The West seems more interested in keeping Joseph Kabila in power than allowing the Congolese to free themselves from his rule.
The Democratic Republic of Congo’s despot, Joseph Kabila, knows how his bread is buttered. Keep reassuring the West of your strategic value and they’ll let you get away with pretty much anything. In power since around the time George W. Bush was giving his first inaugural address, Kabila has been desperately clinging to power by refusing to host elections—and by currying favor with his Western allies.
To this end, he has added trying to build a positive relationship with Donald Trump to his long list of misdemeanors. In January, it was revealed that the country signed $5.6 million deal with Mer Security and Communication Systems, which will amongst other things “hire US entities to set up meetings with senior US administration officials and key policy makers in various Congressional committees.” And in June, lobbyists for the DRC courted Washington power brokers at a dinner at the Capitol Hill Club.
That such a relationship is being forged is depressing but not surprising; this wouldn’t be the first time the West played a part in keeping Joseph Kabila in power. Child soldiers and the systematic rape of women weren’t enough to make even the feted Barack Obama stand up to Kabila. The former President rolled out the red carpet at the US Africa Leaders’ Summit and even issued a presidential exemption from sanctions in 2009, in an attempt to catch more flies with honey than vinegar that had quite the opposite effect.
In 2011, when it was blatantly clear to everyone that Kabila had inveigled his way back into power, the US turned a blind eye to the massive electoral fraud perpetrated. In the words of then-Ambassador James Entwistle: “United States recognizes Joseph Kabila as President of the Democratic Republic of Congo for the next five years”.
The business community has been equally complicit, which, to be fair, isn’t surprising. Certain quarters are benefiting handsomely from Kabila’s rule. Lundin Group, a Canadian mining company with ties to the Clinton Foundation, made billions in DRC’s copper mines. Glencore just sealed a $534 million deal to exploit two of DRC’s copper mines after buying out stakes owned by controversial Israeli tycoon Dan Gertler. The latter is assumed to be the partner of American hedge fund Och-Ziff, and has allegedly paid over $100 million to Joseph Kabila and other officials in exchange for lucrative mining rights.
Indeed, exploiting the Congolese really is a family affair for Kabila. A report by the Congo Research Group (CRG) at New York University’s Centre on International Cooperation, supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, shows the Kabila family partially or wholly own more than 80 companies and businesses in the Congo and abroad. For example, two Kabila-owned companies own diamond permits that extend for more than 450 miles along Congo’s southern border, and the president’s sister (an MP) owns a stake in the country’s largest mobile phone company. Indeed, researchers suggest that a conservative analysis suggests that these companies have clawed hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues since 2003, in addition to owning assets that are easily worth tens of millions of dollars.
It all gets even murkier when one considers that some of these businesses have benefited from government contracts, not only from the Congolese government but also from the World Bank, the US Overseas Private Investment Corporation and even the United Nations. It’s no wonder Kabila doesn’t have inclination to keep the “little people” at home happy. He has some of the biggest actors internationally helping him do what he likes best: maintaining power and making money.
And at what cost to the people of the DRC? Well, there’s mass killings, rapes, stifling of democratic freedoms, postponement of elections—the usual catalogue of human rights abuses we would expect from a leader in Kabila’s mold. With the West complacent, hope is now coming from the DRC itself. In an unprecedented show of unity, civil society groups as well as main opposition leaders met in Paris last week and issued a manifesto calling on Kabila to implement the so-called Saint-Sylvestre agreements, which call for fresh elections to be held by the end of 2017.
The leader of the opposition, Moïse Katumbi, is living in exile in Belgium having been chased out of the country on trumped up charges. A judge who may have given him a fair hearing was last month shot at and replaced with someone far more pliable. Despite the very obvious dangers, Katumbi wants to go home and attempt to act as a catalyst for the reintroduction of democracy in his homeland. He’s even asked the UN to help him do this, lodging a 36-page legal complaint with the organization’s Human Rights Committee. Katumbi has called on the Congolese to hit the streets and protests against Kabila’s reign, quipping recently that “the democratic transition will happen, with or without Kabila”.
In truth, the DRC can’t put up with Kabila’s rule much longer. Since September 66 people perished when government forces fired live ammunition at unarmed protestors. Fifty-two mass graves have been uncovered. That there have been 3,000 deaths and 1.4 million have been displaced. Earlier this month, 250 people were killed in ethnically-motivated massacres in DRC, according to the UN.
The transition might be easier if Western governments and companies would lift a finger to rein in their erstwhile friend and partner. Some version of the Hippocratic Oath might be called for here: considering that your average Joe (or average Donald) would be hard-pressed to even find the DRC on a map, the most the Congolese can ask is for Westerners to stop doing harm by propping up Kabila. Change will ultimately have to come from within—after all, the US has a spotty track record imposing it from without.