Joseph Kabila has ruled DRC for another unconstitutional year. But his grip is weakening
ON THE streets of Kinshasa, the raucous, ramshackle capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), it is now difficult for foreigners to walk through markets without being accosted by secret policemen, nor to do so without also hearing from shoppers and market traders how much they hate Joseph Kabila, the country’s president. As 2018 starts, Africa’s youngest head of state (Mr Kabila is only 46, despite having ruled for 17 years) is also one of the continent’s most embattled.
On New Year’s Eve at least seven people were killed in protests against the government. Before the demonstrations the Congolese government shut down much of the mobile-phone network to hamper their organisers. These were the first major protests in Kinshasa in a year and were but the latest in a string of problems for a president who did not bother to organise elections and has continued to rule unconstitutionally since his term of office ran out in December 2016.
On December 21st the American government imposed sanctions on one of his chums: Dan Gertler, an Israeli billionaire with mining and oil interests across the country. America’s Treasury Department said Mr Gertler had “amassed his fortune through hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of opaque and corrupt mining and oil deals”. On Christmas Day armed men burned down one of Mr Kabila’s palaces, in North Kivu. A police officer was killed; several vehicles were destroyed.
Mr Gertler, who once claimed that he should get a Nobel prize for his work in Congo, to which he commutes from Tel Aviv weekly, has for years acted as a middleman between multinational mining firms and the state. According to the US Treasury, between 2010 and 2012 the losses to the Congolese state from the underpricing of mines and mining licences handled by Mr Gertler came to more than $1.36bn. By imposing sanctions on Mr Gertler, America will make it more difficult for Mr Kabila to raise money to keep his patronage machine well-oiled.
If Mr Kabila is to stay in power, he will need to be able to dole out something. At the end of 2016 the president narrowly avoided huge street protests by agreeing to a deal with the political opposition to stay in power for one more year while elections were organised. That year has now passed and Mr Kabila is still in office, though international pressure is mounting. Nikki Haley, Donald Trump’s ambassador to the UN, said in October after a meeting with Mr Kabila that America would withhold support for a UN peacekeeping mission in the country if he did not commit to holding elections in 2018. Since then Corneille Nangaa, the president of the electoral commission, has said that voter registration is proceeding and an election will be held on December 23rd.
In the meantime, the president has to hold on to his territory. The attack on his compound in North Kivu is merely the latest evidence of worsening security in the east, the birthplace of his father’s Rwandan-sponsored rebellion against Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997. Earlier in December, 15 UN peacekeepers were killed in a single attack blamed on the Allied Democratic Forces, a brutal rebel group that has its origins in Uganda. Fighting has also intensified in South Kivu. In September, a militia launched an audacious marine assault on Uvira, a large city on Lake Tanganyika.
In the first half of 2017, 1m people were displaced by conflict. Hundreds of thousands of children are at risk of starvation in Kasai because of fighting. And yet Mr Kabila holds on, getting ever weaker, but seemingly without any exit plan or any hope of reasserting control. His country is at risk of falling back into civil war for the third time in two decades.