My father was in college when Franco died. No, not Francisco Franco. Franco Luambo Luanzo Makiadi. He was a singer, one of 20th century Africa’s finest. His music still dominates and inspires the genre he helped originate, Rhumba. Franco was also a loyal court musician for Mobutu Sese Seko, the famous Congolese dictator.
As I write this article, I’m listening to the smooth lyrics of “Mobutu,” a Franco masterpiece. Under Mobutu’s watch, or lack thereof, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s economy shrank to five percent of its original size and its name was changed to Zaire.
Like the vocals and melodies from Franco’s music, the country he called home is rich by almost any measure. It is a third the size of Australia, but all green and wet. It is the size of the United States east of the Mississippi, but with perennial rainfall, an endless growing season, a river that could supply all of Africa with hydroelectric power and estimated mineral reserves worth over US$24 trillion. It is as large as Western Europe, but with only 81 million people, 65 percent of whom are under 25.
In short, it is a country that should be racing to the top of the charts in all indicators of development. But it is not. In fact, it is one of the poorest and most dangerous places in the world. The image many Westerners have of Africa, which portrays the entire continent as a squalid place devoid of basic infrastructure and legal structures which is run by bloodsucking warlords, while annoyingly incorrect in many instances, fits the situation in many parts of Congo.
The country exemplifies the dire consequences of being a worthy confluence of massive external interests. Its enslaved people made America an agricultural and industrial giant; its rubber turned the bicycle and car into comfortable realities; its copper pierced the bodies of combatants in both world wars; its uranium blew Hiroshima and Nagasaki to smithereens; and its coltan, cobalt and copper now drive the world’s mad rush for high technology.
Yet the vast majority of the people who dwell atop and extract these riches, live miserable lives far removed from the glittering buildings and gadgets that their resources have helped build.
The DRC’s dark past
Since its independence in 1960, the DRC has been in free fall to the bottom. But its problems began long before independence. When the 1885 Berlin Conference recognised Belgian King Leopold II’s claim to a massive swathe of Central African forest as his private property, it rubber-stamped perhaps the most brutal colonial regime in history.
Leopold’s bureaucracy, run through a macabre system that involved pitting some tribes against the others, mainstreamed the use of amputation as a form of punishment, subjugated hundreds of tribes and transferred vast quantities of resources out of the Congo. It made him a rich man celebrated with monuments, which stand to this day in Belgium. Millions of women were raped and millions of men died. A population of 25 million was reduced to 15 million in 20 short years. What happened in Congo in the 1800s and early 1900s has been described as a genocide.
Rumours of the atrocities, trickling in small bits into Europe, were enough to scandalise the British. That they were not themselves averse to using unimaginable brutality to suppress native peoples around the world speaks volumes of the extremity of the Congo abuses. So the Brits commissioned Roger Casement, their consul in Boma (a city in the DRC) to find out if the rumours were real. His report, which confirmed the sordid tales in horrific detail, was a bombshell.
Mark Twain, writing in the aftermath of the report (whose details were further confirmed by a commission of inquiry created by Leopold himself) in 1905, quotes a critic of Leopold as saying “Other Christian rulers tax their people, but furnish schools, courts of law, roads, light, water and protection to life and limb in return; King Leopold taxes his stolen nation, but provides nothing in return but hunger, terror, grief, shame, captivity, mutilation, and massacre.”
Britain thereafter put pressure on the Belgian state to take over the territory from the King, which it finally did in 1908, against old Leopold’s will. But, if the takeover improved anything, it failed to correct the errors which had turned Congo into the prison it had by then become for its African peoples. By the time Belgium granted independence to the DRC in 1960, there were only 16 native university graduates – hardly enough to take over the country’s government.
With independence came fresh hope. But Congo’s independence, like the independence of most African countries, happened within the context of the dawn of the Cold War. The war for the minds and hearts of young African nations, caught between the conflicting interests of two superpowers, would come to define the path the continent would take for the rest of the 20th century. And it would make for some strange, and, in retrospect, downright hypocritical and destructive alliances. The West upended the choices of African citizens in multiple countries and propped up dictators, turning a blind eye to their atrocities, all in the name of keeping the Communist menace at bay.
The reign of Mobutu
No country exemplifies, in both scale and magnitude, the result of this dynamic better than the DRC. Coming into being under the leadership of Prime Minister Patrice Emery Lumumba, who thereafter made overtures to the Soviet Union after being abandoned to mutinying troops by the UN and the US, from whom he had requested help to no avail, Congo threatened to be a bastion against American interests in Africa. And a massive bastion it would be, given its sheer natural wealth.
So, in typical Western fashion, America and Belgium had him shot dead and dissolved in sulphuric acid in Katanga barely three months into his term. The preceding and accompanying violence drove the remaining Western elites out of the country, interrupting the gradual handover of administrative power to educated Africans. In Lumumba’s place, the Belgians and Americans supported Joseph Mobutu, the army Chief of Staff.
The mismanagement, plunder, cronyism, corruption and ineptitude which ensued were of legendary proportions. If Leopold had been the devil, Mobutu was his successor. The economic and human rights crimes of Mobutu cannot be listed without turning this article into a legal brief. Perhaps most impressively, the West pandered to his every wish, even as he drove the nation aground right in front of its eyes.
In the late 1990s, towards the forced end of Mobutu’s regime, after he was dropped like a hot potato by Western allies no longer troubled by the Communist menace, the country went through a brutal civil war involving several other countries, chief among them Rwanda and Uganda. Shortly after he fled and died of prostate cancer in Rabat, Morocco, the country went through another conflict, which involved six other African countries and lasted from 1998 to 2003. Though the number has since been disputed, an estimated death toll of 5.4 million made it deadliest war since WWII.
The reign of Kabila
The result was the ascension to power in 2001 of 26-year old Joseph Kabila. Kabila was the son of Laurent Kabila, the former exile who deposed Mobutu with Rwandese and Ugandan help and ruled for three years before being murdered by his bodyguard, ostensibly in Rwandese interests. In 2006, Joseph Kabila won his first of two five-year electoral terms as President under a new constitution. After its lengthy decay, the country finally seemed set on the right path.
To date, however, large swathes of the eastern portion of the country, which has seen the worst of the fighting, remain a patchwork of spheres of influence controlled by a complex system of dozens of rival rebel groups, proxies of foreign militaries, and corrupt national army units, as well as, possibly, rogue members of MONUSCO (the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo). All these groups are involved in the continuing plunder of Congo’s vast mineral wealth, using forced labour.
Kabila’s presidency was slated to end with this year. Late last year, his long-time supporter, governor of the mineral rich southern Katanga province, and hugely popular businessman, Moise Katumbi, abandoned the ruling party, resigned as governor, and implicitly threw his hat into the ring to contest the presidency. Veteran opposition leader, 83-year old Etienne Tshisekedi, also poised himself for perhaps his last stab at the presidency.
Around the same time, however, hints started slipping out that the 45-year old Kabila, Africa’s youngest president, had no intentions of leaving office. Tshisekedi’s home in an upmarket neighbourhood of Kinshasa was effectively besieged by the army in September. In June, corruption charges forced Katumbi to flee the country. He was sentenced to 36 months in prison in absentia.
Fiddling the election
A request was presented by the electoral commission to the Constitutional Court to delay the elections which were scheduled for November. The reason, according to the commission, had to do with delays in registering voters across the country. Given the sorry state of infrastructure and the sheer size of the country, this request makes some sense. But the same electoral body conducted the two elections, both of them on time and against worse odds, which granted Kabila his two presidential terms. The first of these elections even involved a run-off poll. One would have to be a fool to not see through the smokescreen.
A delay essentially extends the mandate of President Kabila beyond his legal term. It is not that he lacks precedent. Within Congo, and across almost all of its borders, presidents have been violating term limits for as long as their countries have existed. At the moment, Nkurunziza in Burundi, Museveni in Uganda, Sassou Nguesso in the Republic of Congo, and Jose Eduardo dos Santos in Angola, are all arrogantly overstaying their terms. Across Lake Kivu, in Rwanda, Paul Kagame is preparing to run for a third seven-year term in 2017, and possibly ten more years after that, after a spectacularly hasty referendum last year struck down term limits for him.
Back in Congo, on October 18, at the end of a series of talks boycotted by major opposition parties, a fringe opposition party signed a deal with Kabila’s party to delay the national elections until April 2018, following the Constitutional Court’s approval of the electoral commission’s request to delay the polls. The significance of the new date is that, even if he came back and served out his sentence, Moise Katumbi, who had the greatest odds of succeeding Kabila, would still be in prison during the election. Before then, presidential term limits will probably have been struck down as well, going by all indications.
All this comes at the head of a long period of violent protests against the president’s intentions. Opposition party offices have been torched across Kinshasa, allegedly by government agents. The number of people who have lost their lives to the violence has been put at 50 by international media. It could be more than 100. The escalation prompted the UN envoy Maman Sidikou, who heads MONUSCO, to warn the UN Security Council October 11 that the country might reach the tipping point into serious violence very quickly and that MONUSCO would be unable to protect civilians from such violence.
At present, tension in the country is palpable as the Congolese come to grips with the fact that Kabila has just forced himself on them with an extended term. Maman Sidikou’s warning hangs ominously in the air above sweltering Kinshasa. To me, watching it from across two borders, the situation is not just disappointing, but also shamefully so.
The morality, legality, or usefulness in Africa, of term limits is a topic that could be debated forever. And the temptation for Kabila to overstay his tenure is very understandable. After all, he is still young, strong and experienced, and may yet raise Congo out of its crushing poverty. On top of that, there is no guarantee that, should he step down and be succeeded by someone else, the new man would be less corrupt or improve much on his record.
But that is not what is at stake here. As Luc Nkulula, a member of a vocal youth group in the eastern city of Goma who has been interviewed by the BBC, says, it is a matter of principle. If the president can violate the constitution so brazenly, there will be no way to hold anyone accountable for lesser violations. The structures of the fragile nation need to be protected from this kind of contempt.
Furthermore, in seeking to stay in power longer than allowed by the constitution, Kabila is becoming just the latest confirmation of a destructive African trend that has long outlived its usefulness, and the patience of most African people. I have called it here before, quoting the BBC, as “third termism.” He is not fooling anyone by resorting to intimidation, illegitimate talks and a rubber-stamp court to legitimise his inability to respect constitutional structures. These tricks are the cobblestones of a well-trodden road.
Most sadly perhaps, he seems oblivious to the suffering that would be added to the Congolese people, who have endured insufferable pain for too long already, should the country slip yet again into the dark depths of widespread violence as a result of his despicable antics. One can only hope Congo navigates this quagmire without further bloodshed, however remote that possibility now seems.
Mathew Otieno writes from Nairobi, Kenya