Kabila’s Cling to Power

30 March 2017

by Olivia Johnson

Earlier this year, a graphic video emerged showing what appeared to be government troops killing unarmed civilians in a central province of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). It was later revealed, that this was part of a larger campaign against the emerging insurgency. Though this is only one of a myriad of problems facing Kabila’s government, it reveals the growing complexity and precariousness of the political situation in the DRC. If things continue to escalate, the country is at risk of even more social fragmentation, instability, and conflict.  

Since last summer, violence has been escalating in the Kasai Central province of the DRC. It started when a local leader, Kamwina Nsapu, called for a popular uprising and mobilised a militia to rebel against the Congolese government. His aim was to push the government security forces out of the region, claiming they had been abusing local populations. Security forces are known to only support and protect the community leaders who support President Kabila. Frustrated by systematic abuse, Nsapu called on other community leaders and residents to try to expel the security forces. Nsapu’s militia started attacking State property and officials throughout the region. Shortly after violence broke out, Nsapu was killed by Congolese soldiers. However, rather than thwarting their objectives, this compounded the resolve of the militia to continue their battle against the government troops. Fighting has since continued, and spilled over into neighbouring provinces. It has been reported that, this year, hundreds have been killed and thousands have been displaced by the conflict. Despite the fact that the group is loosely organised and poorly armed, it has continued to expand, and is now mostly comprised of youths.

The government forces have been accused of using disproportionate force in their reaction to the group. They have also failed to exercise discrimination in their retaliation against the militia, resulting in many civilian casualties. Although the DRC’s government agreed they would investigate these allegations, so far they have failed to reign in or change the engagement of the security forces in the region. The Kamwina Nsapu militia currently poses one of the most rapidly growing threats to the Kabila regime, which explains the severity of the government crackdown. There has been some pressure from international organisations on the Congolese government to reign in the security forces, however this has only led to rhetorical change. Two UN investigators travelled to the region to look further into the situation. However, they disappeared along with their driver and interpreter at the beginning of March. A few weeks later, they were found dead. It is likely that this will deter international involvement in the region until the situation stabilises and becomes more clear. Without information regarding what is happening on the ground, it will be hard to assess the development of the situation.

Initially, this appeared to be a case of excessive government crackdown. The mass graves discovered in the region since violence broke out were allegedly filled with militia members, presumably killed by the army. Moreover, the State forces were equipped with automatic weapons while the militia only has access to much less effective means of combat. However, it seems that the over-proportionate response of the state has manifested and proliferated resentment, ultimately aiding the group’s recruitment. As the conflict continues to spread and worsen, the violence no longer remains one-sided. As a result of the crackdown, the group has become more effective in their resistance, killing more than 40 police officers last week.

The government aggression comes within the wider context of political turbulence, rooted in Kabila’s attempts to cling onto power. Joseph Kabila has been the president of the DRC since the end of the civil war in 2003 after his father was assassinated. So far, the country has never seen a peaceful transition of power. The State’s reaction to the Kamwina Nsapu militia demonstrates a much larger, and more deeply entrenched, problem facing the regime at the moment. Kabila’s efforts to keep power are mostly fueling his plummeting popularity and underpinning the proliferation of threats against him.

According to the constitutional term limit, Kabila was due to leave office last December. However, he has found various reasons to continue postponing elections. Kabila argued that the election’s cost – estimated at $1.8 m billion – is a price the country cannot afford. He also started a nationwide effort to create an entirely new voter registry, the regime’s latest excuse to postpone elections further. However, this process has been hampered by the presence of armed groups, notably in Eastern Congo. There are various reasons that Kabila would want to stay in power, and for the past few years there has been suspicions that he would not respect the constitutional term limit.

Kabila’s refusal to leave office caused upset in both the opposition and the public. Following a number of uprisings at the end of last year, the Catholic church stepped in to mediate and pushed a peace deal through. This accord stipulated that elections would be organised before the end of 2017, and a transitional government would be put into place before then. Since, the agreement has not been effectively implemented – Kabila never signed the deal – and after Etienne Tshisekedi died in February, the opposition lost much of its coherence. Tshisekedi, from Kasai Central, was the figurehead of a very loosely organised opposition. Over the decades, he gathered a following by consistently calling for more democracy in the Congo and opposing both of the Kabila regimes and the Mobutu regime. His death caused temporary fragmentation of the opposition, at a time when political solidarity was crucial. 

Tshisekedi’s son, Félix, has emerged as the new opposition leader. However, so far it is unclear if he will be as effective as his father in bringing together the diverse opposition parties. He has called for the opposition to protest peacefully in early April, despite the protest ban put in place last September. Tshiekedi also wrote to United Nations Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, explaining his plans and the current political impasse. The protests will likely be violently repressed, and could lead to even more clashes between State security forces and supporters of the opposition.

Overall, this is a crucial moment for the DRC. The proliferation of insurgency into Kasai Central shows the mounting frustration with the current political order. Though groups have been clashing with the security forces since the end of the Civil War, these groups have traditionally been concentrated in Eastern Congo. The spread of popular movements and insurgency to the rest of the country shows growing tensions and possible further fragmentation of an already divided state. Moreover, the escalation of these tensions make a potential peaceful transfer of power less likely. In addition, the political uncertainty and insecurity has weakened investor confidence in the Congo. If things continue to escalate, it is likely that the Congolese economy will suffer even more. Last month, the World Bank had already downgraded the DRC’s growth forecast from 7 percent to 2.5 percent.

Ultimately, the longer Kabila pushes off the elections, the more problems will arise, and the more severe these problems will become. At the same time, it is not clear if there is someone who could take his place. The opposition is not meaningfully unified, and Kabila has no clear successor capable of coordinating a more effective response to the problems that have arisen and others that have been long standing. The situation is very fragile, and will likely grow in complexity until the political direction of the country becomes more apparent.


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