In an interview with Tagesschau's Alexander Göbel, Crisis Group’s Central Africa Project Director Richard Moncrieff discusses DR Congo’s many crises and how the international community can deal with the country’s ongoing political blockage.
Richard, what is the current situation in the Democratic Republic of DRC?
It’s not good. There is a complete political blockage. The best way to describe it is to go back to the beginning of the year to what is called the Saint Sylvester agreement, where opposition parties and pro-government parties (known as the Majority) agreed that they would hold elections in the course of 2017 and that the constitution wouldn’t be changed in light of these elections. The agreement gave rise to a period of optimism but, since then, the government has managed to claw back everything that they conceded, in particular by retaining complete control over the government, the electoral commission and the Follow-up Committee of the Saint Sylvester or 31st of December agreement. They’ve managed to have their own way, and having their own way means of course that they have blocked the political situation because they are happy with the status quo. They are in control of the country and they retain good control of the security forces. Indeed, the security forces in all their forms and their commander, as well as the pro-government parties, have remained very cohesive over the last few years, with very few disagreements. So, for the moment, the government would certainly feel as having its own way.
Are government forces responsible for the violence and subsequent displacement seen recently in Kasaï?
I don’t think that there is any doubt that they are responsible for some of the violence. I wouldn’t say that government forces are responsible for the outbreak of the violence or that they are the root cause of it. Instead, there are two root causes for this violence and, in a way, the violence can be seen as an intertwining of these two things. The first is the loss of legitimacy of central government, which increases the willingness of people to contest state authority. Indeed, we’ve seen anti-government militia in the Kasaï directly contest state authority, rip down electoral commission buildings and attack state agents. Moreover, on the other hand there has been a dispute over the inheritance of the chieftaincy. This happens fairly frequently but, in this context, it turned very violent and was poorly managed by the government ‒ partly because it’s an area that has been for a long time the stronghold of the opposition.
There are rumours that this unrest in the Kasaï, might have been used as a pretext by the government not to hold elections; are they exploiting chaos in order to prevent elections from happening?
I think that’s true and I think that the government is jumping on any opportunity it can to slow down the electoral process. There are parts of the country, other than the Kasaï, where we know that members of the government or people very close to the government are stirring up trouble and are arming and paying militia. Now, usually that’s for a very local agenda; we see that between the Hutu and the Nande in North Kivu, for example. This unrest may not be part of an orchestrated plan, but it is certainly something that the government will use and is using to delay the electoral process.
Is it not a dangerous strategy? At some point it might be uncontrollable for the powers that be.
I think that’s true and I think it’s an element of what they call in French “Pompier-pyromane”, the fireman pyromaniac who lights fires, enjoys putting them out and then tries to claim credit for putting them out. Of course, as with wild fires, this kind of unrest can spread. We must remember that absolutely nobody was talking about unrest in the Kasaï two years ago. So, an outbreak of unrest there was very unexpected and it indicates worryingly that violence could have erupted anywhere in the country. We’ve now got very serious areas of instability: in North and South Kivu, where unfortunately it’s fairly familiar to the population and also in most of ex-Katanga or at least in most of the provinces of the former Katanga; in the Kasaï and in Kongo Central, near the capital, where we’ve recently had violence concerning a sort of spiritual insurrection that again was rather badly managed by the government. Those are very serious areas of instability and we could see more. The situation is unpredictable and very unstable. In a way, the government doesn’t have a grander plan and instead works on a day-by-day basis. For them, another month in power is a good thing and an opportunity to steal and accumulate more money.
Is the government facing an opposition that is not strong enough to really change things?
The weakness of the opposition is a very important factor in this situation for several reasons. Firstly, let’s think about why the opposition is weak: it’s been split and divided. We see bits of it being corrupted into government, of course. The death of Etienne Tshisekedi at the end of January this year was a major blow to the opposition because no one can replace him and his historic charisma. Part of the opposition is in exile and those on the ground have very little traction with the population. They don’t get out or meet the people very much. They are often occupied by their internal struggles. There are two very important consequences to this weakness. Firstly, it makes international engagement very difficult because what the international actors don’t want is to replace the opposition or come in to mediate a situation where one side is overwhelmingly stronger than the other. That’s a very unfavourable set of circumstances for international mediation and international actors know that. So, to some degree, the weakness of opposition explains the passivity of the international community. Secondly, the weakening of the opposition poses a very serious problem for electoral democratic politics. A lot of the talk at the moment in the DRC is about the technical aspects of elections, including the electoral calendar and budget. Those are very important issues, but underlying these, there are questions on whether opposition parties are actually able to campaign and create a democratic landscape both in the run-up to, and after an election. These underlying political issues are very important but often ignored in the conversation around the Congo.
We have seen the recent visit of Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the UN, to the DRC. It was a pretty helpless kind of visit. Was there anything she could do?
You know, one of the problems with the DRC, which has been carefully constructed by successive leaders, is that nobody appears to know who is responsible for anything. So, what you see when you get little fragments of readouts from these meetings between President Kabila and international envoys is that Kabila just sits and listens and at the end he says: “ah well that’s a terrible situation, isn’t it?” and he generally ends the conversation with “you must pray for me”. So, his position is that he is not responsible for any of this.
He acts like he is the one who’s carrying the burden …
That’s exactly the impression he tries to give. He’s not completely alone in that. And as long as he doesn’t do anything decisive, his tactic is to be held responsible for nothing. So, while president of the country, all the criticism just washes off his back.
Isn’t the country suffering from more than just political blockage? We’ve also seen armed conflict and even a cholera epidemic.
The country is fraying very badly. The cholera epidemic we’ve seen was not a surprise. The administration of the country is declining from an already low base, which is extremely worrying. Indeed, we should be very worried about the state of this country. Whether or not we see an outbreak of open civil war, or whether or not we have a very decisive violent period, whatever happens ‒ if we don’t make positive progress ‒ things are going to get worse in this country and for the wider region. We’ve already seen spillover between the DRC and Angola when we had tens of thousands of refugees from the Kasaï region going to the north of Angola, which was one thing that the government did take very seriously and sent a very senior envoy to Angola to address the matter.
Could ethnic tensions arise, for example between Hutus and Tutsis, in the Great Lakes region?
Thankfully, we don’t see at the moment the sort of constellation of aggressive international alliances and rivalries we saw in the civil war period. International interference by neighbours has not been as substantial as we’ve seen in the past. But the risk of unrest in various corners of the country pulling in neighbours, whether it’s through corrupt alliances or through ethnic affiliations and so forth, is very real.
So, it has been almost exactly 21 years since the outbreak of the First Congo War in 1996. Are you afraid that something like that could ever happen again?
I think there is a risk of generalized instability in the Congo but I don’t, for the moment, see the elements of risk for another “Africa’s World War”. Nevertheless, generalized instability in the Congo can be enormously damaging both to the people who live there and to the people who live in neighbouring countries. To a certain degree, history repeats itself and to some degree it doesn’t. Some of the legacy issues of the Congo Wars have not been resolved and I think there are two issues in particular ‒ one being corruption and of course the corruption that we currently see in the Congo finds its origins in the war. Indeed, it’s often army generals who are corrupt, and if you trace back their story you will see that the massive accumulation of wealth started in the war period. The second unresolved issue is one of leadership. Although everybody welcomed the elections of 2006 and the constitution is something that the Congolese feel very proud of, we’ve now come to realise that it didn’t really solve the problem of winner-takes-all presidential politics. This makes the presidency too sought-after and the fight to win it overwhelms the peaceful political process and tends to become violent. That’s not unique to the DRC, but we’re running into this problem again.
What is the way forward for this country? Can the international community really offer anything to Kabila to step down or to make way for a real electoral process?
It is very important that international actors understand that we’re not going to see a miracle. Calls for Kabila to stand down on the 31st of December may be morally founded but they are not realistic. What we need to do is work to keep things going on the right track: find points of progress, support people and institutions in the country who are working in the right direction and try to make the electoral process inevitable and irreversible. Some of that is happening and we need to continue with that. The second very important point is to fight in every way we can to keep the political space open so that when we eventually do come to elections, those elections are meaningfully democratic and, crucially, their aftermath is manageable. These are really important elements. But the whole sense of international support around the elections is very weak. Many Western countries are pushing on the technical aspects, but African countries feel fairly reluctant to push strongly. I think that reluctance is caused by a sense that simply having elections won’t solve the country’s problems. We’ve got to work on a broader political platform to help Congo find a better future. Elections are an essential part of this process, but not sufficient on their own. We’ve got to go beyond that and try to find a more healthy form of politics for the country.
You also need a certain climate for investors to come in and create employment and development…
Of course, the economic climate is absolutely disastrous and that’s in part because of a lack of investment, although the Congolese situation is particular because the overwhelming proportion of investment goes into the mineral sector. We are seeing a very strong economic decline at the moment, with inflation and impoverishment. To make matters worse, for the last eleven years ‒ since the 2006 elections ‒ we haven’t really seen productive international or even domestic investment because the country is too dominated by the mineral sector, and in other ways too dysfunctional for people to invest in meaningful ways.
We’ve heard so much talk in the context of the G-20 summit in Germany about the so-called Marshall Plan for Africa. The German minister of development argued that, if the private sector is to come in, they have to create employment as well. I have the feeling that the main objective here is to prevent people from migrating to Europe. Looking at what’s going on in the DRC, is there substance to these ideas?
Yes, I think people come to these summits with their own preconceptions and their own way of thinking about things and developing the private sector is a phrase that sounds very nice. But if you are in a nice town in Germany or in a town in the Kivus, private sector development takes very different meanings. Other than the obvious problems haunting the Congolese economy, from poverty to a lack of capital and demand, one of the most critical is criminalisation. Of course, many businesses are criminal because there is no other way to function in this system. So, when we talk about investment, we are obviously talking about illicit or semi-illicit investment. These kinds of investment don’t tend to be long-term or productive. Instead, there is very little investment that can provide stable jobs, which the population desperately needs.
With all the terrible things going on in the country, this sort of activity will be promoted as job investment and creation. Is this like it’s a post-colonial reflex of what has been done there before?
The civil war created an enormous number of opportunities for corrupt enrichment ‒ in particular in the mineral sector ‒ and we are seeing a lot of the fallout now. A lot of people are starting to investigate into grand corruption and there is a lot more that is not being investigated on the ground. Many analysts of Africa have pointed to African countries finding a certain niche in the world economy through criminal activities. That is true to some degree, but I think we shouldn’t forget the very large number of Congolese entrepreneurs who are trying to just invest in buying or building a hotel and just trying to run a legitimate business which may have some tax evasion or a bit of corruption on the side. But that’s just because that’s how you have to operate in the DRC. Indeed, although there is this very large criminal element to the Congolese economy, there are also a lot of people who are just trying to struggle by very adverse circumstances, both international but most of all Congolese themselves.
How can this country come out of this situation, where it is seen by many as failed or failing state?
We need some kind of new deal between elites and between elites and the people. It won’t be a written deal, but we need some kind of deal about how the country can be governed so that resources can be distributed in a more equitable way. Now, of course some of that distribution will be illicit, but it needs to happen on the basis of more sustainable, and therefore less violent patterns. If we can achieve that, then that might allow a private sector to develop; one that is more oriented to efficiency and creates a greater constituency against corruption. We have seen those circumstances occurring in some places, even if very unevenly, as in Nigeria. Without pretending that Nigeria is a massive success story, some success was achieved there and I think they followed that pattern. Without being wildly unrealistic, I think we can say that you need this core political deal between the elites and it needs to have a sense of contract with the people in the sense of where the country is going to go, rather than just the current money-grabbing by politicians. With that, people can develop an autonomous sense of how they would like to develop their economy and how they can contribute to that.
One last question: Where is the UN in all of this? How can they contribute to peacekeeping? Sometimes I think they are just doing the opposite. Where are they now on this issue?
MONUSCO, the UN mission to the DRC, is not in a good position because the whole operation was set up to monitor peace agreements. They then turned toward building the capacity of the Congolese state and in particular the capacity of the security forces. The Congolese government is now rather hostile toward the UN and cooperation between UN forces and the Congolese army is at a low point. If you look at various nominations that have occurred within the Congolese army recently, you can see very clearly that the authorities in Kinshasa are thumbing their nose at the UN and other donors by appointing people who have corrupt and violent backgrounds to important positions. The UN has to reorient itself toward what you would call “damage limitation” and limit the damage that is currently being done to the country by the political impasse. That means more thorough human rights monitoring and much more flexibility and faster deployment. We did see some of that in the Kasaï but some of the very well-known old problems of rapid deployment within the UN came up and hindered MONUSCO’s response when it had to redeploy troops to the Kivus. So, some of the old problems are still there and the force needs to adapt to the new situation.
Richard Moncrieff, Project Director, Central Africa.
Originally published in Tagesschau