There may still be hope yet to bring the Democratic Republic of Congo back from the brink. Senior Congolese politicians, western diplomats, and French television are reporting that Joseph Kabila and the political opposition are getting closer to signing a deal on a democratic transition, brokered by the Catholic bishops in Congo, CENCO. Several items are under discussion now, including Kabila not running in the next elections, having the prime minister during the transition period be from the opposition Rassemblement, setting up an independent commission to review charges against political prisoners, and/or a UN-led council to determine a political calendar. It is important that any agreement is credible and not leave Kabila in power indefinitely, and that it also concretely addresses the critical questions at stake now, not postponing key decisions such as when elections will be held.
Nothing has been signed yet, but an accord could reportedly result as soon as tomorrow. This represents major progress in the talks that have failed to materialize in anything significant thus far. As late as last Saturday, according to inside sources, President Kabila rejected a statement of principles from CENCO that would have him not stand in the next election. And government crackdowns on protestors this week have led 34 people to be killed and another nearly 300 to be arrested, including many from the pro-democracy movement LUCHA.
There are several reasons why Kabila should sign a credible democratic accord now.
1. The Trump factor: Things will likely only get worse for Kabila under Trump.
This week, two senior Republicans with strong connections to the Trump transition team said they look forward to working with President Trump to escalate the pressure that the Obama Administration has put on Kabila, if he continues to backslide on democracy. The statements came from Congressman Ed Royce, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Dr. J. Peter Pham, Director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center. Royce said,
“By remaining in power, President Kabila is violating the DRC’s constitution and the will of the Congolese people… I am pleased the Obama administration has heeded congressional calls to sanction Congolese officials undermining the democratic process. And I look forward to working with the Trump administration to build on these efforts.”
And Pham, influential with the Trump transition team, stated,
“The United States should also go after the assets—Jeffrey Gettleman of the New York Times has laid out considerable evidence of corruption in an extraordinary article which appeared over the weekend—of key members of the regime, including the president and his twin sister Jaynet, as well as to slap travel bans on them.”
This is significant, because following the departure of savvy U.S. envoy Tom Perriello, many thought that Trump would probably be soft on Kabila. Nothing is certain, but these two statements indicate that the opposite may be the case.
2. Instability: Wider street protests and possibly militia violence will likely intensify if the mediation effort fails
This past week saw protests in multiple cities across Congo, as Kabila stayed in power past the constitutional deadline of December 19th. Nearly three-quarters of Congo’s population (74%) want Kabila to step down and adhere to the constitution, according to a Congo Research Group poll study. And when given a choice between democracy, security, and development, the overwhelming majority of those polled prioritized democracy. This week’s demonstrations were fairly muted because the Catholic mediation effort is still ongoing, and many people have hope that it could result in a legitimate agreement. But if the talks fail, much wider protests are likely, as people will have given up hope on a democratic way forward. Moreover, there are reports that armed militias are organizing in several areas of the country – from Kasaï to Katanga to the Kivus – in response to a lack of democratic space. That escalation could lead to much wider bloodshed and disrupt Kabila’s shaky coalition and military.
3. It’s the economy. Congo’s economic recession is leading to increasing prices and dissatisfaction.
Corruption has increased and prices for the key commodities that Congo produces have plummeted in recent years, e.g. with the price of copper going down by nearly half over the past five years. Average Congolese people are bearing the brunt of this. The price of some foodstuffs is up as high as 80%; the Congolese Franc has lost 27% of its value in 2016; inflation has increased to nearly 6%; Central Bank foreign exchange reserves have decreased by nearly half (45%) over the past two years. The Congolese government is also slashing state services, with budget cuts of 22% and a further 14%, including a 90% cut in spending on healthcare equipment. If this continues, people may demonstrate en masse for economic reasons combined with political dissatisfaction.
4. He can’t hide. The Kabila family corruption is being uncovered.
Three different major investigations – in Bloomberg, the New York Times, and Belgium’s Le Soir, were published over the past two months that are unearthing exactly how the Kabila regime and its foreign commercial partners are profiting personally from lucrative natural resource deals and leaving the Congolese people. These and other investigations are continuing now and will likely uncover more evidence in the coming weeks and months, implicating high-ranking individuals, banks, and their business partners and lead to policy action. The Enough Project has called for escalated anti-money laundering measures that would severely hamper the regime’s ability to transact in U.S. dollars and conduct wire transfers abroad.
5. Europe will likely escalate pressure
After waiting for months to act, Europe is now on the move on Congo policy. The European Union designated seven Congolese security officers for targeted sanctions on December 12. Then this week, France, Belgium, the UK, and Germany all announced that they are reviewing their relationships with Congo now that Kabila has overstayed his term. And able diplomats with hard lines on democracy and anti-corruption have recently been appointed and are now driving European Congo policy, such as Belgian Special Envoy Renier Nijskens. Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders called for an investigation into embezzlement following Le Soir's corruption story. Insiders say that the EU will escalate sanctions if the CENCO process fails, and the U.S. will do the same, possibly all the way up to the Kabila family.
6. It’s not looking good for his biggest business partners.
This week, Israeli businessman Beny Steinmetz was arrested in Israel for alleged bribes paid in Guinea for mining rights in an investigation involving Israeli, Swiss, U.K., U.S., and African authorities. Steinmetz’s company BSGR denies the claims. This is major news for Congo, as Steinmetz collaborated with fellow Israeli businessman Dan Gertler, one of Kabila’s biggest commercial allies, on mining deals in Congo in the 2000s, according to ICIJ. In a U.S. Department of Justice Foreign Corrupt Practices Act case in September, the U.S. hedge fund Och-Ziff was forced to pay $400 million in fines because its business partners allegedly paid bribes to Congolese and other African officials. The plea agreement signed by Och-Ziff asserted that some of its business partners, including Israeli businessman Dan Gertler according to sources familiar with the case, paid over $100 million in bribes to Congolese officials in order to receive billions of dollars worth of mineral concessions at very low prices. Gertler’s company Fleurette Group denies its involvement. With Steinmetz arrested, Gertler or Kabila could be next.
There are, of course, factors why Kabila may not want to sign now. Commodity prices could go up (cobalt has picked up again over the past six months), and he could beef up intimidation and arrests of democratic protestors in the hope they sink away into fear. Moreover, neighboring countries, while nominally unhappy with Kabila, generally benefit from having him in power and are trying to block their own democratic transitions, for example in Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Congo-Brazzaville, and Angola.
Nonetheless, many other signs point to a worsened environment for Kabila if he does not agree to a democratic transition soon. The time for a deal that can prevent mass violence and move Congo forward away from violent kleptocracy is nigh.