After its August parliamentary elections, a new president will lead Angola for the first time since 1979. This is a watershed moment – change is very likely, including more focus on diversification of the economy and less presidential dominance in decision-making. There will also have to be some rethinking of foreign policy – most notably on Angola’s relationship with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
What happens in the DRC is a major, longstanding strategic concern for Angola – and Luanda invests more deeply in strategic thinking on Congo than most of its neighbours. On the DRC, Angola is an essential stakeholder and special envoys on Congo and the Great Lakes region, opposition politicians and Congolese officials regularly visit Luanda. Its roots go back to the liberation struggle for Angolan independence and Cold War politics – when the CIA and kleptocrat Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire supported the campaign by the Angolan nationalist party, the FNLA, to capture Luanda. Mobutu’s power decayed following the end of the Cold War, and Angola joined with much of the region in supporting a rebel coalition that removed him from power in 1997.
Angola again militarily intervened in the DRC in 1998, this time to protect the new, post-Mobutu administration, now facing a new Rwandan- and Ugandan-backed rebellion. Angola was concerned that if these rebels won power, they would give aid to the rebel UNITA movement in Angola but also concerned with protecting their sphere of influence against Rwandan encroachment.
Here, the Angolan military proved they could be a serious, disciplined force. They successfully surrounded Rwandan forces that were supporting a rebel advance on Kinshasa (and allowed them to withdraw with safe passage following US mediation). For a time, Angola was the de facto authority across southwestern Congo. Angola also provided vital support for Joseph Kabila, who assumed the presidency of the DRC following the assassination of his father in 2001. In 2006, Angolan troops flew into Kinshasa to help Kabila’s bodyguards defeat fighters loyal to ex-rebel Jean-Pierre Bemba.
Today a stable and predictable DRC is Luanda’s most important foreign policy objective, and Angola has positioned itself to be the primary external player in Kinshasa’s elite politics – outgoing president José Eduardo dos Santos chairs the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region and holds various summits in Luanda.
But Luanda’s position on Kinshasa’s politics has shifted and its backing for Kabila can no longer be assumed. Its patience with the 16-year rule of Kabila is over and Luanda has concluded that Kabila is increasingly losing his grip across the country. Where previously Luanda saw stability through postponement of Congo’s elections, Angola increasingly assesses that an indefinite delay to elections by Joseph Kabila will ultimately be detrimental for long-term stability, and has been signalling impatience over electoral delays – particularly after his official mandate ended in December 2016 (and he is barred under the current constitution from standing for a third term).
Luanda used membership of the UN Security Council to signal its displeasure by supporting tougher resolutions against the DRC at the UN in 2015 and 2016, and withdrew its military trainers in December 2016. Public and diplomatic messaging on the need to hold elections has also significantly hardened.
Sindika Dokolo, a Congolese businessman and art collector, married to Isabel, the daughter of President dos Santos used Twitter to compare President Kabila with Mobutu in June, and has told Reuters that ‘we underestimate Congo’s capacity to destabilize the region’ and that ‘we are playing with matches on a barrel of explosives and that worries me a lot’. Kinshasa responded in July, when a Congolese court sentenced him in absentia to one year in prison for real estate fraud, a move that has further strained relations. Dokolo denounced the court's verdict as politically motivated. Dokolo’s Twitter remarks would never have been permitted without the authorization of the Angolan presidency, and reflects the anxiety of Luanda over what could occur in the DRC if the political malaise continues.
The current crisis in the DRC’s Kasai region has injected further urgency into Angolan thinking on how to respond to the deteriorating political situation. Over 32,000 Congolese refugees have arrived in Angola since April, and according to the UNHCR and the Angolan government, this number could reach over 50,000 soon. The strain on the Angolan authorities is increasing – refugee reception centres in Angola are already overcrowded and have been struggling to accommodate new arrivals. Funds are tight and the UNHCR has appealed for $6.5 million to provide immediate relief.
The Kasai region is just one of many areas where Kinshasa’s authority is almost illusory. When Angola stepped in to protect the Kabila administration in the 1990s and 2000s, there was a convergence of Angolan and Congolese government interests – the chief of the defence staff at the time, João de Matos, admitted their interventions were both ‘to protect the legal government of the Democratic Republic of Congo’ and ‘to protect the vital interests of Angola’. That convergence no longer exists.
If the DRC’s political elite do not soon agree upon a credible, peaceful transition of power from Kabila, risks to instability and insecurity will deepen. The UN will be downsizing its peacekeeping mission, Western donors are fatigued and Congo’s neighbours are increasingly restive as Kinshasa’s grip on power narrows. The options for dealing with Kinshasa range from hard talking to direct action against Kabila. Kinshasa is aware that it is on a collision course with Luanda – and Kabila’s foreign minister has been conducting shuttle diplomacy in Africa to build up support, resulting in some joint statements criticizing foreign meddling. There are unconfirmed reports that Kinshasa is now moving closer to Rwanda which could cause renewed tensions. Congolese opposition politicians like Moise Katumbi , who visited Luanda in June and has been praised by Sindika Dokolo, are also seeking Angolan support.
Angola is managing its own transition, and a domestic economy weakened by low oil prices means Luanda will not want to rush to intervene militarily in DRC. But history has shown that whatever the state of Angola’s economy, Angola will consider direct action in Kinshasa if believes its own longer-term security really is threatened.
It is exactly 20 years since Mobutu Sese Seko was overthrown, triggering a war that drew in many neighbours, including Angola. Fears that this history could be repeated will make the DRC – and Angola’s response to DRC policy – the primary foreign policy agenda item of a new Angolan presidency. The Kabila administration ignores the view from Luanda at its peril.
Dr Alex Vines OBE, Research Director, Area Studies and International Law; Head, Africa Programme.
A version of this article was published in German by Afrika Sued.