April 29, 2010 | World Defense Review

Kid Kabila and Congo’s Joyless Jubilee

Last week, the United Nations Security Council rescheduled for mid-May a planned fact-finding mission to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Officially, the trip was cancelled because of the ash cloud from Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano had wreaked havoc with air traffic across much of Europe. However, there any number of flight plans that would have enabled a high-level delegation to get to Central Africa without passing through the closed airspace. The real reason that the trip was put off was that there is no consensus on what to do about the UN Organization Mission in the DRC (generally known by its French acronym, MONUC) when its mandate expires at the end of May because Congolese President Joseph Kabila (pictured above) is now demanding a swift withdrawal of the peacekeepers.

Established in 1999, MONUC currently deploys 20,573 uniformed personnel, 1,001 international civilian personnel, 2,690 local civilian personnel, and 629 UN volunteers at a cost of some $1.35 billion in the fiscal year ending June 30. The military and police units come from some 56 countries, including Bangladesh, Belgium, Benin, Bolivia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Canada, the Central African Republic, Chad, the People’s Republic of China, Côte d’Ivoire, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Egypt, France, Ghana, Guatemala, Guinea, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Jordan, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Malaysia, Mali, Mongolia, Morocco, Mozambique, Nepal, Niger, Nigeria, Norway, Pakistan, Paraguay, Peru, Poland, Romania, Russia, Senegal, Serbia, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Switzerland, Togo, Tunisia, Turkey, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, Uruguay, Yemen, and Zambia.

While some of the blue-helmeted personnel have been caught engaging in all sorts of mischief from petty larceny to gun running and sex crimes and MONUC as a whole has been justifiably criticized for all-too-readily giving in to pressure from various armed factions, nonetheless the force has helped to contain the brutal violence that tore through the country from the mid-1990s into the first years of the 21st century, causing, according some estimates, up to five million casualties and dragging nearly a dozen other countries into “Africa’s World War,” as my friend Gérard Prunier dubbed it in the title of his magisterial 600-page chronicle of the conflict. This observation alone ought to give cause to look suspiciously at President Kabila’s apparent haste to see the back of the peacekeepers, especially when his Forces armées de la République démocratique du Congo (FARDC, Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo) has proven itself uniquely inept at carrying out even the simplest operations. The lack of capacity is hardly surprising when one considers that the FARDC is an army only in name. Rather, it is a not particularly well-integrated collection of some four dozen or so militias, half of whose members are at or past retirement age and still in their ragtag uniforms only because they are waiting around for the regime to disburse their retirement money.

Consider the risks that Kabila runs by turning out the UN mission which is the one force that prevents him from suffering the fate which his father, a brigand hiding out in South Kivu named Laurent-Désiré Kabila, meted out to the then-Zaïre’s kleptocratic despot, Mobutu Seso Seko, when the former, plucked out of obscurity by the armies of Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda, marched out of the jungle and overthrew the entire regime in 1997. The younger Kabila’s whose sole qualification for office when he was elevated to the presidency of Africa’s third-largest country in 2001 at the ripe old age of 29 was that he was his father’s son. Having grown up in Tanzania, he did not even speak Lingala, the DRC’s principal lingua franca, and, at the time of his accession, was barely comprehensible in the Congolese state’s official language, French. As I argued at the time, the international community probably committed a strategic blunder in accepting Joseph Kabila’s occupation of the presidential office.

In any event, thanks to the very UN peacekeepers Kabila wants to evict, elections were eventually held in 2006. Kabila fils won in the second round, his victory was bitterly contested. His opponent in the run off, Jean-Pierre Bemba, won over 68 percent of the vote in the capital of Kinshasa and 97 and 74 percent of the vote in Équateur and Bas Congo provinces, respectively. As the distinguished analyst of Central Africa, René Lemarchand, remarked at that time, the elections themselves presaged further troubles: “That Bemba, the main opposition candidate who won 42 percent of the vote in the second round of the presidential race, should end up with not a single seat in government, only one governorship out of eleven, and not a single chairmanship of parliamentary committees, carries ominous implications.

In fact, the horse trading that went on during the poll – including the bizarre episode I reported in this column space more than three years ago about the “phantom minister” Joseph Kabila appointed to the cabinet – seemed to have been taken right out the novel that John le Carré published that same year, The Mission Song, in which one character declaimed: “Elections won’t bring democracy, they’ll bring chaos. The winners will scoop the pool and tell the losers to go fuck themselves. The losers will say the game was fixed and take to the bush. And since everyone voted on ethnic lines anyway, they’ll be back to where they started and worse.”

Unfortunately, little enough has been done to allay these concerns. Despite the importance of local elections – as I argued more than two years ago, “it is precisely these local levels of government where an improvement in accountability to the electorate and overall governance capacity would have the most impact on the lives of ordinary Congolese…and, in certain cases, win them away from the support which many often give to various armed movements which, if truth were told, are closer to them than the denizens of far-off Kinshasa” – they have yet to be held. In fact, with just one year left to go on his five-year term, Kabila has shown little interest in keeping the democratic promises he made to the international community at the time it acquiesced to his succeeding to his unelected father. In fact, his supporters have tried to extend the presidential terms from five years to seven years as well as to eliminate term limits altogether.

No wonder the Kabila regime faces armed resistance around the country from Hutu génocidaires in the east to the rebels in Équateur who attacked the provincial capital of Mbandaka and occupied its airport earlier this month in an offensive that left more than three dozen people dead, including three UN workers. In response, when it does not simply run away, the FARDC have been accused by human rights groups of taking its frustrations out on the civilian population. A report by Human Rights Watch, released at the end of 2009, for example, details how more than 1,400 civilians were deliberately killed during two successive FARDC operations against Hutu rebels. Likewise sobering are the conclusions of a report released earlier this month by the International Crisis Group:

The consolidation of democracy in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is stalled on almost all fronts, and the Congolese regime remains fragile. When Joseph Kabila became the first democratically elected president in 2006, the international community celebrated the election as a milestone in the peace process, but today checks and balances barely exist, as the president’s office has curtailed the powers of the government, parliament and judiciary. Civil liberties are regularly threatened, and key institutional reforms—decentralization and thesecurity sector—have made no significant progress. Unless the Congolese political authorities give new impetus to democratic transformation and institutional consolidation in 2010, the gains made during the transition could be at risk and the international investment in the giant country’s stabilization wasted.

The key to understanding Kabila’s desire to see the peacekeepers leave may actually be found in this abysmal record to date: the regime wants as few witnesses to its malfeasance as possible. And far from any desire to “give new impetus to democratic transformation and institutional consolidation,” Kabila’s strategy may well be to squeeze what he can, while he can, and, in the spirit attributed to Louis XV (or, by some accounts, the king’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour), après moi, le deluge. Certainly that is what seems to be the case, if his dealings with the literal handful of bold international firms still willing to do business in the benighted country are anything to go by. In recent months, most of the DRC’s dwindling commercial sector have been subjected to a blitzkrieg of questionably legal tax bills apparently manufactured out of whole cloth and summary court judgments by kangaroo courts – some in the millions of U.S. dollars – which amount to little more than extortion. In another variant of the scam, government ministries or regulatory agencies, without any legal authority or parliamentary approval, continually raise taxes to the point where the majority of a business’s earning go to the government (or, perhaps more accurately, those of government ministers). The result is both a very clever expropriation by stealth – the regime acquires the benefits of ownership (i.e., the profits), while leaving the actual owners saddled with the burdens of actually running an enterprise – and an equally shortsighted deterrent to the foreign direct investment the country desperately needs if it is to ever achieve real economic growth and lift its masses out of the mire their hitherto rulers have consigned them.

Consider the following report two weeks ago by Barry Sergeant, investigations editor of Moneyweb, the leading South African source of online investment information, which describes the travails of First Quantum, one of the world’s top ten copper miners. First Quantum, together with the World Bank’s Finance Corporation and the Industrial Development Corporation of South Africa, owns 82.5 percent of the Kingamyambo Musonoi Tailings (KMT) mine project in Congo’s southern Katanga province; the rest of the interest in the operation is held by the DRC’s parastatal Générale des carriers et des mines (Gécamines), although the latter outfit has not actually invested money in it.

First Quantum has long been insistent that it is compliant with the DRC’s Mining Code, but in a September 2009 announcement, it confirmed suspension of work at the 75 percent-complete KMT project, after it was shuttered by government agents, cutting 700 jobs loose. Following a subsequent succession of non-physical assaults, on February 1, 2010, First Quantum announced commencement of international arbitration by First Quantum and its partners in KMT, under the facilities of the International Chamber of Commerce, International Court of Arbitration, in Paris.

But the blitzkrieg only intensified; on February 23, 2010, First Quantum, without any prior notice, received from Gécamines a “Notice of Hearing Date,” and a hearing less than 24 hours later, on February 24. This time Gécamines and its sidekicks “requested the confirmation of the Lower Court judgment and also made an unsupported request for up to $12 billion in damages to be awarded to Gécamines” and CAMI, the DRC Mining Registry. The award has been made without any evidence being presented, and without First Quantum being given any chance of arguing its side of the case.

The DRC’s courts have been sequestered by a small pack of ugly, nasty fixers. First Quantum later announced that it “believes” that a DRC appeal court had upheld a $12 billion “damages” claim against First Quantum. It is hardly a secret that just two hustlers, one Congolese, and the other foreign, are the drivers behind the extra-judicial campaign being waged against First Quantum, using as weapons the very courts where justice is purportedly meted out.

This modus operandi seems to be widespread. Last month, a friend of mine who is the managing director for another foreign-owned concern was served with a tax bill for a little over $2 million in various levies that had not been debated, much less approved, by any legislative body. Moreover, he was put on notice that if he failed to pay the bill in cash that day, it would be doubled. As it put it in his rather understated manner, “This is undermining the trust the business community can have in the capacity of this government to foster a positive business climate.”

When he is not otherwise occupied with the task of driving out what few investors are still willing to hazard their fortunes under his regime, Kabila has done nothing to develop the considerable potential of oil discoveries in the his country. While, to the east, Uganda is preparing to reap a bonanza from the oil discoveries on its side of Lake Albert and Rwanda tapping into gas supplies in Lake Kivu, Kabila has literally snubbed those who would develop the energy reserves waiting on the Congolese side of the border. Not only has he failed to ratify a number of licenses given out several years ago, he recently managed to absent himself from the country altogether from an oil conference in Kinshasa that would have been the optimal occasion to reassure existing investors and attract a few new ones.

In June the former Belgian Congo will mark the 50th anniversary of its independence. While, as I noted at the beginning of this year, there is precious little to crow about given that by almost any measure of progress or index of well-being, the Congo’s 69 million people are worse off today than they have ever been, the celebration nonetheless figures into Joseph Kabila’s narrative about why the start of MONUC’s withdrawal should be timed to coincide with the festivities. No one argues that brutal subjugation of the Congo by Leopold II was anything but a crime of monumental proportions. Nor is it disputed that the country’s longtime ruler, Mobutu Seso Seko, was another disaster visited upon the unfortunate peoples of the Congo. But neither of these historical catastrophes need be accepted as justification for a third catastrophe, the international community’s abandonment of the Congo to the tender mercies and questionable competence of its current ruler by precipitously pulling out the only thing standing between the country and the deluge.

J. Peter Pham is Senior Fellow and Director of the Africa Project at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy in New York City. He also hold academic appointments as Associate Professor of Justice Studies, Political Science, and African Studies at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia and non-resident Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington,, D.C.