The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is embroiled in a political crisis that comes to a head next week. Congo also faces an economic crisis, caused by corruption and mismanagement, and one of growing insecurity, caused by heightened, expanded militia activity threatening the entire region. Without resolution, the Congo risks spiraling downward towards political, economic, and military collapse.
19 December marks the end of Joseph Kabila's second, and final, five-year term as president under the DRC Constitution. President Kabila is executing a strategy to remain in power beyond 19 December, called "glissement" (French for "slippage").
The Congolese political class is divided over how to respond. Supporters of President Kabila cite the dubious ruling by the Congolese Constitutional Court that articulated a "how" for the president to remain in office until his successor is inaugurated.
Political opposition forces advocate that the presidential election be held as early as possible, certainly during 2017. Largely organised around opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi, the opposition argues President Kabila's mandate ends on 19 December and that a new framework to govern the country, with President Kabila either out of office or heavily constrained, is urgently necessary.
Congolese civil society, including prominent youth movements LUCHA and FILIMBI, insist the Constitution should be respected. Their platform would see President Kabila depart on 19 December and, as set forth in the constitution, the president of the Senate lead during the interim period while elections are organised.
In the absence of a political agreement, most observers expect widespread protests, and are concerned that nonviolent protests will, as before, be met with state-sponsored violence. Congo's Catholic Bishops are mediating a last-minute effort to resolve this political crisis. Even if an agreement is reached and implemented, it resolves only the political crisis. What about the economic crisis? President Kabila's economic management is defined by corruption and personal enrichment of himself, his family, and other political figures – all while the Congolese people largely remain extremely poor and increasingly disenfranchised.
Unless the culture of corruption is reversed, the Congolese economy could face collapsing reserves and accelerating inflation leading to even greater dissatisfaction and instability. A highly qualified, technically strong, and unimpeachably honest economic team is needed to enact policies that will put the Congolese economy onto a path towards stability and equitable growth. Such technocrats and their supporters exist in the Congolese political system, but they have been marginalised and disempowered by President Kabila.
President Kabila's economic management is defined by corruption and personal enrichment of himself, his family, and other political figures – all while the Congolese people largely remain extremely poor and increasingly disenfranchised.
The Congolese constitution was carved out of a peace accord that mandated a peaceful transfer of power – to put an end to power grabbing through force of arms. There are emerging indications armed groups are becoming more powerful once again, particularly in the eastern provinces of North and South Kivu. And now, previously calm provinces in the south-centre of the country are also seeing increasing militia activity. The catastrophic political situations in the bordering nations of South Sudan and Burundi further threaten stability.
The inability, or unwillingness, of government security forces to do their primary job of securing Congolese territory, allows groups that use violence to recruit, grow, and expand their influence. Escalations in violence disproportionately affect vulnerable community members, and often lead to higher rates of sexualised violence. The poor and most vulnerable suffer most.
Many observers compare today's Congo to the final years of Mobutu Sese Seko's dictatorial rule. Economic, political, and military rot from corruption and neglect under Mobutu caused the economic system to crack first. The political system collapsed next, after years of fruitless negotiations and increasing political instability in the early 1990s. Then came a war, where invading soldiers marched across Congo, slicing through the then-Zairian state until Mobutu was overthrown in 1997.
Only a rapid move towards improved governance, and effective management of Congo's political, economic, and military crises can avert certain disaster. If President Kabila's strategy of "glissement" succeeds, the dire circumstances of rapid economic decline and dramatically increased insecurity may metastasize. A clear and transparent political agreement – blessed by the Catholic Bishops, leading to a political accord and much-improved economic management and serious attention to Congo's multiple, growing security challenges – is the best, and urgently needed, option.
Earlier this week, the EU and US issued new, targeted sanctions on government officials close to President Kabila, signalling the international community is gravely concerned about the future of the Congolese people. A strong agreement between Kabila's government and the Tshisekedi-led opposition, with civil society, would likely increase international engagement, including much needed assistance and engagement with the IMF and World Bank. It could lead to renewed collaboration between the Congolese Government and the UN Mission in the Congo, MONUSCO, and help create the conditions for Congolese economic growth and stability under strengthened democratic governance.
These are the stakes. President Kabila's vain push to remain in power caused these crises. The courageous, nonviolent Congolese opposition and civil society will need strong support from the international community to avoid the looming calamities caused by Kabila's kleptocratic rule.
Anthony W. Gambino is a longtime analyst on Central Africa. From 2001-2004, he served as the USAID Mission Director in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Nita Evele is the Director of Congo Global Action, Co-Founder and former President of the Coalition of Pluralists and Patriots of Congo (COPPAC).