There was a sense of foreboding last week when news emerged that unidentified assailants stormed a jail in Democratic Republic of Congo’s northeastern town of Beni freeing 930 prisoners and killing 9 guards. It was the fourth prison break in DR Congo in the last 2 months and underscores how security has deteriorated since Mr Joseph Kabila refused to step down from power at the end of his tenure last year December.
Only in May, there was a similar jail break at a maximum-security prison right in the capital, Kinshasa where more than 4000 prison inmates were set free.
Meanwhile, in Kasai region, a stronghold for opponents of Mr Kabila, a raging insurgency that is threatening to engulf the entire country has been going on with both sides of the conflict being accused of mass killings. The insurgency began when the government refused to recognise the traditional chief, Kamuina Nsapu. The chief set up a militia and was killed in clash with the government in August. Since then, his supporters have taken the fight to the government, targeting police officers, soldiers and perceived supporters of Mr Kabila. In March, the Kasai militia ambushed and killed 40 police officers, cutting of all of their heads. In the same month, two UN workers, a Swedish and an American, were abducted and killed in the same region, having gone to investigate the abuses. UN peacekeepers have discovered dozens of mass graves in the region, with accusing fingers being pointed also to government forces for some of the killings. It is estimated hundreds have been killed, more than a million people displaced and there are reports of recruitment of thousands of child soldiers.
Since its independence in June 1960, there has never been a peaceful transition of power in the country. All but one leader died in office. President Joseph Kabila is on course to continue that tradition as he has refused to step down after the expiration of his two terms ten year rule on the stroke of midnight on 20 December 2016. He had previously ruled for five years before the introduction of democracy in 2006.
According to the DRC’s constitution, the president is permitted only two consecutive mandates of five years. The election to elect Kabila’s successor was to have held in November 2016 but in October, Corneille Nangaa, the electoral commission president, told delegates participating in a cross-party talks that the body would not be able to conclude its update of the voter registry in time, and would need extra time to organise an election.
Consequently, the Catholic Bishops of the country helped broker a deal that would have led to the main opposition figure, Étienne Tshisekedi , setting up a transitional council that will pave the way for Kabila to leave power in 2017 and refrain from running for a third term. However, the 84 year old Mr Tshisekedi died in Belgium in February. The deal has faltered since with Mr Kabila’s government reaching another deal with the opposition to hold elections in December 2017.
The government has since poured cold water on the deal when Budget minister, Pierre Kangudia, said government coffers were empty doubted whether the country could find the funds to conduct election this year. Since then the country has been thrown into serious crisis with government authority collapsing in most parts of the country and pockets of conflicts everywhere threatening to snowball into a conflagration sooner than later.
This vast country, the size of Western Europe with an estimated natural resource endowments of $40 trillion (the combined GDP of the United States and the European Union, has been enmeshed in violence, civil and internecine wars since its independence from Belgium. Perhaps due to envy, or a morbid desire to benefit from the huge mass of mineral resources in the country, world powers and recently, neighbouring countries have always fuelled or interfered with conflicts in the country.
Not long after independence, and in the guise of containing the communist tendencies of the first Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, the United States and Belgium sponsored a series of crisis in the country that culminated in the kidnapped and assassination of Lumumba by troops loyal to Joseph Desire Mobutu, the then Head of the Army in 1960.
Since he was helped to power by Western powers in a second coup in 1965, Joseph Desire Mobutu (who later changed his name to Mobutu Sese Seko) and his coteries supervised the despoliation and impoverishment of the country and its people. The Congo DR today stands as a paradox of paradoxes, where extreme poverty of the worst type sits atop extreme wealth, the sheer quantum of which countries and multinationals tussle and competes daily to control. According to most conservative estimates, Mobutu stole $5 billion from his country and some sources put the figure as high as $15 billion. This ranks him as the third most corrupt leader and the most corrupt African leader
Coincidentally, it was Joseph Kabila’s father, Laurent Kabila, who put an end to Mobutu’s miserable 31 year rule when his rebel forces marched on the capital, Kinshasa, following fifteen months of fierce fighting in May 1997. Mobutu was forced to flee in panic to Togo, where, it was reported, the first lady emerged from the plane in her nightgown. He thereafter sought refuge in Morocco, where he owned several homes and died of prostate cancer in September 1997.
No sooner had Lauren- Desire Kabila ascended the presidency in 1997 than he went the way of his predecessor. He was also accused of corruption, authoritarianism, human right abuses, self-aggrandising tendencies, and trying to set up a personality cult just like Mobutu. Soon enough, his allies that helped him depose Mobutu – Uganda and Rwanda – turned against him and sponsored another civil war in the country. He was eventually assassinated by his own body guard in 2001. Fortunately, his government survived and his son was selected to replace him.
Joseph Kabila himself realised this burden of history and has previously expressed worry whether he will leave the presidency alive. But his current actions show no desire on his part to leave the presidency alive or even spare the country another round of civil war.