Kabila’s Congo: the end of an era

USG Herve Ladsous launches drones on Goma airport / joseph kabila
Photo: MONUSCO/Sylvain Liechti

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), no stranger to war, is facing a period of heightened conflict. An intensifying insurgency in Kasai-Central province and fighting between various militias in the east come amidst calls for President Joseph Kabila to relinquish power after his term ended on December 19, 2016. The political agreement brokered by the National Episcopal Conference of the Congo (CENCO) that would have seen Kabila step down has faltered following the death of veteran opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi in February. The DRC’s factionalised political landscape means elections, if held, are unlikely to bring peace and stability to the beleaguered country.


The DRC is a mineral rich country, home to vast cobalt, copper, diamond, and gold reserves. From 1876, the country, then known as the Congo Free State, was occupied by Belgium’s King Leopold II who treated it as his personal property. In 1908, a year before his death, Leopold reluctantly relinquished personal administration of the Congo, resulting in the Belgian parliament overseeing the country’s administration until independence in 1960. Colonial rule intensified local conflicts and disputes, the legacy of which sowed the seeds of protracted conflict in post-independence Congo.

A year after independence, Prime Minister Patrice Émery Lumumba was assassinated. The Congo became a theatre of Cold War manoeuvrings centred on the secession of the mineral-rich Katanga province. A UN peacekeeping force drawn from both the Western and Communist blocs was deployed to assist in quelling the separatists. Following years of unrest, General Joseph-Désiré Mobutu – who was suspected of involvement in Lumumba’s assassination – seized power in a military coup in 1965 and renamed the country Zaire.


The Rwandan genocide against ethnic Tutsis in 1994 destabilised the eastern Kivu provinces, which were home to large Hutu and Tutsi populations. Defeat of the Hutu government by the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA) resulted in a million Hutu moving into both the North and South Kivu provinces, from which some continued to launch attacks across the border. The Hutu rebels received immunity from the Mobutu government due to its alliance with the previous Hutu Rwandan government.

Growing national and regional opposition to Mobutu’s regime and support for the genocidaires prompted Rwanda and Uganda to assist various anti-Mobutu rebel movements. Angola, Zimbabwe and Namibia, under the auspices of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), also aided the anti-government Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (ADFL) led by Laurent Désiré Kabila. His forces ousted Mobutu on 17 May 1997 and established a government that curtailed opposition political activity. Laurent’s reticence to share power frustrated the expectations of opposition parties and civil society organisations who had expected to play a prominent role in a post-Mobutu Congo.

Laurent Kabila’s alienation of domestic, regional and global actors catalysed Africa’s first “continental war” from 1998-2002. Rwanda and Uganda again supported local anti-government militias in an attempt to oust Laurent. Angola, Zimbabwe and Namibia also again intervened to support the president. In 2001, Laurent was assassinated with suspected Rwandan involvement; his son Joseph replaced him in office. His hold on power was cemented following the 1999 Lusaka Agreement and a peace accord between Rwanda and the DRC.

President Joseph Kabila inherited a political landscape dominated by competing armed factions, natural resources competition and exploitation by multinational companies, and an ineffective UN peacekeeping mission that has been linked to gold smuggling enterprises with local militias, sexual abuses and exploitation of women and girls.


In late March, the political accord negotiated by CENCO between the Kabila government, opposition parties and civil society actors faltered. The agreement had confirmed Kabila would not seek a third term and that elections would be held in 2017, prior to which a transitional government would be installed. Frustrated by opposition parties and the Congolese government’s inability to honour the agreement, CENCO has relinquished responsibility for the peace talks. The death of opposition coalition leader Tshisekedi in February has not helped matters.

Intensifying armed conflict in various provinces has displaced millions of people while fighting in Kasai-Central has resulted in the death of two members of the UN Group of Experts. Tension in Kongo-Central province threatens stability in the capital, Kinshasa, which is suffering a deepening economic crisis. Moreover, the local UN peacekeeping force is facing cuts as the US pushes to reduce its global peacekeeping commitments.

Widespread belief that credible elections will ensure stability is misguided. Multiparty politics in the Congo emerged in a context of factionalism and civil strife; it contributes to a divisive political culture and impedes accountable governance. President Joseph Kabila is a symptom of a broader national, regional and global system of inequalities. His removal alone is unlikely to augur the desired stability.

Photo: MONUSCO/Sylvain Liechti via Flickr
Photo: MONUSCO/Sylvain Liechti via Flickr

The DRC is one of Africa’s most resource-rich countries; it hosts 10 Australian mining companies undertaking 13 projects in its beleaguered mining sector. With heightened conflict, Congolese are unlikely to see the fruits of such investment. Mining companies are subject to little oversight. Australian companies, including Sundance Resources, have previously been implicated in bribery scandals. Political stability is therefore crucial for the DRC’s economy to thrive. As in other southern African states, such as Mozambique and Zimbabwe, a government of national unity (GNU) may solve the political impasse. However, this is unlikely to eventuate without pressure from the African Union (AU) and Southern African Development Community (SADC).

With conflict in Kasai-Central likely to spill into Angola and fuel instability, a GNU may be the only way to prevent further domestic and regional destabilisation. Yet unless the AU and SADC recognise the potential for elections to create conflict and instability, the political incentives for Kabila to accept such a government are limited. Instead, Congolese will continue to live at the mercy of an intransigent government and ruthless militias.


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