Joseph Kabila has been President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo since 2001. He took office just ten days, after the assassination of his father. Politics is a family affair in Congo. Now seventeen years later, he clings to power as the country plunges into civil war again and the economy slows considerably. Although his final term ended eight months ago, President Kabila has remained in control.
Congo formerly known as Zaire, is the giant of Sub-Saharan Africa. At a population that exceeds 82 million, it has the potential to become a major economic and political force. Yet poor governance, has plagued the country, since independence from Belgium in 1960 . The country remains among the least developed globally.
Economic development has been severely undermined by decades of instability and violence. The ongoing poor economic management, has been only made worse by repeated political crises. This in turn, has constrained economic freedom and has resulted in, driving much of the population into abject poverty.
Congo has already suffered from a previous long term despot. The last one was the tyrant Mobutu Sese Seko, who ran the country from 1965 to 1997. During these years, he supposedly stole the equivalent of more than $4 billion USD (United States Dollar) from the public treasury.
The institutionalized corruption that existed during his tenure, in order to prevent political rivals from challenging his control, eventually led to the economic collapse in 1996.
Mobutu was finally overthrown by rebels, who were being backed by neighboring Rwanda. He would die in exile, three months later, having found refuge in Morocco. The insurgents would next install, the elder Mr. Kabila.
What then followed was a bitter and horrendous civil war. It may have led to the death of hundreds of thousands of people. It soon engulfed a number of adjacent countries, which was made worse with another military incursion from Rwanda.
It totally derailed economic development in Congo at the time and took years to recover from. These previous events are beginning to mirror, the present political situation.
No head of state since independence, has left office in peace after an election. Mr Kabila so far, is following the traditional pattern of past leaders of the country. He has presided over massive government corruption and consistently undermines the rule of law.
President Kabila has encouraged human rights abuses and a high level of banditry, in his effort to consolidate and maintain political power.
Central Congo has been in rebellion since last August of 2016. A tribal chief and militia leader nicknamed Kamuina Nsapu (Black Ant) was killed by security services, in the province of Kasai Central. This was after public protests, following the refusal of the Kabila government, to back him as the chief in his area.
Following the death of their leader, his militia would strike back against the Kabila regime. Reinforcements were brought in and the central government escalated the violence, in an attempt to quell the uprising. Maybe as many as 3,000 would be killed, in the effort of suppression.
The fighting has since spread to the other two Kasai provinces. More than 1.2 million people have subsequently been displaced, as the civil war has spread.
As a result of this latest military struggle in addition to earlier conflicts, Congo now has more displaced citizens, than any other country in Africa. Some estimates place the total number of uprooted people, at the highest level globally, with the exception of Syria.
The national army has been accused of decimating whole villages. The inhabitants were accused of being sympathizers, of those forces in rebellion. Total causalities are hard to determine. Two United Nations experts that were sent in to investigate the situation on the ground, were murdered earlier this year.
These provinces are the epicenter of the political resistance to the Kabila government and the party he heads, known as the People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy.
The Kasai was also home to the major opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi. Although he died in February of this year, his son Felix has taken over the party he represented.
In order to prevent a complete political breakdown, a deal was struck on the last day of 2016. The government agreed to hold elections within a year. More importantly President Kabila, already term limited by the Constitution, agreed he would not be a candidate.
With a civil war going on in Kasai, voter registration there is next to impossible. Both sides agree there can be no presidential election, if this area of the country cannot participate.
The opposition has become organized under a grouping of parties known together as Le Rassemblement. They have collectively made the accusation, that the Kabila government has intentionally made the situation in Kasai worse, as a way to delay the election.
They charge that the government is plotting to keep Kabila in office even longer. Le Rassemblement fears President Kabila will attempt to hold a referendum, so he can legally run for a third term.
This has been achieved by a number of previously term limited presidents in Africa. These would include the nations of Angola, Burundi, Congo-Brazzaville (Republic of Congo), Equatorial Guinea, Rwanda, Uganda and Zimbabwe.
In other nations like Burkina Faso and Nigeria for example, efforts to prolong presidential tenure by their respective leaders failed.
President Kabila has promised to hold elections, by April of 2018. Many assume either he believes he can hold a referendum allowing him to run for a third term, or he will be able find a replacement who will protect him and his family.
Le Rassemblement has additional objections. Under last year’s agreement, the president was to appoint a new prime minister on the recommendation of La Rassemblement.
The latter wanted their leader, Mr. Tshisekedi, for the post. Instead the crafty Kabila defiantly, picked an insignificant opposition figure, which has divided and therefore weakened his political enemies.
A return from exile of the popular opposition figure Moise Katumbi, could complicate political matters even further. He abruptly left the country this past May.
Despite winning two elections, President Kabila has misgoverned Congo from almost the beginning of his climb to power. Kabila did win the first multiparty election in 40 years back in 2006, but his re-election in 2011, was rife with violence.
The economy remains almost totally dependent on resource extraction, after a near two decade control of the Kabila government. Congo like many other emerging nations, has suffered with the near international collapse in prices for commodities.
This year has seen a significant rise in metal prices, but it will be insufficient to rescue the collapsing economy of Congo.
The country is blessed with large deposits of rare earth minerals, that are needed in the production of many technology products. Congo relies on cobalt, copper and to a lesser extent diamonds. The global price for copper dropped by 50%, from the years 2011 to 2016. Cobalt went through a similar crash in price, back in 2008.
Congo needs to export these minerals for much needed hard currency. This is because almost all consumer goods are imported. There is nearly no domestic manufacturing. The government’s inability to provide even basic public goods on a reliable basis, drastically limits economic opportunity inside the country.
As foreign exchange reserves dwindled, the central bank began to print more money, to make up the shortfall. The Congolese franc has already lost over 50% of its value, since last November alone. The black market value for the currency in 2016, dropped from 900 to an American dollar to 1,250.
The country’s central bank expects inflation to run at 44.64% this year. This is up from an earlier forecast of 33.12% and has experienced a 20% rise from last year.
The government debt to GDP (Gross Domestic Product) ration has gone from a low of 22.4% in 2010 to 83% last year. As recently as 2014, it was still only 45.2%. It is clearly once again, on an unsustainable path.
The government of Congo is in danger of a larger default on its foreign held debt, after a dispute with the IMF (International Monetary Fund) earlier this year. The investment grade credit of the country continues to be downgraded by international agencies,now approaching junk status.
The nominal GDP is only $41,098 billion USD. This is a dismal $474.00 USD per capita. In purchasing power parity (PPP) that is only $68,331 billion USD and $788 USD respectively.
The lack of infrastructure, necessitates the importation of food as well. There is no way that produce and farm goods, are efficiently able to be transported from the countryside, to the major cities. In addition, many rural inhabitants are subsistence farmers, who remain desperately poor.
Congo is a huge country at 905,567 square miles (2,345,409 km2). Yet it only has 1,700 miles of paved roads, with not a single one traversing across the whole nation. There is only 2,500 miles of railways. Both the roads and the railroads that do exist, are in a rather decrepit condition.
Just 9% of the country’s populace has electricity and at best, service is still unreliable.
President Kabila has not invested in the people of Congo. Literacy is still at a dismal rate of 64%.
He provides little to no funding for national healthcare improvements. There is no attempt to deal with preventable diseases like malaria, and other insect transmitted diseases. The President prefers to leave these endemic issues, to foreign medical workers to deal with.
There are few formal jobs in the private sector, even for the educated. More than 80% of all economic activity, is conducted in the informal sector. Real unemployment is more than 40%.
Entrepreneurial activity in Congo is regularly hampered by an dubious regulatory environment and the absence of any institutional support, for private sector development.
Official economic growth has slowed to just 2.6% in 2016. Although the government has forecast faster growth this year, it is hard to see how that will be accomplished, given the present economic crisis.
As recently as 2015, growth was still a respectable 6.9% following the boom year of 2014, when the economy supposedly expanded by 9.5%.
President Kabila has done little to promote long term business growth and foreign investment in Congo. The poor infrastructure is made worse, by an antiquated and arbitrary system of taxation. The marginal enforcement of property rights and the lack of governmental support for the rule of law, has further weakened economic developmental efforts.
The months ahead will show whether there will can be a transfer of power, without a full scale civil war. The political and economic future of Congo hangs in the balance.