The 19th of December 2016 will soon be upon us in 24 hours. The date stands out for the people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in particular. Back in 2012, the 21st was the day of year’s final month December that caught the attention and captivated the imaginations of people the world over and especially in Mexico, given that it was the date on which the world would end according to the ancient Mayan calendar. Similarly, in December 1999 a mix of legitimate fear, sceptical derision and general excitement was the prevailing mood of the day in the run-up to the dawn of the new millennium and the Y2K computer glitch-based demise of the planet that was thought to be a strong possibility.
The 2012 red letter day had been millennia in the making, while the 1999 version had been brewing for a few decades – since the rise of computers as a standard household fixture. In the DRC, the 19th of December, though important, will not be met with any great uncertainty. It Is the date on which Joseph Kabila’s second and final term – he has been in power since 2001 – as president of Africa’s second largest country reaches its constitutional end. The DRC originally due to hold elections to see whether the current president would remain in office or pass the baton to one of the dozen or so declared candidates on 27th November. It was, however, announced by the government in October, against a backdrop of foundering multiparty national unity talks, that the election would be postponed until 2018.
Over the five and a half decades since 1960 when the Belgian Congo became the independent country of Congo-Leopoldville – later Congo-Kinshasa, Zaire, then DRC – political chaos has been the only constant. Patrice Lumumba, Mobutu Sese Seko, Joseph Kasa-Vubu, Etienne Tshisekedi, Laurent Kabila and Joseph Kabila have been the main players in the country’s circles of power.
In the DRC, power has been very good to a few, and not at all so to a number of others. Former strongman President Mobutu Sese Seko (1965-97) and current President Joseph Kabila – the son of Laurent – managed to hold on to power for 32 and 15 years respectively, totalling 47 of the country’s 56 years as an independent nation-state. On the other hand, Joseph Kasa-Vubu governed a country coming apart at the seams for 4 years before being deposed, while Laurent Kabila and Lumumba were assassinated after 3 and a half years and 7 months in office respectively. Many attempts have been made at pulling off a necessarily fragile balancing act among the country’s myriad internal political forces. It Is worth noting that this balancing act was not made any easier by the external forces exerting their influence on the country.
Etienne Tshisekedi has found favour with national unity organisations in the past. Of late, though, he has refused to be a part of multiparty talks, having failed to convince the government to meet some of the criteria he set as pre-requisites for his participation. Most notably, he called for political prisoners to be freed, guarantees that Kabila would leave his post on 19th December – be it to give way to his successor after the election or to allow for the setting up of a neutral transition administration, and wanted to streamline the talks to focus on cornerstone issues like press freedom (the DRC is ranked 152nd in the world for press freedom by the Reporters Without Borders watchdog group) and extra-judicial killings for fear that they be evaded by Kabila.
One of Kabila’s strategies in recent months has been to discredit his most formidable potential election opponents. Over the past year and a half, charges have been filed against opposition rising star and Étienne Tshisekedi ally Moïse Katumbi accusing him inter alia of offences ranging from money maundering and customs fraud, to illegally usurping property and recruiting American mercenaries to destabilise the DRC ahead of the elections. Katumbi has even been found guilty in some cases, though judges are said to have been pressured into favouring the state’s case against him so as to neutralise Katumbi. In this regard it may be said that Joseph Kabila is taking a page out of Mobutu’s book, as Mobutu once had Etienne Tshisekedi dismissed from the post of prime minister citing as the reason that the oath of office Tshisekedi had signed when taking up his duties was in fact found to be, mysteriously, an illegal document and thus null and void. Tshisekedi protested and declared that he was still PM, to no avail.
The October 2016 election delay was rubber stamped by the government and a portion of the country’s several opposition parties. Given that key actors on the opposition side were not part of the decision, it was not warmly welcomed. Opposition heavyweights Etienne Tshisekedi and Moïse Katumbi called on their supporters to stay indoors and make the DRC’s capital Kinshasa grind to a halt and a ghost town, and that they did in late October. Prior to that, protests against Kabila’s attempts to hold on to power were met with police repression on 19th September, resulting in a number of deaths.
Vital Kamerhe broke ranks with the rest of the opposition and decided to take part in the talks in order to, quoting his words, “ensure that Kabila has the opportunity to carry out a peaceful departure from office”. Kamerhe preferred to take part in a flawed process that could guarantee peace, rather than boycott the process like the rest of the opposition – whom he viewed as overly moralistic in its approach to Kabila – and risk bloodshed. Kamerhe’s Kabila-friendly posturing had many thinking he would be a shoo-in for the post of transitional prime minister, and that his rapprochement with Kabila was nothing but a self-serving power move to get into an administration that had no intentions of handing over the reins of power to anyone else. However, Kamerhe’s hopes were dashed when another opposition figure who participated in the talks, Samy Badibanga, was tipped for the job in November.
Etienne Tshisekedi has outlasted all comers in DRC politics; he has been a player, whether major or minor, in the country’s political affairs since the 1960s. Not unlike Fidel Castro, who saw 9 US presidents come and go, and Queen Elizabeth II who recently invited her 13th prime minister to take up duties at 10 Downing Street, the old political soldier nicknamed “the sphinx” has witnessed the rise and fall of a 3 decade-long dictatorship, with which he worked but of which he often ran afoul and whose wrath he felt; he served three fleeting terms as something of a voice reason prime minister in the Mobutu decried regime ranging in length from 7 days to 7 months. In this respect he played a similar role to the one played in the post-independence government of the South American nation Guyana by its meek and sober Foreign Minister Sir Shridath Ramphal, who eventually parted ways with the freedom-curtailing regime he had been invited to join to become Commonwealth Secretary-General.
On the 8th and 9th of June, Tshisekedi held a conference in Brussels, dubbed “the conclave” by some. It was attended by supporters of his “political and social forces working for change in the DRC” movement. At the conference Tshisekedi was given a lengthy standing ovation and there were cheers of “president of the Congo” to be heard. He observed a minute of silence in honour of those killed in the country’s conflicts before stating that the goal of the conference was to discuss the crisis affecting the country and to foster the unity needed to see to it that “you know who” (i.e. Joseph Kabila) left power. The sphinx said that opposition groups had a duty to help the country emerge from its unenviable current situation, and that this goal was to be achieved through dialogue. The dialogue was expected to take place under international auspices and that the public prosecutor in Kanshasa should have their work during the transition period seconded by a quartet of representatives of the UN, the EU, the US and la Francophonie (Commonwealth-type association of French-speaking countries) so as to ensure trustworthy and transparent work on their part. Though he made it clear that Kabila had to leave office come what may on 19th December, he was at pains to stress that the constitutionally outgoing president was to be “gently” ushered into his post-head of state status, with no violence because his movement would “never expose the people to you know who’s bullets”. This part of Tshisekedi’s discourse appears to invalidate Vital Kamerhe’s assertion that shying away from talks with the government would be tantamount to clearing the way for political violence.
In closing off this post, a literary reference comes to mind. French Caribbean writer and political figure Aimé Césaire wrote a play in 1966 entitled A Season in the Congo about the DRC following its tumultuous independence drama. In it at one point a character asks “isn’t the fate of the country more important than the fate of one man?”. This question could be justifiably directed at Kabila. The Belgians who ran the Congo for three-quarters of a century before independence are described in the play as people who “cheat […] every way they can”, and are always ready to “wed the spirit of times” to get ahead, exploiting “knots and tangles of complicity”; critics of Vital Kamerhe would apply this one to him and his change of tune about Kabila this year.
Writing about the DRC in 1964, one historian wrote that the aftermath of foreign domination and the fractured nature of the independence process was an “orgy of destructive nationalism” (Brian Crozier, Neo-Colonialism). The binge of rival nationalisms within the pluri-identity state that is the DRC appears set to continue unabated.
The DRC is hurtling towards yet another political impasse, with the majority of the opposition disapproving of the decision to push elections back a year and a half. The rock band REM has a lyric that does “it’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine”; in Kinshasa it’s the continuation of the world as the DRC knows it, and Joseph Kabila feels fine. 19th December be damned.