Political Deadlock in the Democratic Republic of Congo

By Dimitrios Michail Perdikoulis

President Joseph Kabila of Congo. Geert Vanden Wijngaert/Associated Press

On 17 May 2017, over 4000 inmates escaped from Makala prison in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), while 70 convicts fled from another prison in south-western DRC a few days later. In the preceding months, the European Union (EU) and the United States (USA) have imposed targeted sanctions and travel restrictions while freezing assets of senior Congolese security and intelligence officials after government violence against civilian protests. An additional nine Congolese officials were then sanctioned in May 2017 for obstructing elections and for human rights violations. This current political deadlock in the Democratic Republic of Congo could develop into a number of ways. With prison breaks, government violence, kidnappings, mass atrocities, a powder keg of disgruntled citizens and suspicions that the Congolese Armed Forces (FARDC) may have been involved in the killing of two United Nations (UN) investigators in March, it is not surprising that current and prospective investors are fearful of how the situation in the country might develop. The analysis looks at four potential scenarios and how the business climate has been severely affected.

Instability in the DRC has become the norm. Recent insecurity has centered on delayed elections – which were due to take place in November 2016 – following President Joseph Kabila’s unwillingness to step down after reaching the constitutional term limit. The current episodes of unrest are merely the latest in a country which remains plagued by political, economic and social instability since achieving independence in 1960. GlobalEDGE places the country in the lowest quartile of their country risk rating, with an even lower ranking for business climate.

Political impasse

President Kabila’s unwillingness to step down has laid the foundations for protests, political manipulation and massive social unrest while continued outbursts of violence in the East threaten to spill over into Kinshasa. These concerns play a significant role in the country’s political landscape as ‘Anti-Kabila sentiment in the eastern Kivu provinces will be exacerbated by the president’s attempts to remain in power, escalating the risk of small-arms attacks by militant groups on mining and cargo assets’ (JLT). Furthermore, over 500 casualties have been reported in central Kasai over the past five months with a high risk of further atrocities. The relative weakness of the national government and its inability to assert control over cities in the East such as Masisi, has resulted in continued instability. Yet, such developments are not new as the DRC has experienced similar tensions time and time again.

Source: Council of Foreign Relations

Although the 2006 elections were considered to be a turning point towards democracy, Kabila was re-elected in 2011, amidst opposition to the nature of his re-election. Social unrest soon followed with citizens rejecting the results and legitimacy of the proceedings. The situation that developed after 2011 is similar to the one currently taking place – the only difference now being that Kabila cannot stand for a third term. While the African Union, the EU, the UN and the International Organisation of La Francophonie (OIF) have pressured Kabila to abide by the constitution, another political impasse has developed.

Potential scenarios

The situation in the DRC could develop in a number of different ways. Some directions are more likely to lead to a peaceful transition, while other scenarios will most certainly pave the way for heightened instability. As things stand, an escalation of violence and a drop in UN and foreign donor support are likely. The importance of donor support should not be underestimated as such aid helps Kabila remain in power. In this scenario, Kabila is expected to step down and elections will eventually take place once logistical obstacles are circumvented. It is not possible to assess how quickly the escalation of violence will force Kabila to cede power as he may continue to fight back. Hence, a series of protests could lead to widespread fighting and then ultimately to a civil war. Business Monitor International (BMI) argues that despite the escalation of violence, this outcome would provide a better macroeconomic future as donors will resume their support once a new government is elected. Furthermore, a more ‘business-friendly’ leader will increase the likelihood of investment in the country. If a peaceful transition is to occur like the one in 2006, political consensus needs to be reached and Kabila should refrain from making any further attempts to alter the constitution.

A military coup followed by an election remains another possibility, although there are complexities associated with any power-sharing agreements as the military would attempt to consolidate its control over the country. Despite the fragility of the Kabila regime, government forces have been able to suppress protests. Moreover, a coup is unlikely to take place because of how strong Kabila’s Republican Guard is and because of its loyalty and allegiance to the President. Furthermore, the DRC’s violent past indicates that a coup would bring about even greater instability, as was the case when Mobutu Sese Seko came to power in 1965 which led to widespread atrocities and very poor standards of living for 30 years.

If Kabila stays in power, that would be contingent on whether he manages to maintain his networks – primarily those influencing the mining regions. Even with reduced donor support, countries like China could become more involved in exchange for greater access to resource-rich areas. Kabila will likely militarise his administration in order to stay in power and will block any decentralisation processes so as to put an end to the political dialogue. Further, with conflicts in North and South Kivu and recent instability in Burundi, a reaction by a notorious neighbour could develop into outright fighting as in the Second Congo War. Yet, this remains unlikely.

An end in sight?

While Kabila focuses on delaying the election, the people of the DRC face low salaries, high taxes, rampant corruption and predatory institutions. In fact, it is estimated that there have been more refugees leaving the DRC than any other country, including Iraq or Syria. Making a living has become increasingly difficult and providing for one’s family continues to be a daily struggle for the majority of the population that would eventually result in mass protests. President Kabila’s moves are under heavy scrutiny, and as the international community looks on, the next few months will either help make or break the Democratic Republic of Congo.

This article was originally published for PGW Global Risk Management.

Dimitrios grew up in the Democratic Republic of Congo and in Mozambique, spending a total of 15 years in Africa between 1992 and 2008. He then completed his Bachelor of Arts in Amsterdam in 2015, with a focus on International Relations, and then his Master of Arts in International Conflict Studies at King’s College London in 2016.

Feature image:https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:FARDC-Kibumba-04_(7936378798).jpg

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