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In the #DRC, the EU needs to step in

| September 8, 2017 | 0 Comments

This week, the DRC’s main opposition coalition said that parties should unite to push out President Joseph Kabila nine months after he was supposed to step down from office. As plans to hold new elections are further postponed, the leader of the coalition, Felix Tshisekedi, called for widespread acts of civil disobedience, such as refusing to pay taxes, starting in October to protest the delay. The opposition’s efforts to raise the stakes come as the country is mired in the worst political and economic crisis in years. Since refusing to hold elections scheduled for last December, Kabila has been digging in his heels, insisting in a recent interview with Der Spiegel that he had “promised nothing” in an agreement to hold elections. More recently, the electoral commission added to citizens’ fears by saying elections would be delayed indefinitely due to lack of funds and conflict in the restive Kasai region – writes Colin Stevens.

Ever since Kabila refused to step down, authorities have been carrying out increasingly violent, and often fatal, crackdowns on demonstrators. In response, the EU has expressed “serious concerns” and imposed sanctions against nine government and state security officials in late May. This is a good start, but if Europe does not accept its historical obligations to the country and take more drastic action, the situation runs the risk of spiraling completely out of control.

While the chaos in Congo seems nearly irreversible, all isn’t lost: Kabila has shown that he has the ability to play by the rules. He respected the constitution in 2011, organizing elections under the same conditions which he now claims preclude votes. What’s more, the Congolese people have a legitimate alternative to Kabila: Moïse Katumbi, a businessman and former governor of Katanga province who enjoys widespread support and is currently living in exile in Belgium. Unfortunately, he hasn’t been able to return to Congo for more than a year, where he faces the prospect of imprisonment on trumped-up charges of real estate fraud.

Not content with postponing the elections and forcing the opposition into exile, Kabila has been upping the ante. In May, it was reported that the government had signed a $5.6 million contract with an Israeli security firm to lobby US officials, following sharp criticism about Kabila’s failure to allow a peaceful transition of power. More recently, Kabila’s hired guns have been stooping to new lows in their efforts to paint Kabila as a legitimate president and tarnish Katumbi’s reputation.

Over the past week, The Washington Times has published several “sponsored” articles, one focused on the so-called “illicit fortunes” of Katumbi’s family and the other alleging that he plans to “buy” the DRC. Both conveniently ignore the fact that the president and his coterie have already bought the Congo, part and parcel. Reports released by Global Witness and the Congo Research Group earlier this summer revealed how the dysfunctional government-owned mining company and “opaque” national tax agencies, as well as “corrupt networks” linked to the president’s regime, are largely to blame for the fact that hardly any of the country’s natural wealth makes its way to the people. They showed how Kabila’s family has a stake in more than 80 businesses in the country, making it nearly impossible for companies to operate there without dealing with the regime – thus revealing in livid detail why Kabila is still clinging to power. Meanwhile, the Washington Times propaganda pieces only make baseless claims about Katumbi’s supposedly ill-gotten fortunes and illicit ambitions to back up their arguments.

Sadly, with Kabila’s lobbyists peddling defamatory content in Washington, with the State Department showing little interest in Africa, and with the Trump administration dialing back support for democracy more broadly, it’s unlikely the US will do enough to convince the regime to hold elections. Nor can the Congolese people look to Africa’s own leaders for any real support. When the Southern African Development Community (SADC) convened in late August, it once again let the DRC get away without setting a deadline for elections, instead choosing to appoint a special envoy. The disappointment came after the African Union, too, failed to make a strong statement about the prospect of one of the continent’s largest countries slipping into dictatorship.

This state of affairs leaves the EU as the best placed to mediate the political crisis. For one thing, given its history of colonial atrocities in the country, Belgium must remember that it still has obligations to the DRC. European powers, more broadly, must also keep in mind their post-colonial history of inaction in the region, notably in Rwanda. They cannot allow Congo to backslide into a region-wide civil war, a brutal dictatorship, or both. Brussels should muster support from national capitals and deploy the full range of economic and diplomatic tools at their command to force Kabila to change his calculus. This means expanding sanctions to include more government officials and businesses indirectly propping up the Kabila regime, as well as facilitating Katumbi’s return to the country.

The Congolese opposition coalition has already been doing its utmost to steer the DRC away from the brink of disaster. But so far, given the government’s brutal techniques against dissenters, and the fact that the main presidential opponent still remains in exile, it simply won’t be enough unless Europe steps in.


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Category: A Frontpage, Africa, EU, featured, Featured Article, Politics

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