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The Jig Is Up for Congo’s Embattled President

Instead of giving President Joseph Kabila a free pass to cling to power, world leaders should endorse a plan to replace him

Published in: Foreign Policy

Among the world leaders expected in New York this week for the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly is one who should, technically, already be retired. Congolese President Joseph Kabila’s constitutionally mandated two-term limit came to an end late last year. Yet he has used one contrivance after another to delay elections for his successor and cling to power, cracking down mercilessly on political opponents and pro-democracy activists and dispatching his security services to gun down more than 170 peaceful protesters in 2015 and 2016.

Democratic Republic of Congo's President Joseph Kabila inside his office at the Palais de la Nation building in the capital, Kinshasa, April 3, 2017. ©2017 Kenny Katombe/Reuters

Yet in meetings at the U.N. this week, the government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo will try to convince world leaders that Kabila is committed to holding elections and relinquishing power — if only he is given more time. The consequences of blindly accepting such empty promises could be devastating for the Congolese people.

After the end of Kabila’s second term came and went last December with the president still firmly entrenched in office, the Roman Catholic Church mediated an emergency power-sharing arrangement — the so-called New Year’s Eve agreement — that called for a series of concessions to be made by the government, including the appointment of a new prime minister from the ranks of the opposition, and for elections to be held by the end of 2017.

With that new deadline fast approaching, elections are still nowhere in sight.

Meanwhile, the ruling coalition has defied the main tenets of the New Year’s Eve agreement by excluding members of the main opposition coalition from the new government and by appointing a prime minister who was dismissed from the main opposition party. It has also systematically banned meetings and demonstrations by the opposition while jailing scores of opposition leaders and supporters, as well as human rights and pro-democracy activists. Many are being held in secret detention facilities without charge or access to family or lawyers. Others have been tried on trumped-up charges. In July, unidentified armed men shot and nearly killed a judge who refused to hand down a ruling against an opposition leader. The government has also shut down Congolese media outlets, kicked out hard-hitting international journalists and researchers, and periodically curtailed access to social media.

To make matters worse, well-placed security and intelligence sources describe official efforts to sow violence and instability across much of the country in what appears to be a deliberate “strategy of chaos” to justify further election delays. Since August 2016, violence involving Congolese security forces, government-backed militias, and local armed groups has left more than 3,000 people dead in the country’s southern Kasai region. Six hundred schools have been attacked or destroyed, and 1.4 million people have been displaced from their homes. Eighty mass graves have been discovered in the region, the majority of which are believed to contain the bodies of civilians and militants killed by government security forces.

In March, two U.N. investigators — Michael Sharp, an American, and Zaida Catalán, a Swedish and Chilean citizen — were killed while investigating serious human rights violations in the region. Human Rights Watch investigations and a Radio France Internationale report suggest government responsibility for the double murder.

Predictably, the president of Congo’s electoral commission has since cited the violence in Kasai as the main reason why elections cannot be organized this year.

Kabila’s refusal to step down can partly be explained by the considerable fortune that he and his family have amassed during his tenure. Recent reports by Bloomberg and the Congo Research Group at New York University tell of Kabila family members with ownership stakes in more than 80 companies whose revenues total hundreds of millions of dollars since 2003. Meanwhile, hundreds of millions of dollars paid by mining companies to state bodies in the past few years have “disappeared,” never making it to the national treasury, according to a report by Global Witness.

Corruption has left the government bereft of funds to meet the basic needs of an impoverished population.Hundreds of government workers have gone on strike in recent weeks, including hospital workers who haven’t been paid since 2016. This comes amid a national cholera epidemic and impending famine threatening millions of Congolese.

Congo’s Catholic bishops sounded the alarm in June, singling out a small group of Kabila allies for failing to organize new elections in accordance with the New Year’s Eve agreement. Apparently convinced that Kabila won’t leave office unless he his forced to, the bishops called on the Congolese people to “stand up” and “take [their] destiny into [their] own hands.”

In response, leaders of pro-democracy youth movements, civil-society organizations, and representatives of the Catholic Church together published a “manifesto” in August, demanding Kabila’s resignation and calling for a “citizens’ transition” — to be overseen by officials who would be excluded from standing for office — whose primary objective would be organizing credible elections.

Congo’s international and regional partners should endorse this “citizens’ transition.” To increase the pressure on Kabila to resign, the United States and European Union should impose new targeted sanctions on Kabila’s family members and close associates who have misused funds and abused power to undermine the democratic process. The U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo should also be mandated to protect the Congolese people during the transition period.

World leaders gathered in New York this week should voice their support for a democratic Congo and call on Kabila to step aside. Remaining silent as elections are repeatedly delayed will only embolden him in his strategy of repression, violence, and theft.

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