Congo: A dictator’s dilemma

Why has Joseph Kabila chosen to cling to power in Congo?

FILE PHOTO: A Congolese opposition party supporter displays a red card against President Joseph Kabila in Kinshasa
A Congolese opposition party supporter displays a red card against President Joseph Kabila in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo December, 2016 [Reuters]

Why has President Joseph Kabila chosen to cling to power beyond his constitutional term limit – which expired in December of 2016? Why has the man who organised Democratic Republic of Congo‘s only two multiparty elections since independence chosen to sow chaos and instability just when the country needs peace and stability the most? Why did he not proudly allow Congo’s first ever peaceful transfer of power to take place, which could have been his greatest legacy?

These are perhaps the single most important questions analysts, as well as journalists, pro-democracy activists, development workers and a great number of other people in and outside Congo, have been thinking about for some time – and rightly so.

Many hypotheses on why he chose not to leave office have since been presented. For example, one of his top lieutenants, Bernabe Kikaya, argued that Kabila, who has been in power since 2001, is clinging to power (in defiance of Congo’s constitution) to save Congo from a political crisis – a claim only the truly deluded would advance or subscribe to.

According to supporters of Kikaya’s theory, Kabila can only cede power once a new president has been elected – and election for this new president can only be organised by an electoral commission he controls, once Congo’s constitution has been changed to allow him to stand again because only he can be president.

The real reason, however, I suspect, Kabila has chosen to cling to power is more frightening.

Kabila and many of his supporters across Congo and a great number in Kigali and Kampala are frightened that if he cedes power, many of them (even if Kabila himself and a handful others are shielded from justice as a pre-condition for an “honourable” retirement) would be held accountable for aiding and abetting wars and conflicts that killed over 5.4 million Congolese people between 1998 and 2008 and left more wounds on the bodies of Congolese women than on the streets and buildings of the country.

Repealing the New Year’s Eve agreement

Last week, Kabila named Bruno Tshibala as the new prime minister – his second in four months – in attempt to repeal the New Year’s Eve power-sharing agreement, a radical pathway that Congo’s conference of Catholic bishops (CENCO) secured to end the political violence that killed over 200 pro-democracy protesters.

Under this agreement, Kabila agreed, first, not to seek a third term; second, not to alter Congo’s constitution, and last but not least to free all political prisoners.

In return, the opposition coalition known as the Rassemblement agreed to form a government of national unity, pick a prime minister and organise elections that are free and fair. As part of this deal, the Rassemblement also agreed to guarantee a smooth, non-violent transfer of power at the end of 2017, by which time it was agreed Kabila, who stayed for a year as a ceremonial president, will cede power.

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But Kabila, who never made his opposition to this agreement a secret, has not stopped trying to repeal it so he could have his way – and he is doing it openly and with confidence because the odds are in his favour.

France, the US and Congo’s neighbours

There are three main reasons behind Kabila’s confidence.

In this grim context, it is rather difficult, if not impossible, to think of a reason why Kabila would want to cede power, if he is not forced.


The first is France. One of the reasons the EU couldn’t impose sanctions that would have made life difficult for Kabila, degrade the ability of his regime and ultimately destroy it was – according to rumours in humanitarian circles – the French veto.

France, I suspect, was nervous that if the Congolese people manage to push Kabila out that wind will blow westward across the Congo River to Brazzaville, and then across the French-speaking West Africa, where almost every president, with the exception of one or two, is a dictator clinging to power by force.

The second is Trump’s White House. Whether or not President Donald Trump will take a tougher stance against Kabila than President Barack Obama remains to be seen, but the Trump administration’s recent decisions do not look promising for the Congolese people.

The United States recently decided to cut the number of UN troops in Congo and refused to take punitive actions against Kabila even after two UN officials were abducted and murdered for investigating massacres, which according to videos circulating on social media were committed by the regime’s troops. The US also did not sign a joint statement by the European Union, the African Union, the United Nations and the International Organisation of La Francophonie, which was published in February in support of the power-sharing agreement signed between Kabila’s government and the opposition.

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The third and final reason behind Kabila’s confidence is Congo’s neighbours. From east of Lake Kivu to the west of the Congo River, Congo is circled by dictators clinging to power by force. These dictators are openly hostile to the Congolese people’s fight for democracy and their attitude is encouraging Kabila not only to cling to power but to also crush anyone who questions his legitimacy.

In this grim context, it is rather difficult, if not impossible, to think of a reason why Kabila would want to cede power, if he is not forced. It is even harder to imagine he would willingly allow the creation of a transitional government, led by Felix Tshisekedi, Rassemblement’s choice for prime minister, in which opposition figures like Ndongala, Diongo, Fayulu, Muyombo and Katumbi could have important ministerial roles, including power to appoint a new head of the police, army, intelligence, supreme court, electoral commission and ambassadors – positions through which Kabila has managed to rule Congo as his private fiefdom.

Unanswered questions

However, the question of whether or not Kabila will survive the ongoing protests as president is still unanswered. We do not know how many people his security forces would have to kill or imprison for him to cling to power and what sort of a country he would be ruling over if he does.

We also do not know, if Kabila is eventually pushed out, what form this ousting will take, and how many of his family and friends or how much of their huge fortune they would lose in the process.

And finally, we do not know whether the EU, US and AU would side with the Congolese people during these troubling times.

Only time and the Congolese people’s resolve to push Kabila out will answer these questions. But I am hopeful because what the past two years of anti-Kabila protests tell us, beyond everything else, is this: Kabila is neither wealthy enough to corrupt every Congolese opposition leader nor strong enough to subdue a determined people – and I haven’t met a people as determined to fight for their country and democracy as my beloved Congolese people.

Vava Tampa, a native of Congo, is a community organiser and founder of the rights group Save the Congo!. He can be reached on Twitter: @VavaTampa

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.