The decision by the US State Department to pull all nonessential personnel from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) highlights international apprehension about the political tensions rife in one of Africa’s largest and most conflict ridden countries. Violence has surged throughout the state owing to fears President Joseph Kabila will seek to delay elections so he can retain the presidency beyond his constitutionally-limited second term. If Kabila undertakes such action, it could plunge the DRC back into war and possibly drag in its many neighbours.
The DRC has not experienced a peaceful leadership transition since it became a Belgian colony. A private holding of King Leopold II from the 1870s, the region came under the authority of the Belgian state in 1908 after reports of millions of Congolese being killed or worked to death by the king’s representatives. Congo gained independence in 1960 after local troops mutinied, but political infighting among the country’s democratic leaders resulted in a coup and the installation of Mobutu Sese Seko as president in 1965. Mobutu established a one-party, highly centralised state which he ruled for three decades. The period was marked by economic deterioration, extreme corruption and widespread human rights abuses.
Mobutu’s downfall was closely intertwined with the Rwandan Genocide. In 1994, ethnic Hutu extremists in Rwanda seized power and instigated a 100-day massacre of an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus. When the Rwandan Patriotic Front—a Tutsi rebel group—drove out the extremists, up to a million Hutus fled to the DRC (then called Zaire) fearing retribution. With Mobutu’s support, the remaining Hutu extremists consolidated their positions in the refugee camps, which they used as military bases to continue the war across the border. In response, Rwanda and Uganda invaded Zaire in 1996, ousting Mobutu the following year. Laurent-Desire Kabila—Joseph Kabila’s father—became president and the county was renamed the DRC.
In 1998, Laurent-Desire Kabila attempted to gain independence from his international backers, sparking the Second Congo War. Rwanda and Uganda redeployed their forces to eastern Congo, while Angola, Namibia, and Zimbabwe threw their support behind Kabila. Hundreds of thousands were killed in the fighting and over five million died from consequences related to the violence. As the deadliest conflict since the Second World War, it gained the unofficial title of the ‘African World War’.
Though the war had political roots, economic factors prolonged the conflict. The DRC harbours a wealth of untapped mineral deposits, including cobalt, coltan, copper, diamonds, gold, and uranium, as well as oil and timber, with an estimated value of $24 trillion. It also has vast water resources with the potential to provide Africa’s most cost-effective source of renewable energy. These resources lie primarily in the east of the country and the DRC’s neighbours have been accused of fermenting conflict to cover their illegal extraction.
Laurent-Desire Kabila was assassinated in 2001. His son Joseph became president after a unanimous vote in parliament, which was stacked with politicians handpicked by his father. After his installation, Joseph Kabila quickly initiated a peace deal with Rwanda and Uganda before leading the subsequent Transitional Government that oversaw the implementation of a new constitution and fresh elections in 2006. Kabila’s presidency was confirmed at the ballot box that year and he was re-elected in 2011 for his second and final term.
Kabila’s tenure is due to expire on 20 December 2016, but the government has failed to set a date for new elections. Protests have been growing throughout the year as Congolese fear Kabila seeks to maintain power indefinitely. Clashes between security forces and opposition protesters in September left dozens dead and destroyed property throughout the capital of Kinshasa. The withdrawal of the families of US government personnel, combined with sanctions on close Kabila allies accused of undermining democracy by threatening the opposition, highlights Washington’s concerns about the current crisis.
For its part, Kabila’s government claims its resources were stretched fighting the Rwandan-backed ‘M23’ rebels in 2012-2013 and that it cannot possibly process the 10 million unregistered voters in time for an election in 2016. Instead the administration has announced a transitional government will take over once Kabila’s mandate runs out. Conveniently, Kabila will remain president as the constitution requires him to stay in office until a new president has been elected.
On 1 October, the DRC’s electoral body revealed its hand, stating elections will be delayed until December 2018. Angered by this news, Kabila’s opponents may escalate their protests into open confrontation, potentially plunging the country back into war. There is little reason to expect such a conflict would not draw in the DRC’s neighbours, some of which are experiencing their own political dramas. Global actors need to respond swiftly to prevent the impending disaster. But with diplomatic attention stretched across a multitude of international crises, it seems likely that some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people will again be subject to the brutality of war.
William Baulch is the International Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.