The November election, provided it goes ahead, could be a watershed for the Congo, which has never seen a peaceful transition of power.
South African President President Jacob Zuma has recently returned from his working visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. His trip focused on economic cooperation between the two countries over the next ten years, but the next twelve months will be dominated by politics. It is politics that will captivate the nation, with looming elections having already seen great support from the West, encouragement, with measured optimism, to ensure leadership takes concrete steps to make a democratic transition a reality. But will President Joseph Kabila leave office in accordance with the DRC Constitution or try to cling to power thus undermining that country’s economic and political future? President Zuma might yet find himself navigating the ebbs and flows of the Congolese police—like Nelson Mandela did in the late 1990s.
In 1960, when the former Belgian Congo became independent, Congolese income per person amounted to 98 percent of Africa’s average. Today, it amounts to 19 percent. The Democratic Republic of Congo is widely considered to be the richest country in the world regarding its abundance of natural resources; its untapped deposits of raw minerals are estimated to be worth in excess of US$24 trillion. The Congo has 70% of the world’s coltan, a third of its cobalt, more than 30% of its diamond reserves, and a tenth of its copper. However, at $434 nominal GDP per capita in 2015, the DRC remains, along with Burundi and CAR, one of the three poorest countries in the world. The people of the DRC suffer all the woes associated with poverty. In 2013, life expectancy was 50 years. Africa’s average was 60 years. In 2012, 100 out of every 1,000 Congolese infants died before their first birthday. In 2015, a mere 52 percent of the DRC’s population had access to clean water. Africa’s average was 76 percent. The DRC also scores below Africa’s average in calorie consumption and educational attainment.
The fact that the world’s 19th most populous country, of 82 million citizens, is suffering from extreme deprivation may serve as a testament to over five decades of misrule and conflict. Mobutu Sese Seko, who presided over the country from 1965 to 1997, was no doubt one of Africa’s most corrupt and cruelest dictators. The wars that resulted in his overthrow and bloody succession struggle involved nine African countries, and cost the Congo between one and two million lives.
And today, the DRC remains one of the world’s worst run countries. In 2013, the DRC ranked 205th out of 211 countries in the World Bank’s rule of law survey. It came 197th in terms of corruption and 206th in terms of political stability and non-violence.
Although the DRC has achieved an average annual GDP growth of 8% between 2010 and 2014, this has not translated in the improvement of the living conditions of Congolese people. The Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World Report ranked the DRC 110th out of 123 countries surveyed in 2013. The 2015 World Bank’s Doing Business report showed that the DRC had the world’s 6th worst business environment. In terms of starting a business, enforcing a contract, registering property and trading across borders, the DRC scored well below Africa’s average.
The presidential election, which is scheduled for November 2016, could be pivotal. President Kabila, who took over as President after his father’s assassination in 2001, is banned from seeing another term in office by the Constitution. In a predictable fashion, Mr. Kabila first attempted to postpone the election and now claims that it cannot be organized on time. If he departs from office, Mr. Kabila will be able to hold his head up high in the knowledge that he has stabilized the country after a series of bloody conflicts. If he decides to cling onto power, he could risk Congo’s economic and political future.
In contrast with the bad old days, when Mobutu managed to intimidate or buy off his opponents, the opposition is holding firm and insisting that the Constitution be followed. Amongst the candidates to replace Mr. Kabila, which, at the time of this article’s publication, may include career politicians such as Léon Kengo wa Dondo and Moise Katumbi, is Bernard Katompa, a successful businessman who spent some of his formative years in South Africa. Mr. Katompa was an executive at BHP Billiton, one of the largest mining companies in the world, where he played key roles in successfully reengineering its operations internationally. He founded and ran Standard Bank’s ‘Liberty Africa‘, a financial institution established to provide insurance and other wealth management services to the untapped African market.
Katompa has a keen appreciation for economic reforms. If elected to the Presidency, he has promised to work with the World Bank to transform the DRC’s business environment from one of the world’s worst to one of Africa’s best. That should help sustain and perhaps even speed up economic growth in the country. A secondary benefit of economic liberalization will no doubt be the reduction of corruption. With fewer laws and regulations that make it cumbersome for businesses to operate in the DRC, the Congolese bureaucrats will have fewer opportunities to exact bribes and favors.
In addition to policy changes, Congo’s economic and political future will depend on improvements in the rule of law. In order to build an impartial, reliable and efficient judiciary, Katompa proposes the creation of a judicial review committee that would preside over a selection, appointment and disciplining of Congolese judges. To achieve his goal, he should not shy away from reaching out to other countries and hiring retired justices from those African countries where the rule of law is relatively robust. In the selection of the committee members, Katompa will show his seriousness about improving the rule of law in the DRC.
The November election, provided it goes ahead, could be a watershed in a country, which has never seen a peaceful transition of power. The international community led by South Africa should insist on the Constitution to be followed. As for Mr. Kabila’s successor—that will be in the hands of the Congolese people.