Kabila’s Waiting Game is Costly to D.R. Congo

Less than two years before the 2016 general elections, Congolese still do not know whether or not Joseph Kabila, the incumbent President in power since 2001 after his father, Laurent Desire Kabila, was assassinated, will peacefully leave power. After winning the first free and fair multiparty elections in 2006, he narrowly won the 2011 elections, which were marred by irregularities and violence. Although the Congolese President stated previously that he will respect article 220 of the Congolese constitution, which limits his presidency to two-terms, his supporters in the parliament, however, expressed their intentions to amend it by referendum.

This incertitude is putting the country on edge, especially after the recent uprising in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, which led to the departure of Blaise Compaore after 27 years in power. As the taciturn Kabila and his supporters to obfuscate Congolese people, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), like other African countries in its position, is suffering economically and politically from this waiting game. A country already plagued by high rates of poverty, unemployment, corruption, lawlessness and violence cannot afford to leave foreign firms and individuals up in the air. In addition, government officials from high-ranking ministers to bribe-hungry custom agents are swindling as much money as possible before the next president or political upheaval. Needless to say, there is a certain feeling of sauve-qui-peut throughout the Congolese bureaucracy.

Although the central Africa country suffered from the 2008 global financial crisis, which depressed hard-commodity prices, it has rebounded from a relatively meager GDP growth rate of 2.9% in 2009 to 7.2% in 2012 and 8.1% last year, according to the African Bank for Development. This blooming is mostly restricted to its extractive sector, however. As shown below, agriculture sector remains the largest employer and main source of income for most Congolese. In the capital city of Kinshasa, however, the services sector is by far the main employer. Given low levels of education (human capital) and lack of mechanization, DRC is unable to fulfill its potential. Screen Shot 2014-11-24 at 11.16.05 AM

Will He or Won’t He?

The sentiment on the ground is that Joseph Kabila will cling on to power post-2016 due to his age (43-year-old), fear of a political witch hunt, and economic reasons (corruption). Since its independence from Belgium in 1960, there has not been a peaceful political change of power. The first post-independence democratic government was overthrown in 1965 by a military official, Joseph Desire Mobutu, who ruled for 32 years with an iron fist. After a swift military campaign with the help of neighboring Rwanda and Uganda, he was eventually overthrown in 1997 by a Marxist-leaning longtime rebel leader Laurent Desire Kabila.

Recent events in Ouagadougou, however, have changed the topic of discussion in Kinshasa. Kabila and his camp are nervous, and have started muzzling and intimidating the opposition. Yesterday, for instance, Radio-Télévision Lubumbashi Jua (RTLJ), emitting from Lubumbashi, Congo’s economic capital in the copper and cobalt-rich province of Katanga, was turned off after its owner, Jean-Claude Muyambo, a member of parliament left Kabila’s coalition and voiced his opposition to a constitutional change.Since the line between personal and state businesses in DRC is blurry, many politicians and businesses are even more hesitant to rock the boat.

Given DRC’s natural resources abundance and monarchical power held in the executive branch, you can understand the current political tension. Since Belgium’s King Leopold II, who ran this vast territory the size of the United States west of the Mississippi River as a personal property in the late 1800s, DRC has been nothing more than a kleptocracy. Last year, for example, a panel of experts led by Koffi Annan, the former UN secretary-general, published a damning report that showcased the extent of corruption in the country. As the Economist reported (see below), many people have struck it rich thanks to Kabila’s position at the helm, and they have a vested interest to keep him there for the foreseeable future.

The report highlights some puzzling details. For instance ENRC, a London-listed Kazakh mining firm, waived its rights to buy out a stake in a mining enterprise owned by Gécamines, Congo’s state miner, only to acquire it for $75m from a company owned by Dan Gertler, an Israeli businessman, which had paid $15m for it just months earlier. Mr Gertler is close to Joseph Kabila, Congo’s president. ENRC, which is being investigated by the Serious Fraud Office in Britain, was Congo’s third-largest copper producer last year. Both ENRC and Mr Gertler deny wrongdoing.

In a country now famous for political instability and dubbed as “the rape capital of the world,”  the least President Kabila and his supporters can do is to finally clear the air about his post-2016 ambitions. It is irresponsible and selfish, I might add, for an individual and his sycophants to hold a country of more than 75 million people hostage for their own political and economic gains. Two years away from general elections, they have to inform the public of their intentions, so the country can begin preparing for the next provincial and national elections. Any political maneuvering, however, could trigger violence in a country with a high rate of youth unemployment, which will further retard its development. For a country already ranked low in this year’s World Bank’s Doing Business Report and at the bottom of the UN Human Development Index Report, there is a desperate need for a high degree of political certainty and stability to lure much needed foreign investments.

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