Moïse Katumbi, second from right as governor of Katanga province in 2015. Now in exile.The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) marked 57 years of independence last Friday, but far from being the joyous occasion it should have been, DRC president Joseph Kabila cancelled the traditional independence day parade over “security concerns.” His decision occurred at a time when the DRC has reached boiling point, with Kabila increasingly clinging desperately to power in a country ravaged by deepening rifts and aggravating chaos. Just three years shy of the DRC’s diamond jubilee, all signs point to a state that is once again collapsing into civil war – but few in the west seem aware of Congo’s dismal state.
In power since 2001, Kabila has repeatedly rejected calls to step down following the end of his term in December 2016. The subsequent wave of protests was met with a relentless crackdown that led to the death of at least 40 people in Kinshasa and several other major cities. A fragile political deal reached with the fragmented opposition has broken down in recent months, and in a bid to secure his diminishing authority and calm the waters, Kabila named an expanded new government in May consisting mostly of members of the outgoing administration along with a sprinkle of opposition politicians. The new government is regarded with scepticism among the public, who doubt its ability to resolve the current impasse crippling the country.
With tensions reaching a critical point, Kabila now has a choice: hold a long-promised election this year or face the music. So far, the aspiring dictator seems to take his chances with the latter, fearing a democratic poll. Indeed, while Kabila has many reasons to be afraid, the “imminent return” of his archrival Moïse Katumbi must be on top of the list.
Katumbi, a prominent opposition leader, has become a focal point for widespread dissatisfaction with the president and is a popular figure in the country, especially in the war-torn Kasai region. An opposition stronghold, the area has seen an explosion of violence in recent months, with reports of blatant human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, torture, rape and the use of child soldiers. The deaths of two UN investigators at the hands of militia earlier this year was met with international condemnation: 10 mass graves were identified last week.
Katumbi was forced into exile in 2016 after being falsely accused of hiring foreign mercenaries to overthrow Kabila. Seeing that charges didn’t stick, prosecutors then brought forward a fresh set of charges last year, claiming that Katumbi had sold a house that did not belong to him and recommending a five-year prison sentence. In what Katumbi’s lawyers denounced as a “sham trial”, he was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment.
The presiding judge, Chantal Ramazani, was threatened with losing her job and outright imprisonment if she found in Katumbi’s favour. Furthermore, Ramazani, who has since gone into hiding, has declared that the facts of the case were not “properly examined”. The trial mirrors that of former presidential candidate Marie-Thérèse Nlandu, who along with nine others, was tried by a military tribunal and faced up to 20 years imprisonment for organising an insurgency. Upon the group’s acquittal, the judge fled the country.
Kabila is right to fear Katumbi, as he presents a serious challenge to his hold on power. Fearing for his safety, Katumbi filed a complaint with the UN against Kabila’s government and his forced exile. The UN responded by imploring that Kabila ensure Katumbi’s safe return as a presidential candidate – with elections looming, Katumbi is leading Kabila by very wide margins. In a thinly veiled threat this time last year, Katumbi said he was convinced that if the national electoral commission fails to set a date for presidential polls by September, it will be the Congolese people that will force Kabila out.
That statement may yet prove to be prophetic. Kabila appears hell-bent on remaining in power, continually postponing elections over alleged funding concerns and technical issues regarding voter registration. The Independent National Electoral Commission anticipates an election bill of about $1.8 billion, almost two-thirds the estimated cost of the 2016 US presidential elections, with election officials claiming they need to register more than 30 million voters in a country with poor transport links and no real score sheet when it comes to peaceful transitions. Oddly enough for a cash-strapped regime, Kabila has been found spending some $5.6 million on US lobbying services, with his delegates meeting US administration officials and key policy-makers in various Congressional committees to rally support for his rule. Amid a steady rise in anti-government clashes, and disproportionately brutal responses from the regime, Kabila’s grasping for straws abroad points to a regime running out of options.
DRC’s sprawling geography, poor ground infrastructure and myriad armed groups have made it difficult to control in the decades since independence, and recent revelations only serve to weaken Kabila’s legitimacy. As regional violence continues to rise amid a worsening humanitarian crisis, commentators are drawing parallels between the current instability and the last days of Mobutu Sese Seko, the dictator ousted in 1997 by a coalition of rebel groups.