The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is – in terms of natural resources – one of Africa’s wealthiest nations. In real terms, however, it is one of the world’s very poorest, and has spent much of its sixty years of independence undergoing disastrous civil conflict or experiencing political paralysis. Considering its size, the diversity and rapid growth of its population, and the nine other states it neighbours, the effects of Congolese affairs in the coming twelve months will be far reaching. In this piece, Jonny Elswood examines the risks facing the DRC, and the potential opportunities to avert disaster that may be possible through concerted international effort.
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2017 was not a year of stability or prosperity for the vast majority of Congolese people. Political rivalries turned violent following President Joseph Kabila’s failure to honour the transitional Saint-Sylvestre Accord of the previous December and the deaths of popular opposition figures Jean-Pierre Mpandi (a.k.a. ‘Kamuina Nsapu’) and Etienne Tshisekedi. Chieftain Nsapu was killed by government forces for inciting rebellion in Kasai province in the summer of 2016, and Tshisekedi, 84, who was to be an instrumental force in the post-Kabila era, succumbed to illness in Belgium last January.
Over the course of the year, partisan militia groups conducted jailbreaks and committed attacks on civilian targets such as schools and hospitals – often with government backing. UN investigators uncovered forty-two mass graves, and will undoubtedly discover more. These events, which have been concentrated in Kasai province, have lead to the deaths of thousands of civilians, and approximately 5,500 people are newly displaced each day. One tenth of the populace faces starvation, control of infectious disease has disintegrated, and neighbouring Angola has come under significant strain due to refugee flows.
If the first two weeks of 2018 are any indication, the year ahead may see the situation deteriorate further. Kinshasa – or ‘Kin’ to its residents – has seen police use crowd suppression, including live ammunition, as public calls for political change have intensified. Government aggression has been conducted under the somewhat typical auspices that criminals have infiltrated peaceful marches, and crackdowns have resulted in multiple fatalities and hundreds of arrests.
Two critical catalysts of instability are identifiable: the murder of opposition leaders, and the unreported suppression of urban protests. Looking forward, therefore, increased domestic and international confidence may be built firstly in rebuilding the opposition unity that nurtured the 2016 Saint-Sylvestre Accord, and secondly in the improvement of public protest oversight.
The Kabila Gridlock
Joseph Kabila has been in power since 2001, and ostensibly remains the leader of his party, the People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy (PPRD), in order to prevent a crisis. Evidently, it is in fact his persistence that pushes the nation further down the road to full civil war. His administration controls the national electoral body, and enjoys the support of a number of armed groups throughout the countryside.
Nevertheless, while the public appetite for a new order is evident in the recent mass protests, the country’s political infrastructure is too atomised to make any swift transition possible. There are many minor parties, and their support bases are often ethnically aligned. Even the largest opposition party, the Union pour la Démocratie et le Progrès Social (UDPS), is now fracturing after the death of its charismatic figurehead, Etienne Tshisekedi, early last year. The limited and temporary unity among opposition members emerged in the Saint-Sylvestre Accord, which essentially blocked Kabila’s third term, orchestrated an electoral calendar, and constitutionally guaranteed independent oversight. But the President’s obstinacy corroded it, despite its backing by the Catholic Church, and its fundamental inadequacy in circumventing his opinion was exposed.
SMS and Internet facilities are often shut down prior to government crackdowns against protests; therefore any additional satellite or radio kits would be one relatively simple method for bypassing such an obstruction of access and could greatly amplify counter-governmental voices.
Crucially, all opposition parties will have an economic stake in Congolese progress after Kabila, but it will take extraordinary strength on their part to compromise on ethnic rivalries, and inspire their memberships to confront the administration.
In terms of international opposition to Kabila, attention does exist, but it is temperamental. France has vetoed Western sanctioning efforts against Kabila’s cronies, and the new U.S. administration is losing political will and repealing aid funding. More locally, in Kigali and Kampala for example, actors are avoiding joining the international aversion to Kabila, perhaps because of their own suspicion of a revolutionary domino effect across Sub Saharan Africa.
An ongoing cholera epidemic adds to the severity of the current Kinshasa shutdown. The waterborne disease is already persistent in 21 out of 26 provinces, where 18,000 new cases were treated in 2017. Like the problem of armed insurgencies across the DRC, however, the public health situation is heavily dependent on political effectiveness: without a well-functioning government, health infrastructure must be sustained by already strained NGOs. The longer subtropical rainy season has just closed, and will return again briefly in March, April and May, making this dimension to the DRC’s crisis a matter of urgency.
Preparing for the Worst
Focus and blame for the DRC’s ongoing descent into violence has to lie squarely on the Kabila administration. While an election has been scheduled for the 23rd December 2018, there is little reason to confidently anticipate it. It has proven painless for Kabila to renege on the Saint-Sylvestre Accord, and until his opposition is more coherent, he will continue to abuse his position. As a result, 2018 will certainly see more demonstrations, more crackdowns, catalysis of insurgent violence, and many more preventable deaths from infectious disease.
The situation is undoubtedly dire, but appropriate navigation by the international community can mitigate the dangers of the year ahead. Enhanced participation of the United States, the EU, and La Francophonie would of course benefit the financial and diplomatic strength of any mission towards political transition. But, their presence may also provide a convenient colonial ambience that Kabila and his allies will easily dismiss. Regional African diplomacy must take centre stage, and that will require international backing of stronger governments like those in South Africa and Tanzania. Both have already sacrificed much in their peacekeeping experience in the Congo.
External support for Congolese civil society bodies would also nourish grass roots capabilities in favour of the most capable opposition party, the UDSP. Specifically, respect for the bottom-up push for change can be realised by assisting persecuted local journalists. SMS and Internet facilities are often shut down prior to government crackdowns against protests; therefore any additional satellite or radio kits would be one relatively simple method for bypassing such an obstruction of access and could greatly amplify counter-governmental voices.
The long-term trajectory of the DRC is one of economic and environmental trepidation. The future improvement of embedded problems such as private sector criminalisation, endemic gender violence, youth unemployment, and poor energy distribution can only rely on political stability. The year ahead promises nothing, but gradual concerted action may alter the course of the region for the better.
Suggested books for further reading on this topic:
- Dancing in the Glory of Monsters by Jason Stearns
- Africa Uprising: Popular Protest & Political Change by Adam Branch & Zachariah Mampilly
- Congo Masquerade by Theodore Trefon
- Africa’s Odious Debts by Léonce Ndikumana & James Boyce
- Africa and the War on Drugs by Neil Carrier and Gernot Klantschnig
Jonny Elswood is a Scottish security analyst with expertise in counter-narcotics and non-state groups. Jonny has degrees in Political Science from St Andrews and Glasgow University, and recently completed a NATO Military Security course in Lithuania. He has contributed policy research for a political group in the Central African Republic, and currently focuses on organised crime analytics for Intelligence Fusion.
For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.
Photo credit: Edwin A/Catchphotography
Sources Consulted: News Time Africa, Al Jazeera, The Washington Post, Relief Web, The Guardian, International Crisis Group, Oxfam, Quartz, International Federation for Human Rights, The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, International Displacement Monitoring Centre, Médecins Sans Frontières, Committee to Protect Journalists.