Pact Would Force Out Joseph Kabila From Congo. If, of Course, He Agrees.
Did a group of bishops just disarm one of the most explosive political problems in Africa?
Shortly before midnight on New Year’s Eve, with crowds waiting anxiously in the streets of Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Catholic bishops announced a deal that could calm a very turbulent nation.
Congo’s president, Joseph Kabila, who has overstayed his term in office and is widely believed to have looted millions, would step down by the end of 2017, the bishops said. The opposition would play a meaningful role in a transitional government. Elections would be held. Political prisoners would be freed.
This was huge news in Congo, which has never enjoyed a peaceful transfer of power. It has been racked by more rebellion, assassinations, civil war, suffering and death than just about any other country on the continent. Geographically the biggest nation in sub-Saharan Africa and one of the most stunningly beautiful, Congo is also one of the poorest and most violent.
So in the last few days, many Congolese have expressed relief, gratitude, even downright joy, calling the deal brokered by the Catholic Church “historic.”
And in broader terms for Africa, where other leaders have recently strong-armed their way past term limits, sometimes with disastrous consequences, Congo’s solution could provide a model.
But there is at least one problem that is pretty hard to ignore: Mr. Kabila has yet to sign the agreement.
Some opposition figures signed it, as did some members of Mr. Kabila’s political party, including the minister of justice. But in the absence of Mr. Kabila’s signature, people inside and outside Congo are trying to piece together what this means and what the real chances of peace are.
“Kabila is not trustworthy. That’s why we will keep our eyes on him,” said Abraham Luakabuanga, an opposition spokesman.
Mr. Kabila, 45, is a hard man to read. He has been president since 2001, when his father, President Laurent Kabila, a smuggler turned rebel leader, was assassinated. Considering he has been in office for nearly 16 years, longer than any other Congolese leader except for the singular Mobutu Sese Seko, he has not left much of a mark. Congo has benefited from some progress in the last decade and a half, but the vast majority has been driven by the private sector or outside investment, not by the government. Mr. Kabila is a reclusive figure, and many Congolese feel they know little about him.
In recent months, the pressure on him has been rising. The American government recently imposed sanctions on some of his top officials, saying they were interfering with the democratic process, and Western envoys have been flying in and out of Kinshasa, calling for Mr. Kabila to step down. Mr. Kabila’s response, former confidants say, has been to hole up in his riverside mansion in Kinshasa playing video games and occasionally going out for late-night motorcycle rides to blow off steam.
Congo’s Constitution says he should have been out of office by Dec. 20. Several analysts contend that Mr. Kabila is not desperate to be president for life. Instead, they say he has another reason for hanging on to power: He is scared, for his safety and his wealth.
Congo is rich in natural resources, including diamonds, gold, oil, timber, copper, hydropower, cassiterite for tin ore, uranium for nuclear bombs and cobalt for cellphones. The underground treasures have stirred many rebellions, and Mr. Kabila is widely suspected of extracting millions of dollars for himself and his family from highly suspicious mining deals.
In recent weeks, several major news media organizations have exposed a pattern of high-level corruption, and American government officials sent an unusually direct message to Mr. Kabila: Step down now and your chances of prosecution will be lower.
That may have been a big factor in why his political party finally said he would leave, but many Congo analysts think it is far from certain that he will actually do it.
“The fact of the matter is, he has no good exit plan, so he has little interest in respecting this agreement,” said Jason Stearns, the director of the Congo Research Group, a research project based at New York University.
Mr. Stearns was not all negative about the deal, saying it was “astounding” that Mr. Kabila’s side had agreed to important concessions, such as appointing a member of the opposition to be the new prime minister and not changing the Constitution so that Mr. Kabila could run again.
But Mr. Stearns also said Mr. Kabila “could have just realized that he needed a good excuse to kick the can down the road further and a solution would pop up in the long term.”
And why did the opposition agree?
Opposition leaders had vowed never to allow Mr. Kabila to stay in office beyond Dec. 20. They threatened to mobilize millions in an Arab Spring-like uprising to drive him out.
That did not happen. Some demonstrators hit the streets on Dec. 19 and 20, but they were quickly run off by the security forces, who have remained loyal to Mr. Kabila partly because he has paid them relatively well despite a crashing national economy.
Human Rights Watch said at least 34 people were killed by security forces during the December protests, adding to the scores gunned down since the controversy over Mr. Kabila’s desire to stay in office began two years ago.
For the moment, the new agreement seems to have quieted things down. But Mr. Kabila, who is hardly known for his democratic spirit, has yet to say publicly why he did not sign the accord about his own tenure. Several analysts say that may have been a strategy to give him room to back out, though that will not be easy if the Catholic Church mobilizes the population behind this accord.
Opposition members said they expected Mr. Kabila to sign the agreement once a new government was formed, but others dismissed that as wishful thinking.
Some of his political allies have already begun to grumble, complaining Tuesday that the agreement was not “inclusive” enough.
Another worry: Is it even possible for Congo to hold a credible election by the end of the year? The nation is nearly one million square miles, and much of that is thick, impassable rain forest, with rebel groups lurking here and there.
It is not clear how, in the next 12 months, nationwide elections can be organized, especially by an election commission that is widely suspected of money laundering and other corruption.
And what about major opposition figures like Moïse Katumbi? A very wealthy businessman, former governor and the owner of Congo’s premier soccer team, Mr. Katumbi is probably the most likely person to become Congo’s next president, if there was a fair election, which remains a big if. On Tuesday, Mr. Katumbi praised the deal and announced he was running for president.
Many young men idolize Mr. Katumbi; his name is on the tip of many lips when politics come up. He has the cult of personality, the fortune, the network and the technocratic inner circle, including several American advisers, to mount a bigger, more sophisticated campaign than anyone else.
But Mr. Katumbi is in exile (a fancy apartment in Brussels, to be exact). He was convicted last year of criminal charges that a Congolese judge later said she was coerced to issue.
Though Mr. Kabila’s government agreed last week to drop charges against some political prisoners, the charges still stand against Mr. Katumbi, clearly the most aggravating thorn in Mr. Kabila’s side.
“Katumbi has the money,” said Marthe Mujinga, a teacher in Kinshasa.
She, along with many others, said Mr. Katumbi would be the obvious front-runner. But she doubts Mr. Kabila is serious about leaving power. “He and his ministers use pretexts to justify postponing elections because of their interests,” she said.
Soon enough, she added, Mr. Kabila will “deploy the police in all the roads of Kinshasa.”
Steve Wembi contributed reporting from Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo.
This article was originally published in the New York Times on January 3, 2017