Mass killings, pregnant women cut open and infants hacked with machetes. Thousands killed, dozens of villages destroyed in less than a year and more than 1.3 million people left without a home. Such is the tally of destruction and mayhem under Joseph Kabila’s failing presidency that is inching the Democratic Republic of Congo ever closer to the abyss. Following his refusal to cooperate with the UN on investigations into massacres committed by pro-government forces in the Kasai region, last Friday the UN Human Rights Council belatedly approved a resolution to send a team of experts “to establish the truth” of events.
However, those hoping that this might prompt a change in the direction Congo is heading should probably think again. For leading these investigations will be none other than the Congolese government itself, with the UN relegated to merely providing “technical or logistical support.” The US delegation has already made a statement to the UNHRC about its misgiving concerning Congo’s commitment to a transparent investigation, while Paul Nsapu, deputy secretary-general of French NGO International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), has expressed doubts that investigators will have sufficient authority to identify perpetrators of rights abuses.
At best, this is a laughable understatement. The country is a veritable smorgasbord of all the ingredients that make up a rotten state. Meanwhile, the stymying of opposition leaders continues unabated. Kabila’s biggest threat, Moïse Katumbi, has recently filed a 36-page complaint with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on account of his being exiled from his own country to prevent him challenging Kabila for the presidency. Katumbi, who is leading Kabila in the polls by more than 4-1, has been sentenced to three years in absentia on a plethora of trumped-up charges, such as recruiting mercenaries, seizing land belonging to a Greekcitizen and not really being Congolese and therefore having been governor of the Katanga Province under false pretenses.
At the heart of it all is that all too familiar figure: the African dictator who desperately clings to power. Though his presidential term formally expired last December, Kabila struck a deal with the opposition that permitted him to stay in power for one more year, in order to organize a general election. However, Kabila’s incessant slow footing of the poll, by claiming that the DRC doesn’t have the finances to update the voter rolls and his refusal to allow the return of Katumbi to the country make the vote increasingly unlikely to take place.
The one silver lining is that the pressure is mounting. Congo’s long-time ally Angola recently changed its tone on Kabila, citing frustration over the latter’s refusal to step down and his inept handling of internal conflicts that has seen thousands of refugees pour into Angola. Mere weeks before, the EU imposed sanctions on nine more government officials involved in opposition crackdowns, freezing their assets and banning them from entering the EU. The US has imposed sanctions on a senior military adviser of Kabila’s, Francois Olonga, whose actions have threatened “the peace, security or stability of the DRC”. The heat is rising on Kabila seemingly fast enough that the president decided to launch a $5.6 million lobbying offensive in the US, including dinners for Senators, in an attempt to secure his presidency by presenting himself as a bulwark against Islamism in Central Africa.
While the EU and US sanctions are currently the only punitive measure employed, they can rightfully be hailed as evidence that Kabila’s human rights abuses won’t go unpunished. Sadly, they’re not hitting Kabila and his circle nearly hard enough, for where the international community bestows sanctions, Joseph Kabila bestows accolades. General John Numbi, one of those targeted by the US for the 2010 murder of Floribert Chebeya, founder of human rights group Voice of the Voiceless, was recently elevated to the rank of “national hero” by Kabila.
Even if things aren’t quite yet hitting the spot, the sanctions have demonstrated an important precedent, namely that hitting the finances of those at the heart of Congo’s government could yield results. The US, for example, not only sanctioned Gen. François Olenga for his involvement in overseeing the repressive Republican Guard, but also targeted the Safari Beach resort on the outskirts of Kinshasa, listed as being “being owned or controlled by Olenga.” Sun, sea and sanctions are hardly a heady mix for any business.
What the international community needs to do next is to go after president Kabila directly. This won’t be difficult given the fact that his tentacles infiltrate virtually every part of the Congolese economy. A Bloomberg report showed that his family controls more than 120 permits to dig gold, diamonds, copper and other minerals. Banking, farming, fuel distribution, aviation, road building, hospitality, pharma supplies, travel agencies, boutiques and even nightclubs all have the dubious honor of being Kabila family businesses. There is an argument that it is these business interests, rather than simply clinging to power for power’s sake, that are at the heart of Joseph Kabila’s refusal to step down. Kabila is afraid that relinquishing office will mean losing his vast fortune estimated at $15 billion. He is refusing to relent until a tame successor can be found who can ensure that both the president and his business interests survive unscathed. Effectively, he is buying time.
But what if, as he buys time, he pays for it through the degradation of his business interests? This is what the international community could achieve via direct sanctions, while also pressuring the government to permit Katumbi to return to the country and stand in the coming elections. If Kabila is unmoved by what he is doing to his people or country, he might just be moved by what those from outside the country can do to his coffers.
UN Photo/Cia Pak.