#DRC: Pre-trial violence raises the stakes in Congo’s political crisis

| July 20, 2017 | 0 Comments

Moise Katumbi

It’s a disturbing development that has passed almost unnoticed by all but a few members of the Western media – and that’s exactly how would-be president for life Joseph Kabila wants it. This Wednesday, on the eve of a hearing that has major implications for the political future of the DRC, shots were fired on the house of Justice Jacques Mbuyi from Lubumbashi’s Court of Appeals. Mbuyi, who is widely recognized for his impartiality and for his opposition to the government’s attempts to manipulate the law, is now in critical condition and has been replaced by a judge viewed as far more pliable. The message to the other judges was clear: this is what you can expect if you don’t play along, writes Colin Stevens.

The hearing in question concerned the conviction of Moise Katumbi (pictured), broadly seen as the opposition’s most viable presidential candidate, on doctored charges of real estate fraud in June 2016. Katumbi was sentenced to three years in jail and subsequently forced to flee to Belgium, where he has been in exile under fear of imprisonment – or worse – if he returns home. Since the initial conviction, Peace Tribunal President Chantal Ramazani Wazuri has admitted she was forced to signed the judgment under threat, and the Catholic Church of Congo and other stakeholders have dismissed the lawsuit as a ruse by Kabila to sideline the man Congolese voters see as his most effective challenger. On the second day of the appeal hearing, which observers called rife with procedural issues, the judges decided to refer the matter to the Constitutional Court – where defense attorneys said Katumbi might get a new chance for a fair trial, despite the fact that he can’t even appear in person.

The government’s increasingly desperate efforts to use the justice system to eliminate Katumbi come in the context of spiraling violence across the country – from mass prison breaks to kidnappings to militia violence – and a wider breakdown in the political system. Earlier this month, the head of the electoral commission said a vote to replace Kabila might not be possible by December – a danger that the European Parliament had already flagged in June when they said that the government might invoke the surging violence in the North Kivu and Kasai provinces as a pretext for delaying elections. Now, some Western commentators seem to have accepted what they see as inevitable, with Deutsche Welle arguing that the country seems “fated to slide into a deeper crisis” and with the FT shrugging that four out of five elections scheduled this year in Africa this year “ain’t bad.”

But there is still time to save the DRC from sliding back into the chaos that ravaged the country at the turn of the century, and this is where the EU could soon play a critical role. The bloc has a number of options at its disposal: enacting far broader sanctions against the regime and its business interests, speaking out about the president’s attempts to eliminate his main adversary, and supporting efforts to protect Katumbi, among others.

Already, Brussels and Washington sanctioned several senior government officials earlier this summer for “planning, directing or committing” serious human rights violations in the DRC. The EU blacklisted eight senior officials and a militia leader on 29 May, while the US followed up two days later by targeting Kabila’s personal military chief of staff and a resort that he owns outside Kinshasa. They join a total of 14 others, including members of the government and the security forces, that the EU and the US blacklisted in 2016. Those sanctions, though, only target a small circle of individuals and have yet to hit Kabila where they would have the most impact – his wallet.

Since the latest wave of blacklisting, the US has threatened to impose further unilateral sanctions on anyone blocking already delayed votes – but nothing new has come to pass. However, the newest US sanctions show how the business interests of influential figures involved in abuses and illegal action can be targeted.

A new feature from Bloomberg reveals how individuals from the highest levels of government, including some of Kabila’s closest family members, have leveraged their business connections to maintain their grip on power and get rich off one of the poorest countries in the world. Zoe Kabila, the president’s brother, stands at the head of a sprawling business empire that comprises everything from fast food to mining. His companies have sold diamonds, managed a luxury hotel, made driver’s licenses – and held lucrative agreements and partnerships with Ivanhoe Mines and Nzuri Copper. Zoe’s commercial stakes, as well as those of his siblings, have brought hundreds of millions of dollars to the Kabila family. And their business interests span nearly every industry across the country, making it tricky for corporations to operate without having to deal with a member of the clan. Not surprisingly, according to Bloomberg, there is evidence that investors have contracted at least one of Zoe’s firms for assistance with government relations. Expanding sanctions to blacklist these firms, as well as the shady corporations owned by the Kabila family, would be a more effective way to put pressure on the government.

The European community may also be called upon to guarantee the safety of Moise Katumbi if he returns from exile in Europe to stand for office. His lawyer has said he fully intends to fulfill his promise to come back in August, but whether or not this is feasible will depend on whether Kabila backs down – and whether Katumbi receives international protection in accordance with a petition he filed with the UN Human Rights Committee in June. The assassination attempt on the eve of Katumbi’s hearing makes it clear: such protection will be much-needed to protect the only legitimate contender to take the reins in Congo.

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Category: A Frontpage, Africa, World