Trying to stave off what could be Africa’s next civil war, the United States and the European Union have hit several high-ranking officials in President Joseph Kabila’s government with sanctions for their alleged role in human rights violations in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The officials are close associates of the president, whose second – and supposedly last – term ended in December. He will remain in office until the end of the year, according to a deal signed with Congo’s opposition leaders. The sanctions are meant to convince him to hold elections and hopefully step down before then. And they couldn’t come at a better time.
The DRC, already among the most dysfunctional countries in Africa, is spiraling into utter chaos. The current state of unrest stems from the killing of a militia leader by security forces in Kasai province following protests against the government’s decision not to endorse him as the next “customary chief” of his area. His militia, which bears his name, Kamuina Nsapu, rose up against Kabila and was met with a heavy-handed response. Estimates of the numbers killed range from 500 to 3,000.
As the violence spread, some 1.2 million people were forced to flee, adding to the millions of internal refugees already in the country. Combined with refugees from other conflicts, Congo now holds the dubious distinction of having more displaced persons than any other country on the continent – and likely more than any other nation barring Syria. Even the United Nations has been struggling to get a grip on the crisis, having spent billions of dollars with little to show for it. Most recently, in March, two barely-trained UN experts sent to investigate the culprits behind the violence in Kasai were themselves killed. UN peacekeepers have found 40 mass graves so far in the region.
As the international community dithers over the escalating violence in the country, a combination of economic woes – high taxes, a wildly fluctuating exchange rate, lower demand – have plowed down living standards for ordinary Congolese and further compounded the country’s political crisis. While the crash in prices of the commodities that sustain Congo’s economy, copper and cobalt, have slightly recovered, the Congolese franc has halved in value since November – a huge blow for an economy that still depends heavily on imports for everything from manufactured goods to food.
Not surprisingly for such a dysfunctional economy, where most citizens struggle to make ends meet, the government is inept and corruption is endemic. In the latest sign of political erosion, late last month, it was revealed that more than 4,000 inmates had escaped from the country’s most notorious prison, the Makala penitentiary in Kinshasa. Among the inhabitants of the prison were war criminals convicted by the International Criminal Court, opposition politicians, and enemies of the president, including the men who assassinated his father. Initially, the government had tried to cover up the number of prisoners who took flight, saying it had only been a few dozen. When the truth came out, Kabila’s security forces apprehended some 200 people, but rights groups said they were simply arresting innocent civilians and pretending they were escaped prisoners.
But of all these threats, from armed militias to prisoners on the lam, the one that Kabila might fear most is the return of opposition leader Moïse Katumbi. The businessman and former governor of southeastern Katanga province has a robust government record, national recognition, and is widely seen as the most viable contender to take on Kabila. The only snag? He was forced to flee the country a little more than a year ago after being accused of plotting against the state.
In 2016, Katumbi was convicted of real estate fraud and sentenced to three years in prison in absentia, in what were widely seen as politically motivated charges. Though the government might regard him as a criminal, he’s received the backing of both the public and key stakeholders. One recent poll showed that he would win 38% of the vote if elections were held now, putting him ahead of any other candidate. A powerful group of Catholic bishops, the Congolese Episcopal Conference (CENCO), have written a letter calling for Kabila to allow Katumbi to “return as a free man and exercise his civil and political rights,” saying that the charges leveled against him were a “farce.” Whether or not the government allows for his return, Katumbi has been taking precautionary steps in case an opening arises. On June 2, he filed a legal complaint with the U.N. Human Rights Committee seeking its protection if he returns to run in the election.
But even if Katumbi gets the protection he’s asked for, will recent EU and US sanctions be enough to convince the president to hold elections? It’s increasingly likely, since international pressure keeps rising, thereby further adding to the toxic environment that Kabila has created in the country. No matter how much the president tries to postpone elections – as he recently hinted in an interview with Der Spiegel – the people of the Congo will not tolerate much longer a leader who feeds off the nation while leaving them to starve.