Nearly nine months after signing a political deal aimed at ushering in a landmark democratic transition in the Democratic Republic of Congo, President Joseph Kabila’s subversion of the accord places Congo at risk of much greater violence. It is also now creating the potential for regional instability and the possible disruption in the supply of minerals strategically important to U.S. national security and to U.S. and other global manufacturers.
Kabila’s attempt to stay in power at all costs is moving Congo from a fragile democracy to a dictatorship. It has already sparked significant repression, caused armed conflict in the Kasai region where 1.4 million people have been displaced, and all major U.S. companies with direct investments have fled Congo. Unrest that is rising in several areas of the country could also spread to mineral-rich Katanga, where 50 to 60 percent of the world’s cobalt reserves lie, creating a threat to U.S. defense, auto, and electronics industries.
A much more robust strategy is needed to prevent a far costlier disaster with U.S. national security and regional instability implications, and to help Congo move toward a democratic transition. Over the past year, the international community as well as Congo’s opposition and civil society have deployed some elements of a necessary strategy of pressure and negotiation to support a transition. However, those measures have not nearly been applied at the level needed to change the calculations of Kabila and his inner circle sufficiently to motivate them to move forward with credible elections. There is international pressure, but it is too individualized, ad hoc, and not focused enough on squeezing the regime at its most vulnerable point: the global financial system that Kabila and his associates heavily rely on to move money.
A mediation effort led by Congo’s Catholic bishops succeeded in getting the Dec. 31, 2016, accord signed, but it failed afterward because of a lack of subsequent pressure on the Kabila regime for implementation, and because the process did not include civil society. A new, inclusive, African-led mediation initiative is needed once more pressure has been applied.
This power grab by President Kabila and his Congolese and international collaborators is driven by their desire to not cede the immunity and control over the estimated $24 trillion in natural resource wealth that state authority gives them. They want to continue profiting from the violent kleptocracy they inherited and have refined over the past 16 years, through a system in which the ruling networks and their commercial partners hijack the state for their own benefit and use violence to profit and maintain power. The situation has become increasingly dangerous, as Kabila has attempted to repress and divide the opposition and civil society, and the government and opposition are no longer in dialogue. Neighboring Angola and Uganda are very concerned about Kabila’s lack of control of the situation, and the son-in-law of Angolan president José Eduardo dos Santos, Sindika Dokolo, has launched a campaign for Congolese people to stand up for democracy, supporting a Congolese civil society-opposition manifesto published in August calling for a “return of constitutional order.” In a country awash in arms, escalating local conflicts, angry politicians, youth, and with neighboring countries growing increasingly concerned, the risks of wider violence are high unless an inclusive transition occurs.
An effective strategy to bring Congo back from the brink should focus on achieving a democratic transition to begin to break the cycle of the corrupt, violent state while also pushing for key structural reforms and immediate conflict mitigation steps in the Kasai region and the east. It is not yet in the regime’s interest to pursue a transition given the immense profits reaped by the Kabila family and their commercial partners despite the economic crisis, Kabila’s control over the security services, and the opposition’s current weakness. Significantly increased financial and diplomatic pressures on the regime and its partners are needed first, or else talks will be fruitless. The international community, regional states, and the private sector should work on four tracks to support Congolese efforts:
- Use financial pressure to change the Kabila regime’s cost-benefit calculations to hold a democratic transition. The United States and European states should enact a series of escalated anti-money laundering measures and targeted sanctions against networks of senior members of the regime and companies they control. U.S. and E.U. sanctions helped lead to the signing of the Dec. 31 deal, but the pressure needs to shift to more senior targets that would affect Kabila’s thinking: financial advisors, Kabila family members, their companies, and key banking transactions. Their reliance on the U.S. dollar, euro, and international banks creates major leverage for the United States and Europe. The aim of the pressure should be to lead to a breakthrough on the transition.
- As more pressure is applied, support negotiations to create a path to credible, timely elections and Kabila’s exit from the Presidency. Negotiations will eventually be necessary to prevent wider violence and for the government, opposition, and civil society to work out a plan for elections and a political transition in line with the Dec. 31 accord and/or the civil society manifesto, and to ensure that Kabila leaves office before elections. An independent African mediator trusted by all sides should be appointed to help broker a time-bound transition plan that is supported by Angola and neighboring states. Civil society groups must be included in talks, and the United States and United Nations should increase legal services and physical protection for civil society. Credible elections should occur as soon as possible.
- Enact targeted measures to help resolve conflict in Kasai and eastern Congo. This should include work to cut off the conflict gold trade through targeted sanctions on conflict gold smuggling networks in Congo and neighboring countries as well as support for accountability measures and investigations in Kasai.
- Combat corruption by pushing for transparency reforms of state-owned mining companies. The United States and European Union should use financial pressure until independent audits of the state-owned mining company Gécamines are conducted and those audits are published. Technology and mining firms should also press the regime because they indirectly work with Gécamines. This is directly tied to the electoral quagmire, as these companies are at the heart of how Kabila’s inner circle generates illicit wealth and why it wants to stay in power.
This strategy would strongly support Congolese civil society’s courageous advocacy for a democratic transition: e.g., 195 Congolese human rights and other civil society groups recently called for increased sanctions on the regime. As a leading Congolese female civil society activist told Enough, “With all the evidence in [recent reports and news articles] that we learn about, why aren’t the E.U. and the U.S. targeting Zoe Kabila or Jaynet Kabila to send a strong signal to Joseph Kabila that he must get his act together and abide for once in his tenure to an agreement like the December 2016 one?”
The private sector also has a major role to play. This includes U.S. and other global electronics, jewelry, and automotive companies that use Congo’s minerals, as well as multinational banks that provide financing for projects in Congo or act as correspondent banks for U.S. dollar transactions related to Congo. It is in the interest of these corporations to avoid potential money laundering and sourcing of conflict minerals and to help prevent a violent crisis that would make doing business in Congo much more difficult. The private sector can and should cut off corrupt correspondent bank accounts, create demand for Congo’s conflict-free gold, and press the Congolese government to make state-owned mining companies more transparent. The U.S. government and European Union should engage companies on these issues.
Four key developments in Congo make the deployment of this strategy timely: 1) The Dec. 31 deal signed by the government and opposition offers a clear roadmap and benchmarks for a democratic transition; 2) There is now a near consensus in the international community and Congolese civil society that the Kabila regime is thwarting democracy and stability, and Angola plus several African former heads of state have joined that consensus; 3) Significant further financial leverage is available to influence the process which has not yet been utilized, and the regime’s leaders and business partners could lose access to the global banking system if that financial pressure is applied by governments and banks; 4) The powerful Catholic Church in Congo, which helped negotiate the Dec. 31 accord, is now telling the population to stand up to the regime, combined with increasing activism by Congolese pro-democracy civil society. This means that there is new space for democratic resistance to the regime, as many Congolese were previously waiting while the bishops negotiated, providing further internal pressure on the government.