Kabila’s Trump Card

He pledged to “bomb the shit” out of ISIS and suggested that America wouldn’t automatically defend its NATO allies, but beyond that Donald Trump hardly mentioned foreign policy on his renegade march to the White House. Sub-Saharan Africa barely registered, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), well, it might as well not exist.

For Congolese President Joseph Kabila, who stands accused of delaying electoral preparations in order to cling to power, that qualifies as good news. Kabila faced mounting pressure from President Barack Obama’s administration to hold elections on time and adhere to constitutional term limits. Now senior figures in his government are holding their breath that Trump’s victory could mean a sudden change in policy.

“We have the impression that Congo is being particularly demonized,” said Tryphon Kin-Kiey Mulumba, Kabila’s minister of parliamentary affairs, adding that he hopes the next U.S. administration will be more supportive than this one. “Congo has had better relations with the U.S. each time there has been a Republican president in the White House.”

Not only has Obama dispatched his special envoy for the Great Lakes Region, Tom Perriello, to push Kabila on elections and term limits, his administration has slapped targeted sanctions on three of Kabila’s top generals — two of them for violently repressing political demonstrations and the third for threatening to kill opposition candidates. Elections were supposed to happen this month, and Kabila was to step down at the end of his term on Dec. 19, although neither will happen on time.

But the Congolese president has simply dug in harder. Last month, he struck a deal with some members of the opposition that will allow him to delay the election for 18 months, time many suspect he will use to amend the constitution to do away with term limits. His government has also banned all political protests and temporarily blocked broadcasts of Radio France Internationale and Radio Okapi, a U.N.-run radio station.

If Hillary Clinton had won, Perriello probably would have kept his job, and more Kabila loyalists would have found themselves in America’s crosshairs. But Trump’s lack of discernible interest in sub-Saharan Africa means that it’s difficult to forecast the nature of U.S. engagement with the region over the next four years.

“Nobody has any idea what’s going to happen,” one State Department official based in the Congolese capital of Kinshasa told Foreign Policy.

One thing that’s for certain is that Kabila and his allies will be glad to see the back of the Obama White House. Within hours of Trump’s victory, the notoriously uncommunicative Congolese president had congratulated his new counterpart on his “brilliant election.” Lambert Mende Omalanga, Kabila’s minister of information, also welcomed the outcome, telling local media that his government had “lived badly in recent years with the Democratic administration, which has conducted itself towards us with a cavalier attitude.” Omalanga added that he hoped the U.S. sanctions “will end with the arrival of a Republican administration.”

Part of the affinity for Republicans seems to stem from nostalgia for the era of Mobutu Sese Seko, despite the fact that it was Kabila’s father, Laurent-Désiré, who ousted the charismatic dictator in 1997. But during Mobutu’s 32-year reign, the United States, and Republican administrations in particular, showered him with financial support in exchange for being a staunch ally during the Cold War. “President Mobutu had a much better rapport with Nixon, Reagan, and Bush senior,” recalls Kin-Kiey, who served in Mobutu’s cabinet.

But there is also a belief that Republicans are less interested in human rights and democratic governance. “Republicans have usually not bothered to criticize the government on human rights violations,” said Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja, a Congolese professor of African studies at the University of North Carolina. “Trump probably won’t be very concerned about what’s happening in Africa in countries like the DRC.”

“It’s not that Trump will be chummy with Kabila,” said Jason Stearns, director of the Congo Research Group (CRG) at New York University. “But Congo will be in no way a priority for the new administration, and they’ll struggle to find people who care about and know the dossier. This will give Kabila space, because the U.S. has played a ringleader role among donors in pushing for sanctions and applying pressure on the president.”

This article was originally published by Foreign Policy Magazine on November 17, 2016

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Nov 18, 2016
Jason Stearns
Peace and Security