of current President Joseph Kabila. Kabila Senior was an ardent Marxist and operated entirely within an ideological world, justifying guerrilla warfare and his vision of the Congo through the language of Communism. However, his rebellion never took form, and for three decades Laurent Kabila sat idle – when the first civil war began in 1996, Kabila was still passing his time as a bartender in Tanzania.

Finally, the name that Laurent Kabila had been trying to build for himself began to pay dividends. The Rwandan and Ugandan armies parachuted Kabila (figuratively) into a leadership position in the rebellion; by May 1997 Mobutu Sese-Seko, who had ruled the Congo for 32 years was ousted, and Laurent Kabila, now President of the Congo, was where he always wanted to be – literally preaching to the nation about the ‘power of the proletariat’, the ‘value of socialism’, and the ‘evils of landowners and capitalists’; needless to say, another civil war was on the way.

The second war came in 1998: Kabila’s old international backers had quickly turned against him, and before long the Congo was once again spliced into regions of control – divided between government forces, international armies, and local militias. Whereas the first war took only months, this second manifestation lacked any urgency. The focus had changed: rather than overthrowing the government, the different forces were now primarily focussed on pillaging the countries natural resources. Uganda and Rwanda, previously without diamond industries, suddenly began exporting millions of dollars of Congolese diamonds, with Rwandan leader Paul Kagame describing the war as “self-sustaining”. With all sides of the conflict happy to allow the fighting to continue, a peace deal was something that only existed in the vocabulary of unaffected countries and institutions.

The future of the Congo turned on an unlikely moment. In 2001 Laurent Kabila was assassinated and his son Joseph, as expected, inherited the Congolese Presidency. What was not expected however, was just how different Joseph Kabila would be to his father. The Congo had always been ruled by people only focussed on staying in power, not on building a strong state. Upon taking power Joseph Kabila floated the currency, liberalised the diamond industry, restructured mining regulations, began normalising international relations, strengthened tax collection, appointed a new young technocratic administration and encouraged international investigations into massacres that his father had previously blocked.

Pragmatic where his father had been ideological, the new, understated leader was also democratic where his father had been dictatorial. Joseph Kabila reintroduced the free association of political parties and implemented a degree of power sharing. Yet above all else, upon taking power the young Kabila almost immediately launched the ‘Inter-Congolese Dialogue’. He brought together all the warring factions – 330 delegates from the Congo alone – and showed a rare commitment to securing a long-absent peace.

When Kabila Senior first came to power and addressed his new nation, he was not in a forgiving mood. He stared at the gathered crowds and lambasted them for their tolerance of the previous President, “Who has not been Mobutist in this country? Three-quarters of this country became a part of it! We saw you all dancing in the glory of the monster.” By contrast, Joseph Kabila committed himself to a gruelling and almost impossible set of negotiations – when a peace deal was struck in 2003, it was due to a single factor, the political will of the new President.

In conflict we like moral certainty, righteous victims and honourable heroes; Congolese history does not offer this. And Joseph Kabila too, is less than perfect: just as with his predecessors, Kabila maintains an unfathomably lavish lifestyle within what is a desperately poor country; his government is still seen as kleptocratic, he has continued to arm local militias (Mai Mai) and he has struggled to contain an ongoing insurgency in the east of the country. Yet while we ought not to let Kabila off too lightly here, to a great extent this last complaint is not a problem of his making.

The peace agreement was always going to be merely the end of the formal violence, not the end of violence proper. The conflict in the Congo rumbles on, not because Kabila has failed as a President, but rather because he inherited a hollowed-out state. From the Belgians, to Mobutu, and on to Kabila Senior, the Congolese state was always considered as something to exploit rather than something to strengthen.

The Congo is rich in fertile land, expansive river systems, and with unimaginable mineral wealth; all from a country that is the second largest, and fourth most populous in Africa – a country the size of Western Europe; and ideally located in the heart of the continent with significant overlapping interests with its neighbours. However, it is for these reasons that Congolese statesmen, prior to Joseph Kabila, have tended to fear their own country. Presented with such an opportunity for self-enrichment, Congolese leaders came to see their own people as a threat rather than an asset. Successive dictatorships went to extraordinary lengths in order to keep the institutions of the state, civil society, and indeed the military, in a permanently weakened condition.

By the time Joseph Kabila came to power, the Congolese state had decayed into nothingness. Without the prospect of a career, the best young talent had long since left the country, soldiers unpaid for years had begun selling their equipment on the black market and looting the local population, militias that had been hastily armed in order to help defend against foreign armies were now holding villages hostage and enflaming ethnic tensions, all the while the country was descending into an ever-deepening humanitarian crisis – the vast majority of deaths in the Congo have been the result of starvation, malnutrition and disease.

The terms have shifted slightly – where people once fought over rubber, gold, timber, ivory and slaves, they now fight over diamonds, copper, cobalt, cassiterite, columbite, uranium and other rare-earth minerals – however, nothing of substance has changed; what Joseph Kabila inherited was merely the empty shell of a country. And this is why his legacy should not be underrated: Joseph Kabila has given the Congo something it has never had before – the tenuous beginnings of a democratic legacy.

After the peace deal was concluded in 2003, Joseph Kabila set about producing a new constitution, and rather than pressing it through with Presidential decree, it was implemented through a referendum in 2005. In 2006 Kabila won the first-ever open Presidential elections with 58 percent of the vote, and in 2011 he was re-elected.

But here is where it all starts to get a little troubling. Despite the steps that Kabila has taken, there have been serious claims of electioneering in the aftermath of both his victories – many of which seem legitimate. As concerning as this might be, it is fairly insignificant compared to what is coming. The country is currently gearing up, albeit slowly, for a new round of Presidential elections next year, and Kabila has a choice – try to re-engineer the constitution in order to allow him to remain as President, or respect the letter of the constitution, accept the mandated term limit of the Presidency, and allow for the first democratic transition in Congolese history.

There have been concerns, particularly regarding the current construction of the electoral roll and the associated implementation of the national consensus. Analysts, behaving more like soothsayers, are agonizingly trying to find anything of deeper significance in such details. The Congo, and indeed the region, is looking and hoping for indications that its nominally democratic leader intends to remain democratic – despite such an intention requiring that he now cede power. However, as of now, there is nothing to suggest that Kabila has any intention other than to step aside.

By treating the Congo as something to govern rather than something to own, Joseph Kabila has already differentiated himself from his predecessors. The most important thing he can do for his country now, is to leave quietly when his time is up.