LONDON — President Joseph Kabila of Congo shows no sign of stepping down. He reached the end of his constitutional two-term limit last year, but after months of delays for which Mr. Kabila blamed incomplete voter lists, one of his ministerial colleagues argued that presidential elections — estimated to cost $1.8 billion — are an expense Congo cannot afford.
Mr. Kabila’s dallying has led to consternation in Congo and around the world that he is violating Congo’s constitution and setting himself up as a president for life. The United States government, a major donor to Congo, imposed sanctions on senior Congolese officials last year in an apparent effort to pressure the president.
Representative Ed Royce, a Republican from California and chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House, has fiercely criticized Mr. Kabila. The uncertainty surrounding Mr. Kabila’s exit has led to fears that Congo, where five million people have died in wars fought against six nations over the past two decades, may fall into a fresh round of conflict and again destabilize the region.
At stake is Congo’s fledgling experiment with democracy, whose beginning I reported on in 2006. Mr. Kabila was elected president that year in Congo’s first free vote in four decades. The billion-dollar democratic transition was a moment of great hope, meant to draw a line under the worst war in the world and a hundred-year history of brutal dictatorship and colonial rule.
But Mr. Kabila’s insistence on holding onto power has confronted Congolese, yet again, with authoritarian repression. Dozens of protesters have been killed by state security forces since Congo’s president violated his term limits, continuing a wave of killings and arrests of opposition activists and journalists.
Last week, the bodies of two United Nations human rights investigators — Michael Sharp, an American citizen, and Zaida Catlan, a Swedish national — and Betu Tshintela, their Congolese interpreter, were found outside the city of Kananga. They had disappeared in March near an area where leaked video footage showed Congo’s Army killing civilians.
The Catholic Church is leading the scramble for peace in Congo, and it could still succeed. On New Year’s Eve it negotiated an agreement between Mr. Kabila’s party and opposition groups — including the popular presidential aspirant Moise Katumbi — that would instate an opposition prime minister and calls for elections this year. It stipulates that Mr. Kabila would step down. The church-led agreement is a vast improvement from an earlier pact, negotiated by the African Union and the South African Development Community, which favored Mr. Kabila by excluding Mr. Katumbi and Congo’s most senior opposition leader, Etienne Tshisekedi.
But Mr. Kabila ignored the new agreement, and leading civil society groups fear he will refuse to leave. The Catholic Church, which has long served as a voice of the population and a counter to Congo’s repressive leaders, has reported several attacks that it says are linked to its opposition to Mr. Kabila. With Mr. Tshisekedi’s death in February and Mr. Katumbi forced into exile, Mr. Kabila has been rid of his main opponents who might have held him accountable.
If Mr. Kabila does not go willingly, he makes his departure increasingly likely to be accompanied by armed violence. Congo’s president finds himself in a dictator’s dilemma. If he gives up control of the military and remains in Congo, he and his immense wealth become targets for his enemies. Mr. Kabila would most likely need guarantees of protection, or have to live in exile. The longer he defies the Constitution, however, the harder it will become to cajole him to hold elections, and possibly leave.
Mr. Kabila was an initiator of peace accords between warring factions in 2003 that led to the end of much of Congo’s deadly war. Unlike other regional strongmen such as Rwanda’s Paul Kagame and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, who thrive off power and cast themselves as the embodiment of their nations, Mr. Kabila governed Congo like a phantom president, isolating himself in his presidential palace, presiding over dysfunction and disorder.
But the signs of Mr. Kabila’s repression have always been present. In the run-up to the 2006 presidential elections I watched Congolese police whip unarmed opposition protesters with metal chains. The protesters and I were backed into spirals of barbed wire by police firing guns and tear gas. After the announcement of Mr. Kabila’s victory, a gun battle between forces loyal to Mr. Kabila and to his rival, Jean-Pierre Bemba, broke out in Kinshasa. I hid close to Mr. Bemba’s home and heard the artillery from Mr. Kabila’s forces blast through the walls.
Congo’s president has delivered on some of his promises of peace. In 2013, he successfully enlisted South Africa and Tanzania to militarily quell the M23 movement, a Rwandan-backed Tutsi rebellion that had caused chaos in eastern Congo. Mr. Kabila has sent several Congolese warlords to face trial at the International Criminal Court. Congo’s economy has reportedly grown at over 7 percent in recent years, according to government figures, but last month the World Bank downgraded forecasts to 2.5 percent from 7 percent.
Mr. Kabila has softened criticism from his Western allies by ensuring that they profited from Congo’s wealth. Huge mineral concessions were handed to corporations from countries that finance Congo’s elections and that support Mr. Kabila’s government with foreign aid. The American company Phelps Dodge has been granted rights to “hills worth billions of dollars” in cobalt and copper. A monopoly on Congo’s uranium — used in the atom bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki — was granted in a secretive contract to the French energy company Areva.
A United States diplomat told me that Western aid was often linked to promises of deals for minerals essential to Western technologies, from military aircraft to cellphones. Western mining businesses have also been linked to grave crimes. I reported on the logistical support that Anvil Mining, a company financed by the World Bank, provided for a massacre of Congolese in 2004. United Nations evidence of Anvil’s implication in the massacre has not been made public by the World Bank. Congo’s government has also remained silent on the issue.
Congo’s history of violence has led even well-intentioned Western powers to act as though peace is sufficient for Congolese.
Mr. Kabila’s hunger to hold on to power is no surprise. He never offered to build the institutions — transparent elections, an independent judiciary, a free press — that Mr. Tshisekedi insisted were essential for Congo’s long-term stability. Mr. Kabila is so worried about the crowds that would greet the dead opposition leader’s corpse that he has not let it return to Kinshasa from Brussels for burial.
Reformist Congolese voices need to be heard. Whether by innocence or design, supporting authoritarian leaders like Mr. Kabila, who promise peace, only reinforces the cycle of violence, leaving millions of Congolese yet again facing a turbulent, uncertain future.