As the rule of the Kabila family reached its 20th anniversary on 17 May, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) faced a combination of localised conflicts, a political impasse and an economic crisis. Insecurity is spreading to regions which have hitherto been calm.
2 March: Two U.N. observers are kidnapped and subsequently killed by militants
7 April: The president nominates a transitional prime minister who is distrusted by the opposition
17 May: Armed men free thousands of prisoners in the capital Kinshasa
19 May: Canadian miner announces it is partially suspending operations due to sustained attacks
The political stalemate
The DRC was plunged into a political crisis in December 2016 by President Joseph Kabila’s failure to step down and organise new elections. He argued that logistical and financial hurdles made it unfeasible to organise them. Following violent protests that ensued after the 20 December deadline, the Congolese episcopal council (Cenco) mediated talks between the ruling coalition and an umbrella opposition group, called Rassemblement (Gathering), which resulted in an agreement on New Year’s Eve.
The agreement stipulated that Kabila would step down and that elections would be held by the end of 2017. The accords also dictated that the opposition would name a prime minister who would form a transitional government, and that the government would release imprisoned political activists and review criminal proceedings against opposition figures, such as Moïse Katumbi (currently living in exile due to a dubious arrest warrant) and Jean-Claude Muyambo. Both have been charged with selling properties that did not belong to them.
Neither side seems to have negotiated in good faith. With the opposition riven by infighting, particularly following the death of veteran opposition stalwart Etienne Tshisekedi on 1 February, the accord’s implementation has stagnated. Cenco abandoned its mediator role on 27 March, citing a lack of progress and will from both Rassemblement and the ruling coalition, typically referred to as la Majorité (the Majority). Its decision sparked violent protests over the next two days in the capital Kinshasa and the south-eastern mining hub of Lubumbashi.
On 7 April, Kabila nominated Bruno Tshibala as transitional prime minister, ignoring the will of Rassemblement who favoured Tshisekedi’s son, Félix, or the exiled Katumbi. Although Tshibala is a senior figure of the opposition Union pour la Démocratie et le Progrès Social (UDPS), he had been suspended from the party in February amid infighting over who would succeed the late Tshisekedi, the party’s founder.
The president’s decision to nominate Tshibala again prompted opposition supporters to take to the streets in violent protest, particularly in the eastern Limete commune of Kinshasa, where UDPS supporters fought with police. This prompted Rassemblement to claim that the new transitional government was illegitimate and that Kabila continued to manipulate the DRC’s political space. However, the opposition remains deeply divided and it has no clear leader, handing the advantage to Kabila’s la Majorité.
Conflicts – old and new
The political crisis currently affecting the DRC has fuelled an intensification of long-running armed conflicts in the country’s eastern provinces, as well as newer battles in regions that had until now been mostly peaceful. The security situation in the country’s restive eastern provinces of Ituri, Maniema, North Kivu and South Kivu is fragile.
In February, the Ugandan military said it had fought with members of the March 23 movement (M23) – formerly the largest non-state armed group in the DRC that is primarily composed of Tutsi fighters – after a large group of its members in the Kamina camp for demobilised soldiers in south-western Uganda attempted to move across the border into the DRC. The M23 was one of the many NSAGs that fought against Kabila in 2012 and 2013.
The DRC has seen new conflicts emerge, spread and intensify in provinces that have otherwise been relatively calm
More recently, five mine workers, including one French national, were kidnapped on 1 March in the Kabambare area of Maniema by the Raïa Mutomboki, a self-defence umbrella group that is active in the eastern provinces.
The victims, among them a Tanzanian, were employed by Canadian miner Banro Corporation’s gold mine in the locality of Namoya, south-east Maniema. The Raïa Mutomboki reportedly demanded a ransom of USD1 million and that the company guarantees that it will build infrastructure in the area, including roads, schools and health facilities. Banro Corporation announced on its website on 18 May that it was suspending operations at the mine due to persistent attacks on its facilities and staff, which had left three people dead. On 28 May, the French government confirmed that the French citizen who had been kidnapped on 1 March had been released. It was not immediately clear whether a ransom had been paid for his release, although this is likely to have been the case.
Since mid-2016, the DRC has seen new conflicts emerge, spread and intensify in provinces that have otherwise been relatively calm, albeit highly underdeveloped. Most of the media attention has been around a rebellion which began last year in the central Kasaï region, specifically in the provinces of Kasaï, Kasaï-Central, Kasaï-Oriental, and Lomami.
It made international headlines following the abduction and subsequent gruesome killing of two foreign nationals working for a United Nations (U.N.) expert panel on the DRC, investigating alleged human-rights abuses in the region. Recent news reports have suggested that Zaida Catalán, a Swedish citizen and one of the murdered experts, had evidence incriminating a government minister for inciting violence against the insurgency, and recent reports have suggested he could have been linked to the killings.
The conflict began after the state refused to recognise Jean-Pierre Mpandi as Kamwina Nsapu, a local chieftaincy title, and the provincial governor who is part of the ruling Majorité refused to meet him. That was considered an insult by Kamwina Nsapu followers.
The conflict intensified last August when government forces killed Mpandi, who a few months earlier had called for an armed insurrection against the government. Over 500 people have been killed in fighting between Kamwina Nsapu fighters and security forces, including over 124 security operatives, and 20,000 civilians have been displaced, mainly into northern Angola.
The conflict finds its origins in economic grievances and sentiment of marginalisation by the Kabila administration. For instance, the city of Kananga is the birthplace of Etienne Tshisekedi, and his UDPS party got over 70 per cent of votes in the region during the 2011 presidential election.
Although the region sits on the world’s largest untapped diamond reserves, the region remains highly underdeveloped. The region’s only major industry, the Brasimba brewery in the town of Kananga, Kasaï-Oriental, closed in November 2014, leaving the public sector as the largest employer there.
Prison break and the Bundu dia Kongo
In January this year, another movement called Bundu dia Kongo (BDK) began threatening the government. BDK is a religious and cultural sect that wants to re-establish a kingdom in the south-western Kongo-Central province, which is just south of Kinshasa, as well as parts of Angola, Gabon and the Republic of the Congo. Its leader, Ne Muanda Nsemi, who was arrested by police in March, had called on his followers to begin an insurgency against the Kabila government.
He escaped from the Makala prison in the Selembao suburb of Kinshasa on 17 May when a group of men armed with assault rifles attacked the correctional facility. The incident resulted in a mass escape of prisoners, most of whom remain at large.
While local authorities initially claimed that 50 prisoners had escaped, anonymous security sources have told international media outlets that they could be as many as 4,000. The total prison population at Makala – the largest prison in the country – is hard to verify due to its overpopulation; it had close to 7,000 in September 2015.
While these conflicts have taken a political turn, in terms of opposing President Kabila, they are rooted in economic marginalisation, which has worsened amid the economic crisis that the DRC has been experiencing since 2014. Between 2010 and 2015, the DRC’s economy grew by 7.7 per cent annually on average, mainly thanks to high commodity prices. However, the global price slump beginning in 2014 – particularly of copper, diamonds and gold – has forced a decline in the government’s tax revenue, and public spending has decreased as a result.
The economy grew by a meagre 2.8 per cent in 2016 barely surpassing the DRC’s demographic growth
The economy grew by a meagre 2.8 per cent in 2016 according to the African Economic Outlook (AEO) – a joint project between the African Development Bank, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) – barely surpassing the DRC’s demographic growth. The AEO projects that the Congolese economy is again picking up and will grow by 4 per cent this year, and 5.8 per cent in 2018. This is mainly due to rising commodity prices and low fuel import costs. However, the various political crises have the potential to derail this forecast.
On the ground, the people are facing a tough situation. The Congolese franc (CDF) is depreciating against other currencies, making imports more expensive and stoking inflation. The IMF projects that consumer prices will rise by 15 per cent this year, and 10 per cent next year, outpacing even optimistic projections of overall growth. Rising prices for foodstuffs and fuel are impoverishing the general population. In addition, the DRC’s foreign currency reserves have been steadily declining since the global commodity price slump. In September 2016, they were approximately USD1 billion, sufficient to cover less than four weeks of imports, according to local business site Groupe l’Avenir.
Furthermore, salaries of civil servants – bar some sections of the security forces – were cut by 30 per cent between June and December last year, and the government has struggled to pay the armed forces (the FARDC). This raises the risk of protests and mutinies. On 11 November 2016, over 300 soldiers staged a sit-in strike in the eastern town of Goma, the provincial capital of North Kivu, demanding that the government pay their salaries. Some said they had not been paid for three years, while others were demanding 11 months’ worth of salaries. Among the soldiers were both rank-and-file and more senior officers.
Most likely to increase government revenue and balance the financial resources of new provinces that were created in October 2015, the government has taken several steps improve the situation for Congolese workers. On 8 February, parliament adopted a new ‘national preference’ law to be implemented within 12 months across all sectors of the economy. The new bill imposes a limit on the share of goods and services that can be sub-contracted to foreign entities, stipulating that a maximum of 40 per cent of the market value can be sub-contracted. It further imposes an obligation to issue public tenders for projects that surpass a value of CDF100 million (USD75,000).
The law will force foreign companies to set up subsidiaries in the country, rather than relying solely on representative offices or business units. Companies that fail to comply with the regulation will be liable to fines of up to USD105,000 at the current exchange rates. Industries most likely to be affected by the new measure include infrastructure, transport and mining firms – all key sectors of the economy.
However, it is questionable whether the law will be successfully implemented. Business leaders have raised several points of confusion. For instance, the law does not define what constitutes a ‘Congolese firm’ – is the nationality of the firm dictated by the number of Congolese employees or based on its Congolese assets? Another concern is that ‘Congolese firms’, and their staff, are unlikely to have the same skills as foreign sub-contractors could provide.
Another recent measure by the government, which is affecting the mining industry, was a ministerial instruction asking some mining firms with operations in the south-eastern and minerals-rich Haut-Katanga province to move their offices from the provincial capital Lubumbashi to the city of Kolwezi in the neighbouring Lualaba province.
The main reason appears to relate to disputes regarding mining revenue between the two regions. The companies concerned include Anglo-Swiss group Glencore’s subsidiary Mutanda Group, Chinese group China Molybdenum Company and Canadian firm Ivanhoe Mines Limited. The remaining companies remain undisclosed, according to French-language magazine Jeune Afrique.
The ongoing crises affecting the DRC carry significant risks to businesses and their duty to protect staff. The intensifying attacks against foreign mining operations and their staff in the eastern provinces, as well as the killings of the two U.N. experts – the first such killings in the organisation’s history in the country – indicate an increasingly problematic security situation.
Despite this, it appears that the Swedish expert, Catalán, travelled to the region with little prior training and no safety equipment that could have helped track her and her colleague’s whereabouts, or even health insurance, according to a New York Times article in May.
This has raised serious questions about how the U.N. conducts its work in high-risk areas such as the DRC…