Why Joseph Kabila Will Cling on to Power

As we slowly approach November 2016, it is becoming increasingly clear that Joseph Kabila will extend his stay in power. Despite the Congolese president remaining mum on the subject, his supporters tried (unsuccessfully) to extend his stay by mandating a census before the 2016 general elections, but that option was killed off after mass protests nationwide. Now, they have turned to another option: decentralization or découpage. Their plan is to divide DRC’s 11 provinces into 26, and then use this administrative gargantuan task as an excuse to delay and postpone the 2016 elections. If this option fails, Kabila and supporters will find other intricate ways to extend his tenure. Below, I provide a number of reasons why I strongly believe that Kabila will try to remain in power post-2016, in no particular order:

  1. Youth

He is only 45-year-old. How many former (African) presidents in their 40s do you know? Exactly.

  1. Fear of prosecution

Kabila is going to try to cling on to power for fear of being prosecuted by his enemies and opponents. Being in power for more than a decade in a relatively lawless and military conflict-prone country, you get blood on your hands. Many have been unfairly jailed, killed, and hurt by his regime, so they will try to avenge themselves. Hence, he will try to remain to avoid a political witch-hunt.

  1. Money and Power

This is probably the most obvious one. Presidential powers in DRC aren’t significantly checked nor balanced by the other two branches. Currently, the president’s party controls parliament, and he handpicks 3 judges in the Constitutional Court and other magistrates. So, the president and his cronies usually enrich themselves while in office with impunity. Kabila has been able to remain in power for this long because he is spreading the wealth around, and they aren’t going to voluntarily give all of that away. No way!

  1. It’s either chaos or me

The main argument given by supporters of an African leader eager to extend his stay in office is that the incumbent president is a unique candidate with the experience and wherewithal to lead the country to prosperity. If he is mistakenly replaced, chaos will ensue from his premature departure.

The current minister Kin Kiey Mulumba is already raising this argument. His “Kabila-desir” movement is an attempt to persuade Congolese to keep Kabila in power because “people like him don’t come along every decade”.

  1. Congo’s history of authoritarianism

Congo doesn’t have a history of democratic political transitions. The 2006 democratic elections that Joseph Kabila won was part of an agreement to bring an end to the devastating civil war. Now that peace has slowly returned, albeit not everywhere, he doesn’t have the incentive to peacefully leave office anymore. There’s no major opposition group eager to take arms against his regime. Moreover, he has been very wise to have the backing of South Africa, which has sent troops to pacify the restless eastern region in exchange for lucrative business and mining deals. Instead of establishing a legacy as the first Congolese president to peacefully leave office, Kabila is choosing to follow on Mobutu’s footsteps.

  1. West Africa vs Central Africa

After Blaise Compaoré fall last year, many thought that African leaders will think twice before extending their stay in office. However, DRC isn’t Burkina Faso. First, Blaise Compaoré was in office for more than 20 years in a relatively stable and well-run country. Second, as a western African state, Burkina Faso is located in a stable region with a history of democratic political changes. In addition, regional organizations are well respected unlike in central Africa. Part of this is also due to France’s power behind the scenes. Élysée Palace uses France’s economic and political might to rein in western African leaders trying to resist popular opinion. We saw it in Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, and recently in Burkina Faso, where Francois Hollande played a key role to protect his old friend and listen to public opinion that wanted him gone.

  1. East vs West regional division

Another legacy of the Mobutu regime that Joseph and his father, Laurent Desiree Kabila, inherited is the east (Kiswahili speakers) vs west (Bangala/lingala) speakers. Although there are hundreds of dialects spoken in a mostly Bantu-dominated country, the country has been divided along these two lingua francas for decades now. Most of Mobutu’s inner circle and key ministers were Bangala, for instance.

When LDK and his Rwanda-backed forces overthrew Mobutu in May 1997, Kiswahili became the language of access. Most of Kabila Sr. key ministers were from the east, and Swahili speakers also dominate the current government of national cohesion of his son. Therefore, keeping Kabila at the helm is extremely important to easterners/Swahili speakers who believe that this is their turn to “eat” on the table. Of course, there are subtleties. Not every easterner supports Kabila or vice versa, but he’s relying on his regional links to remain in power, as Mobutu did before him. Below is a map of results from the 2006 presidential election between Joseph Kabila and Jean-Pierre Mbemba, the former rebel leader and son of a businessman from Equateur province that clearly shows this division.

East vs West Division in Congo.

East vs West Division in Congo. Credit to Jason Stearns
East vs West Division in Congo.
Credit to Jason Stearns
  1. Weak and divided opposition

Another reason why I think that Kabila will try to remain in power past his constitutionally mandated tenure is the lack of a strong and united opposition. Political parties aren’t loyal to a particular platform or ideology in DRC. They are instead loyal to their leaders and ethnic/regional bases. More importantly, many so-called opponents are easily bribed and bought off by government loyalists. Even Etienne Tshisekedi’s opposition to Mobutu in the 1990s was just a facade and game to placate Congolese citizens searching for political change.

As we approach 2016, many members of the opposition will change their opinion and find a way to keep Kabila in power. There will certainly be some politicians who will resist bribery, but, in a country with a weak private sector employment, it’s difficult to reject presidential “gifts”. Kabila and his sycophants are already using the carrot and stick approach to further weaken the opposition.

These are just a few reasons why I strongly believe that Kabila will fight tooth and nail to remain in office. Many of these reasons above also lead to a vicious cycle. The longer a president stays in office undemocratically, the deeper the hole he digs for himself. I’m sure there are other reasons that have escaped my mind, so feel free to post them below in the comment section.

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