Democratic Republic of Congo: Kabila’s Last Stand
The Congolese president who once had a sliver of a chance to disappear quietly has had a busy few final weeks. Ahead of Democratic Republic of Congo’s elections, scheduled for Dec. 23 but now postponed until Dec. 30 due to organizational and logistical complications, Joseph Kabila has conducted interviews with almost every foreign media outlet that has stationed a correspondent in his country. He’s clearly trying perpetuate his image as the benevolent departing president and perhaps, keep the media on its toes. He has also expressed defiance: Congo will hold “perfect elections,” he has said several times, adding that he refuses to rule out the possibility that he might run again in 2023, a move permitted by the Congolese constitution. “Look at my face,” he told Reuters. “Do I look worried? I am not worried.”
The reason is simple: Kabila still controls everything and is forcing even the most skeptical to dance to his tune, and there’s little doubt he will ever truly leave. He is allowing the electoral process to take its course; but he won’t contest the election because he won’t have to. Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, his candidate —or surrogate, as some observers contend—will win the vote. “Kabila has no option but to make his heir apparent win, by hook or by crook,” says Herman Cohen, a former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs turned-lobbyist who represented Kabila’s father during the early days of his presidency as well as the governments of Angola and Zimbabwe “There’s 100 percent chance the vote will be rigged.”
Kabila took power in Democratic Republic of Congo in 2001, after the death of his father, Laurent. His father had led a rebellion against Mobutu Sese Seko; from the outset, Kabila the younger showed little interest in rabblerousing. Instead, he immediately presented himself as a business-minded president, eager to put the charisma and dark charm of Mobutu in the past.
Winning public trust and support would never be an easy task. In a country where a semi-functional military is still considered semi-trustworthy, some opposition members in Kinshasa came to enjoy mocking Kabila for not being a true soldier. Although he did undertake military studies—at the National Defense University in Beijing, in 1997, no less—he never expressed much interest in actually learning, according to one military professor in Kinshasa who gave him private tutorials and asked not to be named. Kabila has also been ridiculed because he doesn’t speak Lingala—the main tribal dialect in Congo and the language of the military. It is not uncommon for opposition members to quietly whisper that he in fact a Rwandan—an accusation of a politician that can and has resulted in a one-year-prison sentence. Kabila is indeed Congolese, but was born near the eastern border; his early education was in English-speaking Tanzania.
Perhaps Kabila was simply too cynical to go all-in when it came to the military studies. “He was very young [when he took power],” says a former U.S. official with intimate knowledge of the Congolese government and the Kabila family. “He fell under the influence of the old gang, the political mafias. He accepted the corruption of the senior politicians who had profited for much longer.”
China’s Man in Africa?
Kabila also inherited a Congo which has long played a geopolitical role. The regional relationship with China dates back to Belgian colonial period, when Chinese laborers were granted permission to work in what was known as Congo Free State, according to historian Li Anshan, Afro-Asian Studies and Center for African Studies, School of International Studies, Peking University. After the birth of Democratic Republic of Congo in 1960, the relationship continued, but it was only this century that trade between the two countries really boomed.
Time and time again during his presidency, Kabila has found himself stuck in Cold War-like scenarios. During the height of the Cold War, his country was a centerpiece of US-Soviet machinations; now it’s China. China donated $42 million to the Congolese government to help build the National Assembly in the late 1970s; in the mid-90s, it donated an unspecified sum to build the national soccer stadium in Kinshasa. Throughout the Kabila presidency, some Congo watchers have debated whether the war being fought in Eastern Congo is actually a proxy war between the U.S. and China. Every deal Kabila has signed with the Chinese government has failed to address the human rights concerns raised by U.S. and Europeans donors. Kabila has defended his relationship with China arguing that it benefits the Congolese people.
In September 2015 he visited China and met with President Xi Jinping, who “highly appreciated [his] attendance,” according to a Chinese government press release at the time. “China is willing to boost cooperation with the country in peace and security to improve its independent peacekeeping capability,” the release said.
The presence of Chinese troops in the UN mission to Congo, MONUSCO, has not pacified skeptics of China’s role in the country. China is the biggest contributor to UN peacekeeping missions in Africa. According to the Pentagon’s annual report on Chinese military power, published in May, “China continued to contribute more peacekeeping forces than any other UN Security Council permanent member, supporting national objectives of improving China’s image abroad, gaining PLA operational experience, and gathering intelligence.”
Skeptics of China’s presence in Africa have also noted Chinese weaponry sales to Congo. In the late 00s, militia leader Laurent Nkunda was recorded saying sarcastically: “I would like to thank you to China, for giving the FARDC (the Congolese military) all these weapons.” A vocal opponent of Kabila’s deals with China, Nkunda was arrested in Rwanda in 2009; he is fighting extradition. It is unclear how much China provides Congo in terms of weaponry; Ukraine and Russia have also signed deals with the Kabila administration. Great Britain, according to Action on Armed Violence, a group that monitors international arms exports, continues to increase the number of arms sales licenses it grants each year to the Congolese government. (The UN lifted its embargo on selling weapons to the Congolese government in 2008; the block on sales to rebel groups still holds).
South Africa, the U.S., France, Tanzania and Angola—and of course the UN—have all provided military support to the FARDC during Kabila’s tenure. Angola halted its support in 2017 because of Kabila’s apparent reluctance to hold elections. In June, Russia and Congo signed a deal ratifying an agreement made in 1999, according to local media reports citing Defense Minister Crispin Atama Tabe. It is unclear what the relationship will consist of; a Sept. 30 Congolese military airplane crash with a dozen Russian crew members on board did little to quell local suspicions of Russian influence in the country. Jean-Jaques Wondo, a Brussels-based Congolese security expert, told Bloomberg News that if Shadary wins, “the DRC’s military ties with Russia will intensify, which in turn will lead to more opportunities for Russian companies.”
The UN is also currently looking into allegations that North Korea has provided weaponry and training to Kabila’s Presidential Guard. The Congolese government has not responded to its claims, according to its last report on the subject.
The Inner Circle
Ilunga Kampete, the head of Kabila’s security force—known as the Republican Guard—was named as a target of British sanctions on Dec. 13. Kampete stands accused of being “involved in the disproportionate use of force” and being “involved in planning, directing or committing acts that constitute serious human rights violations.” The Republican Guard is also believed to be behind the burning of 80 percent of Kinshasa’s voting machines on Dec. 13.
Kabila has offered the Congolese military continued protection: According to the U.S. State Department, his government has “used a law that prohibits anyone from making general defamatory accusations against the military to restrict free speech.”
Throughout his presidency, Kabila has repeatedly promoted generals accused of human rights abuses—in June, he named Maj. Gen. Gabriel Amisi as No. 2 in charge of operations and intelligence; he also replaced top UN collaborator Gen. Dider Etumba with Lt. Gen. Celestin Mbala as head of the FARDC. Former national police chief Gen. John Numbi is now the army’s inspector-general. Amisi, also known by his call sign Tango Four, studied military history with Kabila after he returned from China and was named Chief of Staff. “Kabila had a new reshuffle of the army [hierarchy] in order to be sure to have loyal generals in strategic places,” says Congo expert Kris Berwouts, who worked with the UN for many years during Kabila’s tenure and blames, at least in part, the UN for propping up the military.
Perception of the UN mission, Berwouts says, remains “very negative”—“people do not feel protected at all.” “The most friendly reading of that is that people find the UN mission tremendously underachieving. But Congo is a fertile breeding place for conspiracy theories, so many people visualize Monusco as part of evil strategies against them.”
The latest reshuffle of the military by Kabila is one of both protection and debt. He had to pay off the generals and other senior people when he came into office, and according to the former US official with knowledge of the family, and is having to pay them off again now—because he knows he’ll soon have to rely on them again. “He’s putting someone [in office] who he wants to be his puppet. He will rely on the military to enforce that.” The relationship with his generals is mutual: “The people depend on him for revenue: generals, members of parliament—that’s a lot of revenue,” says the former official.
The military will likely play a visible role in the coming weeks, whether it wants to or not. “I don’t see the military as a neutral instrument of the state to maintain law and order, but as part of the establishment which will deploy all pressure, fraud, intimidation and violence to win the elections,” Berwouts says.
Kabila has repeatedly tried to use security as a means to convince the world that he is a cooperating partner in the war on terror and that terror is preventing the organization of free and fair elections. But his efforts have largely fallen flat: alleged links between the Islamist ADF, responsible for a series of massacres in Eastern Congo, and Al Shabaab and Al Qaeda, were rejected by Congolese military prosecutors and independent investigators. Kabila’s repeated claims of an Islamic terrorist threat were taken lightly by the UN Security Council; historian expert and Congo Gerard Prunier joked back in 2015 that “perhaps a touch of Islamic terrorism would help [Kabila hold on to power]? But the problem is the lack of a large local Muslim community. What a quandary!” Journalistic and activist investigations linking Hezbollah and a bank run by Kabila’s brother, Francis Selemani Mtwale, have been rejected by Congolese officials, as have countless U.S. Treasury allegations and investigations into Lebanese banking activity in the country; during an interview with Reuters this month, Kabila dismissed a Bloomberg, Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and New York University investigation into his family’s wealth throughout Congo as “stupidity.”
Photos of Kabila sitting along in the garden of his home in Kinshasa circulating on the Internet this week will likely define his presidency. A president known for rarely making speeches or public appearances, Kabila failed to take advantage of the country’s growing media sector—perhaps intentionally. He was caught in photo ops helping to dig his jeep out of the mud, but also caught on video during military parades apparently riding in Chinese vehicles. A soft-spoken, cautious, calculated speaker, Kabila failed to inspire like Mobutu or even his father. His flamboyant, always-available spokesman, Lambert Mende, often defended Kabila from critics. After one of those rare speeches in 2014 that “the president doesn’t have a problem with his relationship with the people. We’ve had some presidents who were very long-winded. Mobutu was a sort of Mussolini.”
“The people don’t want a president who talks, they want someone who works,” Mende said at the time. Kabila, according one adviser quoted by Reuters this month, also wanted to change “the Congolese mentality from people who like songs and dance and high life to people concentrated on hard work.” In mid-2017, Mende was placed on an EU sanctions list for adopting a “decree limiting the possibility for foreign media outlets to broadcast… [thus] obstructing a consensual and peaceful solution towards elections in DRC, including by acts of violence, repression or inciting violence, or by undermining the rule of law.”
Kabila’s administration also used the perpetuating conflict to quell media. Congo is no longer engaged in a “classic war,” Kabila said in his 2014 speech, shortly after Mende ordered the closure of five radio stations for “cooperating” with terrorist groups. “They can’t disseminate information that is against the law,” Mende said at the time. “In times of war, we have to ensure they don’t give out information that goes against the country—against the security of the country.”
“Some media don’t hesitate to cooperate with terrorist groups,” Mende said. “We’re obligated to intervene to bring them back into order.” Some experts believe the Kabila administration failed to make good use of social media. Indeed, during protests in early 2015, he said Twitter was being used to “manipulate” the public with fake photos. Subsequent investigations by Mende’s office and some foreign media proved he was correct.
Kabila apparently failed to use PR efficiently enough to win over Washington, too. His government hired an Israeli firm, MER Group Security, to promote pro-Congo activities in the U.S. Mer Group, which started its Congolese business operations in 2006 supplying telecommunications towers to a major cellular operator, now has hundreds of sites nationwide. According to Mer Democratic Republic of Congo’s web site, it is “developing [its] experience and success into exciting new areas, including homeland security, cyber [and] intelligence” among other key areas.
Mer Group, which is partially funded by the Israeli government, outsourced some of the lobbying work in Washington to Sonoran Policy Group (SPG). Both Mer Group and SPG reportedly have links to members of the Trump campaign and administration. Neither company responded to queries in time for the publication of this article.
After the elections, the international community will have to make a decision about Kabila and his generals. On the off-chance Shadary loses to the main opposition candidate, Martin Fayulu, Kabila will have few options. The first job for the winner, says Cohen, will have to be to go after Kabila and the military guys. One option would be to “take the five most important generals, name them as [criminals], get them out of the country and [effectively] pay them off,” he says. As for Kabila, “You have to let him keep some of his money. Let him be his own man, be an honest president, [and] not steal all the money.”
As for Congo’s dozens of rebel groups, which continue to wreak havoc, particularly in the East, Cohen suggests the international community will need to act after the elections. “The rebels are just militias,” he says, walking back a statement several years ago when he publicly called for them to be treated as pro-democracy fighters. The rebel leaders and military leaders are “just co-existing and sharing [the spoils].”