Why Kabila’s Lingering Makes Congo Newly Perilous: QuickTake Q&A

Congolese President Joseph Kabila. Photographer: Junior D.Kannah/AFP via Getty Images

The Democratic Republic of Congo, the largest country in sub-Saharan Africa and a major producer of natural resources including copper, cobalt, gold and tin, has never had a peaceful transfer of power. The country has had just three leaders since 1965, and if President Joseph Kabila has his way, it won’t have a fourth any time soon. Kabila’s second term — his last, according to the constitution — ended Dec. 19, but he’s still in office.

Under a Dec. 31 agreement between the government and opposition groups, Kabila can remain in power until overdue elections are held at the end of the year, but the implementation of the deal has stalled. The Kabila regime’s refusal to cede power has already led to a slowdown in policy making and economic activity. The economy is forecast to grow 4.2 percent this year, compared with an average of 7.2 percent over the past five years, according to the International Monetary Fund.

1. What does Kabila say?

The reclusive president, who rarely speaks in public, hasn’t commented on his own future. His advisers say he will hand over power after democratic elections. However, since Kabila’s re-election in 2011, his government has tried at least twice to introduce legal changes to prolong his time in office. In a rare public appearance four months before his current term expired, Kabila told reporters in Uganda that the organization of balloting was the responsibility of the national electoral commission, which first needed to update the country’s voter rolls. Since July, 19 million people have been enrolled out of an estimated 41 million voters.

2. What is Kabila’s record?

Kabila inherited the presidency in 2001 at the age of 29 upon the assassination of his father, a rebel leader who had taken power three years earlier. Despite his youth, Kabila brought an end to the civil war in 2003 and has overseen a period of economic growth, driven by high mineral prices and the revival of Congo’s mining industry. Congo is now Africa’s biggest producer of copper and the world’s largest source of cobalt.

Stability attracted foreign mining giants such as Glencore Plc and Freeport-McMoRan Inc. Gross domestic product has quadrupled since the end of the war. Still, low-level conflict has continued to plague communities in the east of the country, and nearly two-thirds of Congo’s 77 million people live on less than $1.90 a day. Infrastructure remains dilapidated, access to electricity is limited and basic health-care is lacking. And in the past two years, Kabila’s security forces have sought to silence critics, killing at least 98 people in September and December in protests featuring calls on the president to step down.

3. What does the opposition want?

Originally, Congo’s opposition leaders demanded that Kabila leave power last December, even if no elections were held. Eventually, they agreed to the Dec. 31 compromise brokered by the country’s powerful Catholic Church to avoid further violence. Under the deal, opposition leaders agreed that Kabila could stay if he organized elections before the end of 2017 and appointed a new power-sharing government headed by an opposition prime minister to function in the meantime.

4. So what’s the problem?

Kabila has yet to appoint that government, and no clear effort has been made to accelerate election preparations. The December agreement included a commitment from the ruling coalition that the president wouldn’t change the constitution to allow himself a third presidential term. But Kabila didn’t sign the agreement, and opposition leaders fear the president plans to hold on to power either by delaying the vote indefinitely or by creating a pretext to change the rules.

5. Is the opposition united?

Not especially. Congo’s opposition is large, but fractured. Opposition efforts to unify in order to sustain pressure on Kabila were set back in February by the death at age 84 of Etienne Tshisekedi, who had been at the forefront of opposition politics for more than three decades. His symbolic leadership had bound together the disparate group of opposition radicals and former ruling party members who signed the December deal. Weeks of infighting after Tshisekedi’s death cost the opposition valuable time, although it eventually coalesced behind his son, Felix, and rejoined talks on the implementation of the December deal.

6. What’s at stake for Kabila?

If Kabila were to step down now, he could be heralded as the father of Congolese democracy by enabling the country’s first peaceful transfer of power. On the other hand, he may want to stay on to preserve and protect the international business empire he and his family have built.

A Bloomberg News investigation in December found that since 2001, Kabila, his wife, two children and eight of his siblings had stakes or directorships in at least 70 companies that generate hundreds of millions of dollars for the family. The norm in the region doesn’t encourage Kabila to step down. Among the nine countries bordering Congo, four have leaders that have been in power for 19 years or longer and have found ways to circumvent or change constitutionally imposed term limits.

7. What’s at stake for Congo?

Fragile investor confidence in Congo has been damaged by the uncertainty. S&P Global Ratings lowered Congo’s investment outlook last year to negative, citing growing political tensions. Commercial operators say predation by Congo’s cash-starved government agencies has become a daily occurrence. The government expects resurgent copper and cobalt prices to help revive economic growth this year, but there would be a lag before government revenue would be impacted. Meanwhile, the population will bear the brunt of rising inflation and a depreciating local currency.

Should Kabila find an excuse to break the December deal, the opposition is apt to call new protests, which would likely be met with a harsh response. With a resurgence of militia activity in parts of eastern Congo and new fighting in the Kasai-Central province having already spread to five provinces, renewed urban protests would test Kabila’s ability to maintain control of the country. Regional players are less inclined to meddle in Congolese security than they were 20 years ago, so a new civil war is unlikely. Still, the uncertainty around when and how Kabila will leave office will continue to stoke conflict and check investment until he steps down.

Source: bloomberg