24 06 14 The Hill – In Congo, third time's no charm

Instead of prosperity, the Congo's wealth has
brought a seemingly endless procession of unscrupulous adventurers eager to
exploit its riches: from Leopold II of the Belgians who, at the Berlin
Conference in 1885, persuaded the crowned heads of Europe, most of whom were
his cousins, to gift him with a territory 76 times larger than his tiny kingdom
as his own personal property, to Mobutu Seso Seko, who was allowed by the
"logic" of the Cold War to likewise rule the same area as a private
fief, to the current president, Joseph Kabila, who, at the ripe old age of 29,
inherited the job from his assassinated father in 2001.On paper, the DRC has
improved somewhat on the younger Kabila's watch. Thanks in part to the presence
of the world's largest United Nations peacekeeping mission and the more robust
stance those forces have taken in recent years toward various armed groups, the
violent conflicts which have torn the Congo apart for more than a generation
have been reduced to more manageable proportions. Consequently, since 2002, the
country's economy has grown an average of 6 percent a year and this year it is
expected to top 9 percent. However, as in the past, little of the newfound
prosperity has trickled down to the population, 95 percent of whom live on less
than $2 a day. The World Food Program estimates that more than half of
Congolese children are either acutely or chronically malnourished.

Its official name notwithstanding, the DRC also
suffers from a troubling democracy deficit. In the more than 17 years which the
Kabilas, père et fils, have held sway over the country, local
elections have never been held: to this day, every last mayor, burgmeister and
neighborhood chief in the length and breadth of the Congo is appointed by
presidential decree from the far-off capital of Kinshasa. Last month, the
election commission announced yet another postponement in the long-delayed
voting for municipal and local government officials that had, most recently,
been scheduled to begin in June 2015.

Despite his long hold on power, the incumbent
president who, in 2011, awarded himself a second five-year term in elections
which were roundly criticized by official observers from the European Union and
the Carter Center, and denounced as "treachery, lies, and terror" by
the DRC's Roman Catholic bishops, whose nearly 40,000 trained poll watchers
provided exhaustive evidence to back for the assertion, now finds himself in a
bind of his own making. Theconstitution, approved
by a referendum Joseph Kabila himself presided over in 2005, not only limits a
president to two consecutive five-year terms (article 70), but also contains a
clause (article 220) that specifically stipulates that — along with the
republican form of government, universal suffrage and other basic provisions —
the limit on presidential terms is absolute and not subject to "any
constitutional revision."

This last provision has been recently subject to
considerable diplomatic efforts by the United States and others. During his
visit to the DRC last month, Secretary of State John Kerrypublicly urged Kabila to respect the
constitution and not attempt to seek another term: "The United States of
America believes that a country is strengthened, that people have respect for
their nation and their government, when a constitutional process is properly
implemented and upheld by that government. … We're a country with term
limits. We live by them. We had several hundred years of transformation under
that process, and we encourage other countries to adhere to their
constitution." To this end, America's chief diplomat announced that the
United States would contribute $30 million, most of which will go to
nongovernmental organizations, to help the Congolese hold elections.

Briefing the press during Kerry's trip, Special
Envoy to the Great Lakes Region and the DRC Russell Feingold was even more explicit than
his former Senate colleague: "The people of this country have a right to
have their constitution respected. They have a right to choose their president
in accordance with their constitution. The constitution here provides for two
terms. … That provision should be respected." Earlier this month,
Feingold joined the special envoys of the UN, the African Union and the
European Union at a meeting with the head of the DRC's national election
commission where the diplomats called for the publication of a comprehensive
election calendar that included a fixed date for the 2016 presidential poll.

Kabila is not taking the pressure lying down. While
his some of his spokesmen have been howling about foreigners who "meddle
in domestic affairs," the president is using the Congo's prodigious
resources to secure alternative backing from outsiders perceived to be more
open to his staying in power. According to Congolese sources, availing himself
of Russian President Vladimir Putin's conflict with the United States and its
European partners over Ukraine, as well as Russia's renewed interest in Africa,
Kabila recently dispatched Ambassador-at-Large Sérafin Ngwej to Moscow with a
proposal to buy $3 billion in weapons. Meanwhile, Defense Minister Alexandre
Luba Ntambo was sent to Beijing in early June for talks with Xu Qiliang, vice
chairman of China's Central Military Commission, on expanding bilateral
security ties to match the economic links.

With so much at stake, things are likely to get
much rougher before they get any smoother in the heart of Africa.

Pham is director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center.

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