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The Congo: Tiptoeing Toward a New War?


Protesting in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in 2016, after President Joseph Kabila refused to step down, violating the constitution. He remains president but has agreed to hold an election on Dec. 23, 2018. CREATIVE COMMONS

If President Joseph Kabila’s continued violations of his country’s constitutional term limits were not enough of a warning, the first paragraph of the latest report by United Nations experts on the Democratic Republic of the Congo sets the record straight, saying: “Armed actors continuously used the delay in the electoral process to promote acts of violence.”

With presidential elections for the Democratic Republic of the Congo scheduled for Dec. 23, the contentious internal politics of the UN Security Council unfortunately do nothing to foster consensus-based, decisive sanctions to address current threats to peace and security in the country. Nevertheless, France, the Council member in charge of drafting resolutions for sanctions on the Congo, recently delivered Resolution 2424, allowing the reappointment and extension of the sanctions-monitoring group of experts.

The resolution may appear perfunctory, but behind the scenes many of the 15 Council members on the Congo sanctions committee are keen to stop Kabila’s game of chicken in refusing to not run for a third presidential third term, breaching the country’s constitution. Many Council members, including the Kuwait ambassador, Mansour Al-Otaibi, the chairman of the sanctions committee, are ready to use a wide range of sanctions in response to any obstruction of the Congolese election at the end of the year.

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Such obstruction could include Kabila’s government following through on its threat of criminal prosecution of the legitimate opposition candidate, Moïse Katumbi. Katumbi, a former governor of Katanga Province, is kept in exile with an age-old fake allegation of real estate fraud. Despite this obstacle, he has promised his followers that his nomination would be registered in the 201 electoral divisions, saying, “We’re not giving up!”

A far bigger problem for the Security Council, however, is the recent surprise acquittal of Jean-Pierre Bemba, on appeal, for charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court. With the imminent release of Bemba from The Hague, where he has been imprisoned for 10 years on trumped-up charges over his mercenaries’ misdeeds in the Central African Republic, the Congo’s most powerful opposition leader and a former vice president will return — assuredly to challenge Kabila.

Joseph Kabila, Congo’s president since 2001. He has refused to say whether he will run for the office again, regardless of term limits.

Bemba is the president of the Movement for the Liberation of the Congo (MLC), a former rebel group turned political party, and the strongest contender to lead the opposition to election victory. He returns to the Congo with a deep personal grudge against Kabila. Bemba not only lost — perhaps under questionable circumstances — the 2006-2007 presidential election against Kabila, but he also barely survived two assassination attempts and the annihilation of his 600-men-strong personal protection force to surprise attacks by Kabila’s Presidential Guard. The Guard prevails as the most vicious fighting force in the Congo while it continues to violate UN arms embargoes with impunity.

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Now, more than 10 years later, Bemba’s acquittal from The Hague and return to Congolese politics will inject a voice pointing out how badly things have turned out for the country under Kabila, who has been president since January 2001. An excellent report by the American-based Congo Research Group last year untangled, for example, Kabila’s networks of at least 80 companies.

Their “holdings include over 70,000 hectares of farmland, a lucrative stake in Congo’s largest mobile phone network and over 100 mining permits for diamonds and gold,” reported Reuters. None of this wealth could have been gained by Kabila’s family legitimately.

On the other hand, while Bemba sat in prison in the Netherlands, his surviving combatants have integrated into the Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo (or FARDC, the national army). But with Bemba about to return to the Congo, it remains to be seen how loyal these soldiers will remain to the FARDC.

Kabila’s credibility problem with the military — translating into a lack of authority — is another mounting hot spot that the Security Council must watch. “Those within his power system say President Kabila has lost the grip on much of the army,” according to the Zambia Reports media site, explaining the recent cancellation of the Congo’s military parade marking its 58th anniversary of independence — possibly to avoid an embarrassing show of disloyalty or insurrection against Kabila.

Nevertheless, nominations of official presidential candidates start on July 25 and last through Aug. 8, for the Dec. 23 election. While the Congo’s constitution prevents Kabila from running for a third term, his supporters keep inventing absurd justifications why the law may not matter. Tensions have been rising since the end of May, when the ruling People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy plastered pro-Kabila posters across the country, encouraging him to run.

Bemba and Kabila have so far kept silent as to whether they want to square off against each other in the vote. An often-rumored alternative suggests that both men might anoint and finance stand-in candidates — political marionettes. The advantage for Bemba and other opposition politicians is that among Congolese voters “only 17 percent say they would vote for a presidential candidate,” according to a poll taken in March by the Congo Research Group and BERCI (Office of Study, Research and International Consulting).

Clearly, most Congolese citizens will not vote voluntarily for Kabila and his People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy.

Any resumption of “repression, violence, and corruption to extend their hold on power,” as Human Rights Watch described Kabila’s election campaign style, would almost certainly mobilize opposition groups that are already on the brink of militancy.

Should the Security Council pre-emptively declare its intention to sanction any political leader, including Kabila, whose followers turn to violence?

Jean-Pierre Bemba, whose recent acquittal by the International Criminal Court could enable him to return to the Congo and run for president against Kabila. ARMIN TASLAMAN/ICC-CPI

The only deterrent against Kabila taking a militant line, Congolese politicians seem to agree, is to indulge his desire for life-long immunity from prosecution. A special session of the National Assembly is scheduled to consider the adoption of such protection for Kabila and his senior entourage.

That is precisely the corrupt self-dealing by Congolese elites that infuriates voters and many Western nations watching the Congolese situation closely. Yet a trip to the country by UN Secretary-General António Guterres scheduled for this week and a separate one by Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, have been put off by Kabila, according to Reuters.

The US and the European Union have been targeting corrupt human-rights violators among Kabila’s senior military and security coterie in the last two years. Chief among them are American sanctions against Gen. François Olenga, the head of the Republican Guard, Kabila’s 10,000-strong elite force. Perhaps the examples of the US government and the European Union offer good guidance to the Council on how to deal with those who strive to jeopardize the Congo’s election.

Even more unnerving to Kabila could be that in the last six months, the US has already twice targeted his close friend, a corrupt Israeli billionaire and mining tycoon, Dan Gertler, and 33 of his companies. The action was taken under the new Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which allows the US Treasury Department to punish individuals who are responsible for human-rights abuses and corruption.

Experts working on the Congo sanctions issues in the Security Council have dozens of more names of Kabila supporters, combatants and businesspeople who Council policymakers can target overnight, should any of the presidential candidates step out of the constitutionally guaranteed path to new elections.

A first indication of how united the Council is in preserving peace and security in the Congo will come from the adoption of a presidential statement currently under negotiations. Will the democracy-minded members of the Council prevail or will China, the Congo’s new master, continue to protect its protégé Kabila and its copper mining rights?

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We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Enrico Carisch is the co-author of the just-released book “The Evolution of UN Sanctions: From a Tool of Warfare to a Tool of Peace, Security and Human Rights.” He is also a co-founder and partner of Compliance and Capacity Skills International (CCSI), a New York-based group specializing in all aspects of sanctions regimes (

Among other organizations, Carisch has worked for the UN Security Council as a financial and natural-resources monitor and investigator on sanctions violations by individuals and entities in Africa and elsewhere. Previously, he was an investigative journalist for print and TV for 25 years.

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