Kabila, the DRC’s leader for the past 15 years, is the latest in a long line of African leaders to decide he has to stay in office because he’s indispensable. Just last month, in a disputed vote, President Yoweri Museveni extended his 30-year rule in Uganda under similar pretenses, and Burundi is on the brink of chaos with the decision of President Pierre Nkurunziza to seek an unconstitutional third term. Indeed, nine African countries have a leader who has been in power for more than 20 years.
There are plenty of reasons for the U.S. to be deeply concerned about maintaining stability in the center of Africa. A country as big as Western Europe, with a youthful population and vast natural resource wealth, the DRC holds a strategic position in Africa and the world. An unstable Congo threatens other African countries. But beyond that, if the U.S. could help secure a smooth transfer of power from Kabila to a democratically elected successor, Congo could become not just a crisis averted but a shining example. A peaceful transition there could help Africa break the pattern of “leaders for life” who constrain not only civil and political liberties but also economic growth, preferring to reward friends and family with business franchises. The benefits of that would reverberate across the globe.
President Kabila’s behavior including the sentences of six activists to two years in prison for calling for a general strike has caused not just national but global protest. On April 25 at the United Nations, Secretary of State John Kerry told Kabila that “timely and credible elections” in the DRC were essential to the country’s future. Just a few days before that, on April 15, Sen. John McCain wrote to the DRC’s ambassador to the United States to express his “deep concern at the increasingly repressive political climate and erosion in the human rights situation.”
But rather than taking the latest criticism to heart, Kabila lashed out. His Cabinet ministers bought a full-page ad in the New York Times on April 23 to tell the world to back off, claiming that Kabila had “placed the DRC on the orbit of stability.” There is no one among the opposition better suited for the job, said the ad, claiming Kabila’s opponents are “divided, without landmark, without a leader, without a program.” So there’s no need to respect the constitutional limit on presidential terms.
The ad used language reminiscent of the era of Joseph Mobutu, who ruled DRC for over 30 years when it was called Zaire. He dubbed himself Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku wa za Banga, which is translated as “the all-conquering warrior, who goes from triumph to triumph.” Kabila’s ministers, in turn, predicted that on his economic accomplishments alone, “History will keep of Kabila the image as a great reformer.” He has a ways to go. The World Bank ranked the DRC 176th out of 187 countries on its Human Development Index in 2015.
Kabila’s response to McCain’s letter was also disturbing. Lambert Mende Omalanga, the president’s spokesman, said McCain should stop using his “celebrity and leadership for the sake of some extremists’ projects, probably on the basis of biased information.” Omalanga concluded that the U.S. “come specifically to the bedside of our electoral process with the expected funding instead of confining itself to anathemas and threats of a bygone era.”
U.S. policymakers are right to worry that Kabila is about to crack down hard on opponents and extend his presidency through force for as long as he sees fit, no matter the effect on stability in the center of Africa. And that stability is critical to U.S. efforts to fight terrorism. Al Qaeda, ISIS and their affiliates are forcefully moving to establish a foothold in sub-Saharan Africa, planning to use its mineral wealth to fund terrorism. If Kabila’s refusal to relinquish power destabilizes the DRC, it could create a vacuum for terrorist groups to fill, just as happened in Syria and Libya.
The danger is increasing. Two months ago, when people throughout the country staged a national sick-day of sorts in support of democracy, Kabila seemed to look the other way. But on April 24, a large rally billed as “the day of commemoration of the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Congo” was dispersed forcefully. Now, as thousands flock to support democracy, the president’s security forces are dispatching citizens with tear gas, blockades, arrests and threats.
There were no reports of provocation from the crowd on April 24. It was simply a march that included prominent opposition leaders, including Moise Katumbi, the governor of Katanga province, who has emerged as a popular possible contender to succeed Kabila. Last week, security forces defaced and removed posters bearing Katumbi’s image and then used force against protesting crowds. The response showed that Kabila knows he is not indispensable and wants to prevent an alternative leader from emerging.
President Kabila’s actions are putting in jeopardy the minimal progress the DRC has made in reform of his nation’s governance since he succeeded his father, who was assassinated in 2001. After being re-elected in 2006.
President Kabila supported the adoption of a new constitution!
Two months ago, top State Department officials warned Congress that a grave humanitarian crisis could erupt if Kabila succeeds in preventing a free election. Since then Kabila has made his intransigence clear.
What can the U.S. do? Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Africa, wrote to Kerry in February, outlining the right approach for the U.S. government: First, demand that Kabila state affirmatively that he will not seek a third term and will insure the political space for candidates to campaign for the presidency; second, provide the necessary guidance and funding for a free and fair election this year.
Third, if Kabila fails to make the commitment to step down, move ahead with denials of visas and asset freezes, coordinated with other governments and targeted at the president, his family and political associates. The U.S. should also reduce security and economic aid flowing through the DRC government and discourage foreign investment.
If President Barack Obama takes these steps now and Kabila bows out, the signal to other aspiring presidents-for-life will be clear. The U.S. will act on its belief that democracy is essential on the continent, not just for the human rights and economic well-being of Africans but also for the national security of Americans.
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