By Thomas Bell
Africa as a continent has a complicated history, but its modern past has been unstable and violent. African countries, unable to cope with the ethnic, political, and economic constraints imposed by European imperialism, have proven largely unable to industrialize and modernize since independence. Civil wars, genocide, and massive poverty are all traits commonly associated with Africa, for good reason. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, or the DRC, and formerly Zaïre, is one of the better examples of this reality.
The Congolese saga began with colonialism. Much of the first contacts with Europeans involved trading, eventually for slaves. Belgian colonial control later spread, leaving the nation subjugated under the weight of direct imperial rule from 1908 to 1960. Since independence, the DRC has not enjoyed a single peaceful transfer of power, with assassination, civil war, and even invasion being the catalysts for political change.
The current Congolese President, Joseph Kabila, has been in power since January of 2001, with his second and final term under the constitution having expired in December last year. Under the constitution of the DRC, Kabila is limited to two terms and should have stepped down. This, however, did not happen; Congo’s electoral authority announced that the election would be postponed to allow time for a census to take place, an invalid reason under the country’s laws. Predictably, that decision plunged the DRC into chaos.
Protests in December left dozens dead, resulting in an increased police presence and the blockage of social media. The government has delayed the elections until at least December 2018, though in principle that could stretch further. In the meantime, mediation by the Catholic Church has proven moderately successful at quelling the immediate threat of violence, while the appointment of an opposition leader as Prime Minister is a step in the right direction.
However, the risks in Congo are horrifyingly apparent. Past power shifts have not only been violent, but often catastrophically so. In 1996, the overthrow of Mobutu Sese Seko’s government by Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and rebel groups left up to a million dead and led to an even more cataclysmic conflict only two years later. The Second Congo War, linked directly to the 1996 overthrow, killed more people in any conflict since the Second World War. It brought nine African national armies into conflict in Congo, plus over twenty rebel groups. It also led to the political involvement of nearly half a dozen other African nations. It has been appropriately dubbed by historians and journalists as “Africa’s World War”.
Simply put, the Congo is a volatile, dangerous place, where continental warfare was waged barely over a decade ago. Rebel groups still roam Eastern Congo, killing and raping countless people. Political instability could lead to the growth of these groups, and perhaps even the involvement of national governments again. The DRC is a place where widespread, tumultuous violence is commonplace both now and in the recent past.
This is why Kabila’s actions could be so disastrous for Congo. The lack of a successful transition of power in national history sets a poor blueprint to follow, especially for a leader in power for so long. Since Mobutu, Congo’s leaders have proven autocratic and unwilling to relinquish control. Tales of Mobutu’s “Versailles of the jungle”, a spectacular marble palace, is just one example of the corruption that made Congo famous. If Kabila is seeking a long reign such as that, it could similarly dissolve into disarray and war, just as Mobutu’s did.
But many feel that not enough is being done to stop Kabila. Belgium and France, two of the most important influencers in Congolese policy, both merely stated that they would review their respective relationships with the DRC. The United States and the United Kingdom both offered similar statements, if a bit more strongly worded. The point is, none of the countries most able to hurt the government, both politically and economically, have bothered to take steps in that direction. A fairly widespread lack of media and public interest among western populations in African affairs likely has something to do with it. The aforementioned Second Congo War, though being the deadliest conflict since World War II, is seldom discussed in academic settings, let alone the public square. A history of American inaction in Africa dates back to the Clinton presidency when the administration knew about the Rwandan genocide yet chose to ignore it. The sad reality is that not enough people in the west care and intentional ignorance could again be the policy of the west.
All the while, Joseph Kabila sits in his massive Kinshasa palace, reportedly playing video games and collecting motorcycles. Outside those walls, millions live in abject poverty, violence plagues the streets, and an oblivious world looks the other way. As Congo descends further and further towards chaos, it is anyone’s guess how the crisis will play out. A country with such a dark history, however, cannot afford to allow that history to repeat itself.