While Kabila’s lobbyists cleanse his image abroad, his repression in Congo continues

A supporter of presidential candidate Martin Fayulu holds a sign saying "Goodbye Kabila, Fayulu President" at a campaign rally in Kinshasa, Congo, on Wednesday. (Stefan Kleinowitz/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
A supporter of presidential candidate Martin Fayulu holds a sign saying "Goodbye Kabila, Fayulu President" at a campaign rally in Kinshasa, Congo, on Wednesday. (Stefan Kleinowitz/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

The outgoing president of Congo appears to be on a charm offensive. The notoriously reclusive Joseph Kabila gave interviews to the New York Times, BBC, Financial Times and a host of others. For the most part, with few exceptions, the questioning was mild and presented Kabila as an affable leader doing his best to confront the enormous challenges of governing Congo.

Kabila’s government has invested a reported $8 million to lobby policymakers in the United States and cleanse his image by presenting a narrative that is far from the reality and experiences of the Congolese masses. The Congolese government hired an Israeli security and communications firm, Mer Security and Communication, to lobby Washington insiders who are close to the Trump administration. The New York Times reported earlier this month that one of the main targets was President Trump’s attorney, Rudolph W. Giuliani. The Congolese ambassador to the United States, François Nkuna Balumuene, hinted that Giuliani was working with the Congolese government “to help navigate Trump policies and potential sanctions”, as a Times of Israel report put it.

Kabila presides over a repressive regime that kills social justice activists, arbitrarily arrests and tortures young Congolese, drives activists and opposition figures alike into exile, foments ethnic unrest and commits widespread human rights abuses. It is this track record that has drawn sanctions from the United States and the European Union against a number of Kabila’s top officials. Kabila’s government is stained to such a degree that he has had to hire Washington lobbyists to undertake a public-relations campaign to cleanse his tarnished image.

African leaders cavorting with conservative forces in the United States is not unusual. Longtime strongman, Yoweri Museveni who has ruled Uganda with an iron fist since 1986, has close ties to the Family, a religious fundamentalist group to which powerful members of Congress belong. The strongman of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, was particularly tight with the American preacher Rick Warren and counts figures such as Sheldon Adelson as an ally. The Kabila government is keeping in line with Congo’s authoritarian neighbors in this regard.

The depth of the disdain for Kabila’s rule is palpable among the hundreds of thousands of Congolese who have turned out for opposition political rallies during the campaign for elections now postponed to Dec. 30. The rallying cry is for change, anything but the continuity that Kabila’s handpicked successor, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, represents. Kabila changed the constitution in 2011 from a two-round election provided that no single candidate exceeded 50 percent to a one-round race in which a plurality of the votes would win. He pushed this change through knowing that he would stand little chance of winning a head-to-head battle against anyone in the opposition.

Instead of the opposition having the luxury to unify behind one candidate in a runoff, it has to do it from the outset. Unfortunately, egos, personal interests and lack of political maturity have made such an option a herculean task. The opposition had united behind one candidate in mid-November, but it fell apart within 24 hours.

Despite the jockeying and the formation of different fronts, what is predictable is that Shadary will be named president once elections are held. Kabila controls the purse strings, the security forces (both police and military), the constitutional court and the electoral commission. The one key element that the Kabila coalition lacks is legitimacy, which it seeks not from the Congolese people but from the international community. It is operating from the premise that it can conduct fraudulent elections (as it did in 2011) and the international community will choose security over democracy.

The Kabila coalition is counting on a flawed voters list with more than 6 million unverifiable registrants. Certainly a substantial portion has never seen or used touch-screen voting machines. The new devices are widely seen by the Congolese opposition as an instrument to facilitate the rigging of the elections.

The most telling aspect of the Kabila coalition’s intention to force Shadary upon the Congolese people is the restriction and violence that state security forces have used against opposition candidate Martin Fayulu. They blocked his plane from landing in Kindu, the home base of Shadary, by placing helicopters on the runway. In Lubumbashi, the security forces blocked Fayulu’s motorcade from reaching its rallying point. Meanwhile, they tear-gassed his supporters, sprayed them with hot-water tanks and fired at them, killing several, according to Human Rights Watch. Probably the most bizarre and outrageous act occurred in Kinshasa, where the security forces blocked Fayulu from reaching his rally destination. The governor suspended all election campaigns — a direct contradiction with the electoral law. These extreme measures leave little doubt about the outcome that will be declared by the Kabila regime.

Ultimately, if the Congolese people are to succeed in bringing about the change that they deeply desire, it will have to be accomplished in the streets with their feet and their numbers. We must demonstrate to the Kabila regime and the global community that our will for change will prevail and must be respected — at home and abroad.

Kambale Musavuli, a native of the Democratic Republic of Congo, is a social entrepreneur and an international human rights advocate. He serves as the spokesman for the Friends of the Congo.

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