The West African state of the Congo has always been taking one step forward, two steps back. This goes back to the days when Congo became independent from Belgian rule in 1960.
Now we see it again. There were supposed to be elections at the end of last year. But President Joseph Kabila has clung to power. Last week after months of negotiations led by the Catholic bishops a deal has been agreed. If Kabila is given one more year in office then he will call elections in a year’s time.
The latest round in Congo’s modern history goes back to the Rwandan genocide in 1994 when Hutu extremists organized the mass killing of at least half a million Tutsis. The killings triggered a civil war that led to the eventual defeat of the Hutu-led Rwandan army. As they retreated they forced two million Hutus to leave with them, most of them settling in the eastern Congo in refugee camps. From there the Hutus, now well fed by the western charities, began to launch armed incursions back into Rwanda. They were supported by the Congolese (then called Zaire) under the leadership of the tyrant, President Mobutu Sese Seko.
It was around that time the President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, decided on a successful regime change in the Congo. Mobutu was driven out of the country. The Tutsi, Laurent Kabila, became president. There were no government institutions to speak of in the Congo and Kabila was out of his depth. He banned all the political parties. He became a second Mobutu and rejected Rwandan advice. Rwanda decided to eliminate the refugee camps and defeat the Hutu militants that were active around its border. It also invaded the Congo but this seemed not to help the security situation. What happened was the creation of a new rebel Hutu group. By the end of 1997 they had precipitated the worst killings since the genocide and 15,000 had filtered back into Rwanda.
Nevertheless, the Tutsi-led Rwandans seized control of much of the Congo, claimed high offices in the Congo’s government, causing popular resentment to build against them. Kabila became dependent on the Tutsis, soon after to be overthrown by Rwandan troops.
This sparked what has been called “Africa’s world war”. The Rwandans searched for a new Congolese pro-Rwandan puppet. But Angola, Zimbabwe, Chad, Libya and Sudan intervened on Kabila’s side.
Kabila later was assassinated by one of his guards. The present ruler of the Congo, his son Joseph, took over the presidency. The war became a war for plunder for the Congo’s rich natural resources. The Rwandan-led foreign intervention had not been successful.
After much negotiation the war ended officially in 2002 but violence in the east continued. The foreign intervention by Rwanda’s Tutsis had failed. Kabila remained firmly in the saddle and has continued to rule to the present day, a ruthless president who ordered the killing of anyone who organized- even spoke- against him. Unsurprisingly, a significant part of the population agitated against his rule, demanding elections, pushing for the observance of human rights and bringing a halt to Kabila’s personal exploitation of the Congo’s resources.
Thanks to the Catholic bishops’ negotiation it led to Kabila for the first time agreeing to make a definite pledge that he will abide by the constitutional requirements forbidding him not to stand for a third term. He has agreed that an interim prime minister will come from the main opposition bloc led by his long-time opponent, Etienne Tshisekedi, who is 84. The new agreement will also insure that a one-time ally of Kabila, Moise Katumbi, and perhaps his most important opponent, be permitted to return from exile. Nevertheless, the opposition was not strong enough to prevent Kabila claiming another year in office. Kabila has played on the lack of the opposition’s strength to push through his demand that elections will not be held until April 2018. He claimed that elections scheduled for the end of last year would not work because millions of voters had not been added to the electoral rolls. The West loudly criticized this move of Kabila.
Kabila has not hesitated over the years to order his security forces to deal with any opponents that protested against him. More than 50 protestors were killed in September, some of whom, according to the BBC, died after police threw them into opposition buildings set alight by the security forces. Another 40 were killed at the end of last year as they protested against Kabila’s decision to cancel the scheduled election.
Will Kabila honour the bishops’ deal? Nobody knows. The president and his opponents have not so far signed the accord and some issues have yet to be solved. Some opposition groups, especially youth movements, are critical of the deal. This could give Kabila an escape route.