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Did Congo’s crisis just get a lot worse?

- February 3, 2017
Congo police forces clash with civilians in the capital, Kinshasa, on Sept. 19. The opposition rally demanded the resignation of President Joseph Kabila, who has ruled the country since 2001. Opponents fear he is planning to extend his rule unconstitutionally. (Mustafa Mulopwe/AFP/Getty Images)

On Wednesday, after many months of battling illness, longtime Congolese opposition leader Étienne Tshisekedi died, thousands of miles from the country where he spent decades fighting for democracy. His death further complicates the tricky situation that has left the Congo in limbo for the past two years. The central question has been whether Joseph Kabila, president since 2001, will relinquish power at the end of his final constitutionally mandated term. On Dec. 19, the answer was finally confirmed: no. Violent clashes flared in Kinshasa, killing dozens of civilians.

Mediation efforts by the Catholic Church seemed to stop the bleeding. According to an agreement dated Dec. 31, Kabila will leave office once presidential elections are held in late 2017, while in the interim a power-sharing government will be formed. Critics are skeptical. They see an incumbent playing for time to get protesters off the streets and to relieve European Union and U.S. diplomatic pressure. Tshisekedi backed the signing of the agreement and was ready to lead the transitional government if given the chance. But privately he told his supporters to prepare for confrontation with a president whom the impoverished population of Kinshasa has never seen as a legitimate ruler.

How this plays out matters not just for the Congolese, but has an enormous regional impact. Historically, instability in Congo has proven to be a tinderbox for Central Africa as a whole.

As we detail in our new book, “Why Comrades Go to War: Liberation Politics and the Outbreak of Africa’s Deadliest Conflict,today’s crisis runs deeper than the machinations of one power-hungry president. In the 1990s, during the last years of the reign of Mobutu Sese Seko, Tshisekedi passionately fought for democracy. He was frequently detained, beaten and exiled by Mobutu, yet proved unbreakable. He served as prime minister several times to challenge Mobutu’s dictatorship from within, but was dismissed in 1993 and accused of treason. By 1998, with Mobutu dying of cancer and the country engulfed in civil war, Tshisekedi again saw a chance to usher in a democratic transition.

As we detail in our book, rebels led by another longtime Mobutu enemy, Laurent-Désiré Kabila, had other ideas. Kabila, based in the east of the country, began fighting for revolutionary change in the 1960s. That struggle quickly fizzled out. In the mid-1990s, however, Kabila’s dream was miraculously resurrected when the rebels-turned-government of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) tapped the old Marxist to lead a rebellion against Mobutu, who was harboring the perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide in eastern Congo. Kabila’s guerrillas, joined by RPF forces, blitzkrieged through the country. As one city fell after another in quick succession, Kinshasa gave them pause. Their biggest concern was taming the capital’s restless population and its politicians, including Tshisekedi. Most of the rebels, hailing from eastern Congo and Katanga, had never stepped foot in the megacity hundreds of miles to the west.

The insurgents were buoyed by the backing they received from an impressive coalition of liberation movements in power, all of whom shared Kabila’s and the RPF’s Pan-Africanist dream of a leftist restructuring of Africa’s international relations. Since the 1960 coup that deposed Patrice Lumumba, Mobutu’s rule cast a long shadow across the region. As a strong ally of the West in the Cold War context, Mobutu’s neocolonial regime represented the most serious threat to the liberation agenda of the Pan-Africanists. This fault line — pitting Mobutu and his clients against Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere and the revolutionaries he inspired and supported across the continent — polarized politics in Central Africa. The Pan-Africanist comrades’ backing was critical to the success of Kabila’s rebels in ousting Mobutu and ushering in what the allied regimes hoped would be an era of regional peace.

They were wrong. Kabila’s triumphant takeover in May 1997 did not create a peaceful new regional equilibrium but instead led to Africa’s Great War. The crisis became the deadliest conflict since World War II with millions dying of hunger, disease and wanton violence.

As we explain in “Why Comrades Go to War,” Mobutu’s overthrow proved a Pyrrhic victory because the protagonists failed in the unglamorous but essential task of building the domestic and regional institutions necessary to consolidate peace after revolution. While in the campaign against Mobutu, the RPF was happy to collaborate with comrades from Uganda, Angola, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Eritrea, this coordination was informal and temporary. Likewise, although the RPF leadership welcomed a broad Congolese front to oust Mobutu, it invested little in building formal political institutions and instead made a strategic bet that they could manipulate and control Kabila for their own ends.

Kabila, meanwhile, used his alliance with the RPF to eliminate his rivals and personalize power. As part of this arrangement, his son, Joseph Kabila, was appointed deputy chief of staff of the Congolese army, the beginning of a stellar rise that led to his assuming the presidency after his father’s assassination in 2001. All the while, Tshisekedi, the veteran of 20 years of anti-Mobutism, was ignored.

Because they could rely on foreign military power for support, Kabila and his backers never won over the Tshisekedi-supporting constituencies in Kinshasa and other important provinces. Most Congolese still see the Kabila regimes as benefiting a regional, eastern elite at the expense of the urban proletariat and the rural masses.

The legacy of this painful history bequeaths the Congolese opposition, and Tshisekedi’s successor in particular, a formidable task. Even if more protests or the interim agreement finally compel the president to leave office, how will the country bridge the great political divide between Kinshasa and the regions? What would a genuinely inclusive ethno-regional coalition look like and how would it build a legitimate state? Tshisekedi’s death presents the opposition with a significant challenge as well as an opportunity to move past the personal antagonisms that have defined politics in the country for so long. Unfortunately, however, it also leaves Congo’s structural problems no closer to being resolved.

Philip Roessler is assistant professor of government and director of the Center for African Development at the College of William and Mary. He is the author of “Ethnic Politics and State Power in Africa. The Logic of the Coup-Civil War Trap” (Cambridge University Press, 2016) and “Why Comrades Go To War: Liberation Politics and the Outbreak of Africa’s Deadliest Conflict” (Hurst/Oxford University Press, 2016).

 Harry Verhoeven is assistant professor of government at the School of Foreign Service in Qatar, Georgetown University. He is the author of “Water, Civilisation and Power in Sudan: The Political Economy of Military-Islamist State Building” (Cambridge University Press, 2015)  and “Why Comrades Go To War: Liberation Politics and the Outbreak of Africa’s Deadliest Conflict” (Hurst/Oxford University Press, 2016).