Congo in peril: Kleptocracy continues

| | in Oped
Congo in peril: Kleptocracy continues

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo) is at the point of no return as it is stuck in bloody battle among Government forces, rebels and Opposition groups.

The local media apprehends if the volatile situation is not contained sooner, Congo may slip into major chaos leading to more deaths and major refugee crisis.

But before discussing the humanitarian crisis, it is important to understand the root cause of the crisis. Congo watchers hold current President Joseph Kabila Kabange solely responsible for the political stalemate by simply refusing to conduct election in the country since November 2016, when his second five-year term came to an end.

Kabila’s lust for power has triggered the ongoing civil war which in the past year forced nearly 1.7 million people to flee the nation for safe shelters in neighbouring countries.

Though no exact account of displaced people is available, rough estimate is that about 5,500 people are leaving their homeland each day.

The inter-communal fighting that is coming up in the north eastern Ituri region has forced around 44,000 Congolese to flee to the bordering Uganda since the beginning of this year. But then the journey to Uganda is no cakewalk. Reports say fleeing residents are going through harrowing experience as they are forced to use rickety boats and canoes to cross dangerous waters of Lake Albert. Moreover, the journey to the new country is tiring as it takes up to 10 hours to reach Uganda.

All told, the ongoing crisis has caught the attention of international humanitarian agencies and most importantly the UN.

By the last week of February, the UN declared that Congo is facing a “humanitarian disaster of extraordinary proportions” as mass violence and record displacement are fast engulfing the south east part of the country. A spokesperson of the UNHRC highlighted that entrenched inter-communal clashes among ethnic groups in Tanganyika province “triggering spiraling displacement and human rights abuses”. “Moreover, fierce clashes between the Congolese armed forces and the militias have continued since the end of January, while new armed groups threaten to wreak havoc in the province,” it said. This current surge in ethnic violence is disturbing for Congo as the country had witnessed such tragedies in the past also.

What causes more concern is that the capital city of Kinshasa has become the hub of protest against President Kabila. Led by the Catholic Church, the protesters have been demanding Kabila to step down and make way for early election in the country.

But all the demand and regular protests have fallen on deaf ears of Kabila, who after finishing his five-year term has completed another two years in office in violation of the Constitution of Congo (as amended in 2006).

The Opposition has accused Kabila — holding power illegally — of making lame excuse to delay the election since November 2016. And, with the death of the country’s tallest Opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi, Kabila is able to wedge division among the rest of the leaders with his armed might.

The weakened Opposition, known as “Rassemblement”, is fast losing its grip over restless population. Its main demand of forming a transitional Government without Kabila at the end of 2017 has not yielded any positive results.

Kabila continues to comfortably divert people’s attention as incidents like widespread insurgencies, massive prison breaks and atrocities by security force concern residents more than the ruler’s mis-governance.

As the Kabila Government losing its grip on power, it intends to use heavy handed tactics and disregard the rule of law while invoking the unrest to further delay the presidential election. These lead to more discontent and chaos in the country to the discomfort to its neighbouring countries, like Angola.

What ails Congo today is not entirely a different saga from most of the African countries. Most of these nations were ruthlessly ruled by European colonial powers till the end of the Second World War. When it comes to Congo, it was under Belgian rule till 1960, when the country became independent. Its new and democratically elected Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba was in office barely for two and a half months when he was ousted in a coup by Mobutu Sese Seko, who then orchestrated Lumumba’s murder with the blessings of CIA agents, as media reports claim. And afterwards, the misrule and corruption in Congo, which was then known as Zaire, continued till 1997 for more than three decades till he was overthrown by senior Kabila.

In the last 17 years of his rule, Kabila has presided over a decrepit state, delivering nothing to his countrymen. There has been complete decay in every institution starting from Parliament to those at grassroots. These institutions are serving themselves, mostly the ruling elite and very specifically the extended family and relatives of Kabila.

More than 77 per cent of the people of Congo live on less than $1.90 per day, which as per the standards of the World Bank can be called as “extreme poverty”. Major parts of the country are either ungoverned or governed sporadically by the rebels and militias for their own benefit. These militias are vying for both territory and resources, independent of the control of Kinshasa. Thus an archaic system of administration runs in almost one third of its provinces wherein its populace see a dark future with people fleeing the resource-rich country.

As record shows, in the past two years, the number of displaced people has more than doubled to nearly four million. It’s an alarming and the international community must turn its eye on this country and find an immediate solution.

Today, 10 out of 26 provinces of Congo are in the grip of armed conflict. In rural areas, violence has reached its peak. More than 70 rebel groups fighting with the Government armed forces. By now the UN predicts that an army offensive launched last month against the Islamic militias near the border with Uganda might drive away another 37,00,00 from their homes. This might lead to huge crisis in Central Africa. Hope this does not push Congo to its harrowing days of the war between 1998 and 2003.

Kabila has taken the help of, what the Congolese people say, ‘Glissement’, meaning ‘slippage’ — a series of smart administrative manoeuvres — to prolong his misrule. He is under extreme pressure, with the rise of violence and economy slipping into the point of no return. But somehow, he has been able to manage his cronies, supporters and most importantly the armed forces. What has emboldened Kabila is absence of formidable Opposition which can force him to go out of the political space. He has readily subverted the December 2016 Saint Sylvester Agreement that set out a path towards democratic election by 2017 in the country. And his Election Commission now says elections may be possible only in late 2018. It is likely that elections may be further postponed. The Sylvester Agreement clearly says Kabila should leave power and make way for elections. He is losing legitimacy faster as unlike Mobutu, he does not have a cult figure in Congo. And he is detached from the common people. Thus his unpopularity is now helping the Opposition to organise people against him.

Congo being at the heart of Africa, from all corners, its management truly affects the health of the continent. At mid-40s, Kabila is, in fact, too young to retire — his country leaders such as Mobuto ruled for 32 years, before his father Laurent Kabila took over the presidency in 1997. If harnessed, Congo could feed the whole of Africa. Underneath its soil lie rich reservoirs of diamond, gold, cobalt, copper, zinc and tin which could easily transform not only the fate of Congo, but also the entire continent. Its wide rain forests can be of great use for the development of the nation, but today the forests are either left unused or under the control of ragtag militias.

Finally, what Kabila has, of course, learnt not only from his predecessors but also from other African tyrants is that “to stay alive is to stay in power as long as possible”.

Once a new ruler comes, Kabila is surely going to end up in prison. Also if he continues in power, his family assets will always remain safe and if Kabila goes into exile, he may lose hundreds of millions of dollars of both movable and unmovable property across the country. Apart from bringing a bloody end to his regime, he may face criminal prosecution for his alleged role in the slaughter of tens of thousands of Hutu refugees near a town called Tingi Tingi.

Weighing all these options, Kabila may continue to hold on to power and may amend the Constitution to remove the two-term restriction for the office of the President. But then what can Africa witness is nothing but a vile scramble for loot in Congo, leading into killing of innocent civilians and rushing of refugees to neighbouring Uganda, Tanzania, Angola and Zambia. Hence, the international community must act swiftly to bring an end of Kabila regime and make a smooth transfer of power to a democratically elected Government at the earliest.

(The writer is an expert on international affairs)

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