Congo: crisis in East deflects attention from need for reforms from Kinshasa

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Oct 13th, 2012
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Incumbent Congolese President Joseph Kabila receives his ballot at a polling station in Democratic Republic of Congo”s capital Kinshasa, November 28, 2011. Voting began slowly on Monday in Congo”s second-post war election, held despite fears logistical problems and irregularities would undermine the result.

By Günther v. Billerbeck at Good Governance Group (G3)
The current crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) North and South Kivu provinces is yet another episode in the epic conflict that has engulfed the region since the Rwandan genocide in 1994. The Kivu crisis has not only dominated analysis and news reporting on the country since the early months of 2012; it has also absorbed the attention of the President, Joseph Kabila, and proves a distraction from policy matters that are equally important to the country’s future. Kabila and his entourage have not provided effective leadership on a number of essential issues, namely, the revision of the electoral commission, the revision of the mining code, the holding of provincial elections and the implementation of long-awaited projects to improve electricity supply in the country.

The Mouvement du 23 Mars (M23) – a Tutsi-led rebel group, allegedly supported by Congo’s neighbour Rwanda – has started where Laurent Nkunda’s Congrès National pour la Défense du Peuple left off in January 2009. It has successfully engaged the ineffective Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo (FARDC) in North Kivu’s Rutshuru and Masisi Territories – defections, notoriously bad leadership and military assaults by the M23 having weakened the national army considerably. The crisis has also caused massive displacement of the local population and sparked debates about Rwanda’s purported role in rebellions in Eastern Congo.

This crisis shares many similarities with that which I witnessed when in the Congo between 2006 and 2009. In this regard, it has raised the usual questions and doubts about the international community’s strategy for the vast Central African country. Such questions include:

Is the UN peacekeeping mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) fit and willing to protect the local population?

Has the international community done enough to foster security sector reform and thereby bolster the FARDC and state authority in the unstable East?

Should the international community support a regime in Kinshasa that lost legitimacy after the 2011 elections, which were widely regarded as fraudulent?

Should the international community turn a blind eye to Kigali’s alleged support of an armed rebellion in a neighbouring country?

However, these questions, whilst important, are not the only ones which require answers as the Congolese leadership attempts to steer the country away from its generally ascribed role as a failed state.

Some 2000 kilometers further west, in the capital Kinshasa, the crisis seems far away and appears to play only a small role in the daily lives of the people. Kinshasa is currently bustling with preparations for the conference of Francophone countries – scheduled to take place from 12th to 14th October. The government has cleaned up a city often described as Kin La Poubelle. Now, Congolese and other Francophone flags are flying all over the Boulevard du 30 Juin, hotels have been refurbished, and parts of the road to N’Djili airport have been rehabilitated.

Besides engagement with other members of La Francophonie, there are other issues that could change the country significantly, but which have been sidelined by the crisis in the east. The revision of the electoral commission could ensure that future elections are not mismanaged. The revision of the mining code from 2002, if managed properly, could make the county’s mining industry a catalyst of modernisation and renewal. The holding of the long delayed provincial and local elections would improve democratic governance and strengthen Kabila’s legitimacy.

Yet along the corridors of the presidential residence and in the backrooms of the houses of Kabila’s closest advisors these issues are not given priority. Around the presidency, the military crisis and the souring of relations with Rwanda are the most important, if not the only, issues that are being discussed. Ironically, the almost exclusive focus on security matters may be just as threatening to the DRC’s stability as the ever-recurring Kivu crisis.

It’s well known that for Kabila, and many of his advisors, the crisis is a personal matter. It is said that the president feels betrayed by the Rwandans and mourns the deterioration of relations with Kigali that had been on the mend since a backdoor agreement in January 2009. He believes that he should have known better, and now feels that he is being left out in the rain by people he once thought his friends, such as the Rwandan Defence Minister James Kabarebe.

Many in Kinshasa also say that Kabila’s close supervision of security matters has raised eyebrows among senior generals. It has left him vulnerable to accusations of weak leadership and mismanagement should the situation not improve or should the M23 hand a decisive military defeat to the FARDC. In such a situation, it is possible that powerful people in the country’s security machinery and military hierarchy push responsibility on to Kabila. The President’s almost exclusive focus on these issues would make it easy for him to become a scapegoat, should a scapegoat be required.

Equally serious is the dangerous mixture of trust and disconnect between the presidency and the government of Prime Minister Matata Ponyo Mapon caused by Kabila’s preoccupation with security matters. The President trusts his Prime Minister with the day-to-day management of politics and leaves issues that are not related to security, mining and oil entirely to Matata. Reportedly, Kabila does not want to hear about macroeconomics, decentralisation or budgetary issues; matters unrelated to security are perceived to be an unnecessary burden.

Kabila trusts and supports Matata – much more than he trusted the Prime Minister’s predecessors Adolphe Muzito or Antoine Gizenga. This may be due to Matata’s friendship with Augustin Katumba Mwanke, the eminence grise of Congolese politics and business, and Kabila’s closest confidant prior to his death in a plane crash this February. The Prime Minister was on the plane with Katumba when it crashed, but survived with nothing more than a few bruises.

Matata has used the President’s confidence in him to go ahead with reform processes that are again threatening the vested interests of people around Kabila. For the first time in the country’s history, civil servants and members of the FARDC will be paid electronically, directly into bank accounts. While movements away from the cash-based economy will curb corruption, senior civil servants and officers, who were previously in charge of handing out cash to their subordinates, will lose out.

Matata’s concentration on macroeconomic reforms and his efforts to streamline government and instill more discipline into his cabinet has made him popular with the international community. At the same time, he has stepped on the toes of many, especially the advisors surrounding the presidency. His appointment to the position of Prime Minister caught many by surprise. Evariste Boshab, president of the ruling People’s Party for Reconstruction and Development (PPRD), and Pierre Lumbi, president of the Social Movement for Renewal (MSR) and Kabila’s chief advisor on security matters, had eyed the position for themselves. Matata is relatively new to Kinshasa’s political intrigues, and as a native of Maniema Province is not part of the powerful Katangan clique dominating the presidency. His reform efforts, which may undermine the privileges of the old political elite, may come back to haunt him.

Matata has little political backing in Kinshasa besides that of Kabila. While he is ambitious and without doubt would like remain part of the country’s political leadership, he seems isolated from those who matter in the country, like Boshab and Lumbi as well as those in control of the intelligence and security machinery. It is well known that they are just waiting for a political mistake in order to attack Matata. Even a small error may cause him to lose Kabila’s support and spell the end of his political rise

On the face of it, Kabila remains politically strong. However, his position has been weakened by his poor showing in the last elections and by the death of Katumba Mwanke. Katumba was many things: Kabila’s financial advisor, a commercial heavyweight with control over many industries, and a political powerbroker who managed to win majorities for the president. But most importantly for Kabila, he was a friend and a shock absorber who mastered the complex politics around the president, where divergent interests permanently fight for influence and access.

Without Katumba Mwanke, Kabila is more exposed to these political games, and he is not equipped with Katumba’s political acumen to manage them. The President also appears to be sickened by the constant bickering within his family and his political entourage, withdrawing from these issues as much as possible. He now spends the majority of his time on his farm outside Kinshasa. The crisis in the east and the death of Katumba weigh on him heavily and Kabila has hardly been seen in public between Katumba’s death in February and the UN General Assembly in September. He has also not issued public statements on the state of affairs for months. The 2011 elections cast a shadow on Kabila’s legitimacy at home and abroad, but not talking to his people seems a strange way to rebuild it.

The Kivu crisis matters, but neither the president nor the international community should mistake its resolution as being the only issue in building a better future for the Congolese people. Reforms that ensure employment and provide basic services to the population, attract international investment and ultimately create jobs for the masses are badly needed. A prime minister without political backing may not be enough to bring change, and the international community should not make the mistake of placing its hopes solely on Matata. Kabila needs to step up, wherever he may be.

Günther v. Billerbeck is a Director in G3’s Africa Practice and a former Political Affairs Officer with the peacekeeping mission in DRC.

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