The Democratic Republic of Congo is the latest African country whose fate is tied to a leader’s ambitions

Central Africa’s democracies are endangered by leaders whose desire to retain power is subverting democratic governance. The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is now on the brink of dictatorship as its leader seeks to perpetuate a family dynasty.

Judging by the unfolding game plan of President Joseph Kabila, the DRC is to be led by a family dynasty. National elections scheduled for 2016 to allow the DRC’s people to vote for Kabila’s replacement will most certainly not take place. DRC observers and international diplomats had concluded this by mid-year, and in July the UN Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) conceded this as well. Kabila wants MONUSCO out of the country to allow him a free hand at seizing power through unconstitutional means. The UN suspects a plot, and is staying put.

The DRC’s President Joseph Kabila during an address to the UN General Assembly in New York. Photo courtesy MONUSCO/Flickr
The DRC’s President Joseph Kabila during an address to the UN General Assembly in New York. Photo courtesy MONUSCO/Flickr

Kabila’s original plan was to deny seeking to manipulate the national constitution to allow him to stay in power beyond his constitutionally-allowable two terms, while working behind the scenes to enact such changes. Under intense international scrutiny, Kabila has been unable to pull this off, and has enacted Plan B: stall any government succession by not setting a date for new elections. The flaw in the DRC system is that the president is the one who sets election dates, rather than having a timetable firmly written into the constitution. Kabila has been able to work this shortcoming to his advantage.Meanwhile, the contraction of civil liberties to curtail political opposition campaigning and the arrest of political opposition figures has become so flagrant that the former colonial power of the Congo, Belgium, as well as France and the US, are considering sanctions against Kabila and his government co-conspirators against democracy. 

A country’s stability compromised by ambitions for a family dynasty

Political families whose members and successive generations gain leadership roles in nations are common throughout the world. Aside from monarchies, where power is inherited regardless of the new ruler’s competency to run a country or his or her personal probity, democracies see political families campaign for office at all levels. The US has seen two fathers and their sons and two cousins win presidential elections, and the country’s November election will likely find the wife of a former president become president in her own right. However, these ‘dynasties’ are at the behest of a country’s democratic majority, who choose leaders.

In the DRC, the Kabila dynasty was established in a bloody coup d’état in 1997, when Laurent Kabila overthrew long-ruling despot Mobutu Sese Seko. The dynasty almost ended, with similar bloodshed, when its founder was assassinated in January 2001. However, Kabila’s son Joseph was appointed to the presidency. When Laurent Kabila died after being shot by a boy soldier assigned to his team of bodyguards, the Justice Minister Mwenze Kongolo and Kabila’s aide-de-camp Eddy Kapend spearheaded the succession decision by revealing that on his death bed Laurent Kabila stated that upon his demise, his son Joseph should take over the country. The decision represented another flaw in the DRC’s democracy. One of the most important clauses required by any national constitution is one that clearly stipulates leadership succession: who takes over and how a timetable for new elections is followed. If this is not spelled out, the result is chaos if a leader dies in office, or in the case of the DRC, the result is the establishment of what is increasingly appearing to be a dictatorship.

Did the senior Kabila actually name his son as his successor? The world will never know for certain. Regardless, who was Laurent Kabila – or any president – to decide on a successor, when such a decision should be specified in a constitution? Such a shortcoming was addressed in a constitutional redrafting that occurred in 2006. That was the year in which son Joseph Kabila, having been in power for five years, was legitimately placed into the presidency by popular mandate earned in a national election. He was re-elected in 2011. The 2006 constitution specifies a two term limit for presidents. Joseph Kabila in 2016 has effectively served for three five-year terms. But these are not enough for the DRC’s leader. The precedent of having held office for five years before the 2006 constitutional fix and having overseen the drafting of that constitution presumably to his advantage, Kabila might be expected to see a national constitution as a plastic, variable document, adaptable if need be and perhaps unnecessary. After all, he did assume office simply through the alleged endorsement of his father, the ultimate in nepotism deals.

In the DRC, as in other countries with authoritarian or authoritarian-leaning governments, the court system serves the needs of executive power. On 11 May 2016, the Constitutional Court delivered a verdict after having heard arguments for why President Kabila should stay in power even if elections were not held in November 2016, which at the time of the court hearing was the expected date for the elections to be held. Constitutional Court President Benoit Lwamba Bindu ruled that Kabila may stay in office as long as is necessary. “Article 70, clause two, (of the constitution) permits the president of the republic…to remain in office until the installation of the new elected president,” Bindu stated. Indeed, Article 70 does so say. This is another constitutional clause in need of repair, requiring that a specific timeline be stipulated for presidential elections. For immediate practical purposes, the court gave the Kabila clan the green light to remain in power where they have been for 19 years.

Opposition repression is a page from the dictator’s playbook

“If the court violates the constitution, we are not going to follow the court,” Eve Bazaiba, Secretary-General of the opposition Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), said after the Constitutional Court ruling that in effect allowed Kabila an indefinite extension of his presidency. The opposition’s legal team argued in court that when Kabila’s term of office expires, an interim president must be chosen until elections are held. The court dismissed this, and Bazaiba announced the political opposition’s strategy for the day Kabila’s presidency officially ends: “On Dec. 19 (2016), the mandate of Kabila is over. On Dec. 20, if he continues, we will consider that there has been a constitutional coup d’état.”

However, such strategising may be down in a jail cell or from a location abroad if Kabila’s political opposition feels compelled to flee into exile. Kabila’s most popular opponent in terms of the sentiments of the DRC people is Moise Katumbi, a former provincial governor and a businessman and owner of TP Mazembe, one of the biggest football clubs not just in the DRC but Africa as a whole. Ghana was broken-hearted in July by the defection of its star midfielder Malik Akowuah to TP Mazembe, who found the team’s allure irresistible. In Africa, where football is king, Katumbi has a powerful popular base from which to exploit, as well as his time in government as the Katanga Province’s governor. Katumbi has the backing of seven opposition parties to run against Kabila when and if elections are held, thus making him a formidable opponent and target for trumped-up charges.

However, government’s prosecutors were again pressed into service to support Kabila, and Katumbi was tried and convicted on 22 June for illegal property sales. His conviction makes him ineligible to run for office, but in case the conviction is overturned and Katumbi does not serve three years in prison, he is also on trial for charges of illegally hiring US mercenaries into his private security guard. Katumbi was convicted in absentia on the illegal property sale charges. On 19 May, an arrest warrant was issued on charges of hiring mercenaries to destabilise the country. The following day, 20 May, he left the country. He has not returned as of late July, away, he claims, for medical treatment. International observers like Belgium and the US have expressed dismay at the prosecutions of Kabila’s political rival and the strong-arm security force tactics used against opponents. Political observers of the country see an unfolding pattern of repression.

Against sanctions is the allure of more power

Kabila is weighing the disadvantages should additional European and US sanctions be imposed upon the DRC if democracy is sidelined against the goal of perpetual power for a Kabila dynasty. On 23 June 2016, the US imposed sanctions not on Kabila but on one of the president’s minions, Kinshasa police chief Celestin Kanyama. For creating a “climate of fear” in the country prior to elections in which dozens of people have been killed in police raids, Kanyama’s assets in the US have been frozen and no American may do business with him. Whether the police chief will be harmed by this first use of “targeted sanctioning” by the US is doubtful. However, Kabila would be financially affected if he were to be sanctioned in the same manner. The choice comes down to enduring short term suffering in order to gain long term control over a country run as a family business. The poverty of the long-suffering people of the DRC has always been at odds with the country’s mineral wealth. Rwanda’s plotting against Kabila’s father in the 2001 assassination and that country’s UN-documented support of anti-Kabila rebel groups today in order to obtain the DRC’s natural resources is one testimony to the country’s coveted wealth. Kabila’s refusal to allow democracy to take its course is another.

The international community is weary of Central Africa’s perpetual instability. The refugee and humanitarian crises, the oddball rebel leaders, the war crimes and crimes against humanity, and the rapacious leaders are taking their toll on the world’s patience. The African Union (AU) is also wary of Kabila’s political manoeuvrings. Outside pressure and internal opposition resistance may yet halt the cementing of a Kabila dynasty in the DRC, at least one established through non-democratic means.