by Gwynne Dyer
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is a bit more democratic than the mere Republic of Congo. President Denis Sassou has ruled the Republic of Congo for 33 of the past 38 years, and he’s still there. Whereas President Joseph Kabila of the DRC is actually leaving the presidency after a mere 17 years in power.
Kabila hung on for two years past the scheduled election in 2016, but the election will actually be held on 23 December – and Kabila will not be a candidate. So two cheers for democracy in the DRC.
The DRC is the big Congo, with 85 million people scattered across a country the size of Western Europe. It should be rich: it has oil, cobalt, gold, diamonds and coltan (used in electronics). But the money is almost all stolen, and it is just about the poorest country in Africa. What has condemned it to seemingly perpetual tyranny, violence and poverty is its uniquely awful style of politics.
The first post-colonial leader, Patrice Lumumba, was overthrown in 1960 within months of taking office, and murdered shortly afterwards. His successor, Mobutu Sese Seko, then ruled the country (and looted it) for 32 years. He was finally driven from power in 1997 by a combination of rebellions at home and invasions by African armies that came “to help”.
The invaders helped themselves to a lot of the country’s mineral wealth, and put into power Laurent Kabila, a former Marxist revolutionary and guerilla leader who had served as a Congolese frontman for the invasion. He was assassinated by his bodyguard in 2001 and his cronies and allies chose his son Joseph Kabila, then only 30 years old, to replace him.
Kabila Jr. was initially reluctant to take the job (presumably because of the high fatality rate), but he eventually got into the spirit of the thing. He looted the DRC for a further 17 years, and was most reluctant to leave office when constitutional term limits obliged him to.
But the pressure mounted inexorably on him, both from better-run African countries and from Western countries. After two years of stalling, during which sanctions were imposed on a number of the regime’s senior members, Joseph Kabila agreed to hold elections this month.
So is democracy coming to the Congo at last? Don’t count on it. The regime’s choice for a successor, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, is a close colleague of Kabila’s with no independent support base of his own. If elected, he would faithfully serve Kabila’s interests.
Apart from having all the resources of the state at his disposal, Shadary faces a disunited opposition. The seven leading opposition parties, some of them simply the personal political vehicle for one man, tried to agree on a united front last month, but the agreement broke down within a day and there are two competing coalitions of parties running against Kabila’s nominee.
There’s not really much difference between them, and the split is mostly due to the fact that too big a coalition means that if you win, there are too many people seeking a share of the spoils of victory. Nobody imagines that corruption will end if Shadary is defeated.
Since the opposition vote is being split in this way, Shadary will probably win – and Kabila could be back four years later. Or he could end up dead. Any of them could. The political game in the DRC is played for high stakes, but it rarely if ever focuses on the welfare of the citizens.