Like the United States, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is set to face a political transition in the near future. Like President Obama, the DRC’s Joseph Kabila’s second and final term is scheduled to expire in the coming months. The similarities, however, end there. Unlike Obama, whose successor was chosen in an election, Kabila has postponed elections over and over again. Unlike Obama, who is preparing to leave the White House in January, Kabila is not prepared to cede control of the DRC. Instead, he intends to extend his mandate, creating the perfect conditions for a political crisis.
In an attempt to de-esecalate the situation, Kabila appointed a politician from the opposition, Samy Badibanga, as his Prime Minister last Thursday. The appointment of Badibanga is a culmination of a “national dialogue” between the government and opposition that concluded last month. The talks, which were boycotted by most major opposition parties, agreed to delay elections in return for a degree of power sharing. While the purpose of the talks was to avoid a violent political crisis, if history is any indication (and it’s usually a pretty good one), the appointment of Badibanga is far from a sustainable solution. To understand why, you’ll need some background information about the DRC.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo is a massive country. In area, it is the largest country in sub-saharan Africa. Its territory spans from the Atlantic ocean in the west to the African Great Lakes in the east to the vast Congo rainforest in between. With such a large territory, it’s no surprise that the DRC is endowed with vast natural wealth. That wealth, however, has not translated into prosperity for the DRC’s equally vast populace. With 67.5 million inhabitants, it is the third-largest country in Africa in terms of population. As a result of its history as a colony of Belgium, it is also the world’s largest Francophone country. Also as a result of its colonial history, its post-independence history has been marred by unprecedented brutality.
Historically, political transitions in the The Democratic Republic of the Congo have been synonymous with violence and suffering. Almost immediately following independence in 1960, the country was swept by violent riots in protest of the lingering Belgian influence. The provinces of Katanga and South Kasai attempted to secede from the new state. The President and Prime Minister had a falling out, and the Prime Minister was dismissed. As a result, a rival government was set up in support the deposed Prime Minister. The government was paralyzed by infighting. Amid the chaos, a man named Mobutu Sese Seko took power in a bloodless coup in 1965. He quickly consolidated absolute power in an attempt to alleviate the violence and political deadlock.
Mobutu did not live up to his promise to save the country from ineffective politicians. Although he ended political infighting, he did so through repression. Mobutu’s government became nepotistic and kleptocratic, siphoning billions of dollars from the country’s mineral wealth for his own personal use. Supported by The West as an opponent to Communism, he lost crucial backing after the collapse of the USSR in 1991. In 1997, with his health failing and neighboring countries vying to overthrow him, Mobutu, too, was deposed violently by Laurent Kabila as the country descended into civil war.
In 2005, another violent political transition rocked the DRC. Laurent Kabila was assassinated, and Joseph Kabila, his son, took his place. Thus Joseph Kabila came to power based on a long history of dysfunctional power transitions caused by politicians who were all too happy to hold onto power. According to the constitution of the DRC, another transition is scheduled for the near future. Will it maintain the tradition of dysfunction and violence?
At this point, it can be reasonably assumed that the “national dialogue” achieved very little in securing a long-term solution. This is mostly because the largest opposition party, the UDPS, boycotted the talks. Badibanga, too, is unpopular with the UDPS and its leader, Etienne Tshisekedi. As a result, the UDPS declared the appointment of Badibanga a “provocation” and has vowed to stage protests calling for Kabila’s ouster. So although Badibanga’s appointment was meant to signal reconciliation between the government and the opposition, hostility is still very much alive.
Ultimately, the future of the DRC lies in the hands of Joseph Kabila. If he agrees to hold elections and step down in accordance with the constitution, the DRC may witness its first ever peaceful transition of power. But he does not appear to be willing to step down peacefully. If he intends to rule indefinitely, there are truly only two possibilities. Either he will outsmart his opponents as he has with his “national dialogue,” further consolidating his rule. Or opposition leaders will continue to call for him to stop down, furthering the tense standoff and opening the door to greater violence. Ultimately, the self-interested desire of Congolese politicians to remain in power has brought untold suffering to the country’s people. So far, Kabila is continuing that tradition. The seeds of the next conflict have already been sown. While it is too early to tell whether violence will be prevented from blossoming, the appointment of Badibanga has done nothing to tackle the roots of the issue.