Sunday,15 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1302, (30 June - 13 July 2016)
Sunday,15 July, 2018
Issue 1302, (30 June - 13 July 2016)

Ahram Weekly

US signals DRC amid violence

Joseph Kabila is continuing his efforts to remain president of the Democratic Republic of Congo by all means, and in doing so is coming under the critical eye of Washington, writes Haitham Nuri

Al-Ahram Weekly

Washington has finally taken action against an aide to DRC President Joseph Kabila, weeks after the US threatened to bring sanctions against the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), particularly against figures who are threatening security or impeding democracy in the country.

The first US sanctions target Kinshasa’s police chief, Celestin Kanyama, who is responsible for violence and the murder of civilians, according to a US statement. As part of the sanctions, all of Kanyama’s US assets have been frozen and US citizens are prohibited from doing business with him.

The statement accused the police chief of spreading “a climate of fear” in the DRC in the run-up to presidential elections later this year.

The DRC, of course, rejected the move. Barnabé Kikaya Bin Karubi, a diplomatic advisor to President Kabila, said that the police were “maintaining public order”.

He added that the DRC will continue its relations with the US despite fears of “Western powers’ militant stance toward President Kabila and the people of the country”.

Bin Karubi said the current crisis, which began late last year, could be resolved through national consensus over an electoral system that will determine the country’s future.

The crisis erupted when President Kabila indicated his intention to amend the DRC constitution to allow him to run for another term.

Kabila has ruled the country since 2001 when he succeeded his father, who was assassinated by one of his personal guards in the presidential palace. Kabila was elected to two terms in office, in 2006 and 2011.

A drive to amend the constitution to maintain power was the direct cause of the ouster of Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaoré in 2014, which heightened fears among some of an “African Spring” that would sweep several rulers out of power after decades in office.

But this did not come to pass.

Congo-Brazzaville President Denis Sassou Nguesso and Rwandan leader Paul Kagame both amended their countries’ constitutions without major opposition. Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza did the same thing, though he has faced some opposition since his re-election months ago.

In contrast, Kabila has proved unable to push through changes to the constitution or election law, both of which set a limit of two five-year terms for the presidency. The constitution was drafted at the end the civil war that drew in multiple African states with and against the regime of Laurent Kabila and left millions of people dead in the copper- and ore-rich country.

During the decade of war, which lasted from the fall of former dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in the early 1990s to the peace agreement of 2002, some 5.4 million people were killed, according to Western estimates. Mass rape was also widely used as a weapon of war to humiliate enemy tribes and destroy competing local communities.

The DRC covers an area slightly larger than two-thirds of Western Europe, with an estimated 80 million inhabitants. It has one of the biggest rivers in Africa and is a mining capital, its natural wealth long exploited by Western states, before and after independence from Belgium in 1960.

The start of last year saw broad protests in several DRC cities against President Kabila’s attempts to amend the constitution, with dozens of deaths in January 2015. The situation was not calmed. Clashes between police and protestors recurred several times, most recently on 26 May, when a demonstrator and a policeman were killed in the eastern part of the country.

May also saw rising tensions between the government and opposition. On 4 May, millionaire and former governor of Katanga Province, Moïse Katumbi, announced his intention to run for president. A few hours later the government launched an investigation on charges that Katumbi had employed foreign mercenaries to remove the president.

On 19 May the public prosecutor ordered the arrest of Katumbi, who owns the biggest football club on the continent, TP Mazembe, but his supporters assembled at the prosecutor’s office and threatened to burn down the city if their leader was imprisoned. The next day Katumbi left the country for South Africa, ostensibly to receive medical treatment with the permission of the prosecutor. On 27 May, he arrived in Europe.

In a related context, the parliament referred the question of whether the president can remain in office after the end of his second term in December to the Constitutional Court. On 11 May the court ruled that the president could remain in office if no presidential elections were called.

Kabila’s supporters say the president has no intention of staying in power in violation of the constitution. The government, they say, simply wants to resolve all the associated logistical and financial problems in order to conduct a fair, peaceful vote. The opposition condemned the court ruling, which sparked protests on 26 May.

At the same time, civilians in the eastern DRC came under attacks that left 20 dead, ascribed to the allied rebel democratic forces. The government responded with action against the armed opposition. Western research centres believe that Kabila’s continued grasp on power could stoke tensions even further in the country, still ailing from the destructive civil war.

A report from the International Crisis Group cautioned that Central Africa is an unstable region. Protests could spread to neighbouring Burundi as well, also impacted by the Congo war and the massacres there in the mid-1990s, putting Nkurunziza in a more difficult position.

To the north of DRC sits the Central African Republic, which has just emerged from a destructive sectarian war that saw Pope Francis visit Bangui amid Muslim-Christian tensions. Nor is the situation wholly calm in Congo-Brazzaville and Rwanda. Widespread protests and violence in the DRC could spread to either of these two countries, both ruled by strongmen.

The rotation of power has also become a norm in several African states, especially in the southern part of the continent. In countries like Tanzania, Namibia and Mozambique power is routinely passed from one president to another, although they may all come from within the same ruling party.

In contrast, in other states such as Nigeria, Zambia and Senegal the rotation of power was hard-won through sharp political competition and the strength of civil society and parliament. Even in Niger, the poorest African state, the army was able to impose term limits on the presidency.

A report issued by the British Chatham House said it is in no one’s interest in the region for things to come to a head in the DRC, which means that Kabila may be pressured to abandon power, especially since he has thus far proved unable to secure the constitutional amendment. He is now pursuing a short-term strategy designed to maintain power for a few months or a year at most.

According to The Guardian, Kabila fears he could face charges related to violations in the civil war, much like Nkurunziza in Burundi. Many people believe that a safe exit for President Kabila is one possible way to avoid the dangers associated with an explosion of violence in Africa’s largest country.

Quoting analysts from Chatham House and the International Crisis Group, The Guardian reported that the conflict in the DRC is actually the easiest to solve but only if President Obama wishes to do so. The question is whether Obama, whose term ends in November, is willing to take action. The DRC has certainly drawn attention from Obama, who deployed US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the region in his first term and Secretary of State John Kerry in his second.

As The Guardian notes, the US has substantial room for action in the DRC. “Joseph Kabila is no Bashar Al-Assad and there is no powerful Iran in the region or Russian veto at the UN Security Council,” it writes.

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