It can be challenging to appreciate democracy when one is used to it. However, for the people of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), engineering a progressive path towards a more lawful state is a victory in itself.
For a country larger than Greenland that has experienced years of violence that have caused the deaths of 6m people, it cannot be coincidental that the DRC has long been overlooked by the mainstream media.
Many suspect that the country’s rich mineral wealth is behind the global superpowers’ ambitions to keep the DRC on a low profile. China, which is the DRC’s largest trading partner, avoids headlines that point to its large-scale extraction of resources from the region.
However, incumbent President Joseph Kabila does not play by the Chinese rulebook and has recently enflamed emotions in the nation by refusing to step down as president. Kabila should have departed from office last December but has so far dismissed any idea of him leaving.
As a consequence, protests have erupted across the country, and within the last six months, at least 400 people have been killed in the province of Kasai-Central alone. The entire nation has ground to a halt, as transport links lie stagnant and the threat of violence keeps people at home.
The UN Peacekeeping Mission
Although the UN has an extensive presence in the country (called MONUSCO), it is limited by the spike in violent clashes been security forces and rebels. MONUSCO is the largest and most expensive peacekeeping movement on record with around 19,000 troops stationed in the country.
Since the beginning of 2017, almost 3,000 incidents involving violence or direct threats against aid workers have been reported. Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, has described Kabila’s regime as “corrupt” and said it was making MONUSCO’s job impossible. “We can’t work in spite of the government. We need to hold the government accountable,” she said.
The UN has, therefore, taken a back seat and does not believe in aggressive defence as a tactic. Accordingly, sanctions on government officials and personnel have thus far been the UN’s main playing card.
Kabila’s New Government
When it comes to harsher punishments to alter the country’s direction, China is likely to veto any sanction that hampers its trade agreements with the DRC.
Optimists may, however, look to the deal agreed with the government and the opposition at the end of December last year. President Joseph Kabila agreed that an election would take place at the tail end of 2016 and that the opposition leader would take over as Prime Minster. The deal was seen as a turning point for the country.
However, last week, Kabila released a document on state television which contained the names of his transitional government. Kabila kept the same ministers for key jobs and appointed Bruno Tshibala as the opposition Prime Minster. According to the opposition leader, Martin Fayulu, Tshibala was not the agreed candidate for the role.
As such, an election this year is unlikely, and most people are anticipating one in 2018 at the earliest. If this is the case, the DRC could be in for a very troublesome year.
The crisis has so far been more intense in the east, where the majority of mineral wealth lies. However, the southern province of Kasai has seen its stability rocked by a reduction in UN troops and attacks by Kamwina Nsapu militia on the local security force.
This has led to the displacement of 3.7m people, most of whom have taken refuge in Angola. For perspective, this is over half of the UN Refugee Agency’s estimate that 6.7m Syrians that were displaced between 2011 and 2016. The UN has responded by launching a further $64.5m in emergency aid, to provide life-saving assistance to those in need.
The UN and the main opposition block are in agreement that as long as Mr Kabila stays in office, the country has little chance of ending 2017 with any semblance of stability.
Two Parties and a Burial
Last week the relationship between the two parties seemed to worsen when 100 riot police surrounded the opposition’s headquarters. A spokesperson for the opposition said they were trying to moderate the burial of Etienne Tshisekedi, who died in Brussels on February 1st.
Tshiekdedi was a political veteran of the opposition who was credited with bringing the ideas of democracy to the DRC. The UPDS (the opposition bloc) sought to bury Tshisekdei within their headquarters but had no official permission to hold the burial on privately-owned land, which is banned under Congolese law.
This is likely to aggravate many who supported Tshisekdei throughout his career. If further protests take place, they are likely to be met with significant military reprisals.
Will the DRC Share Syria’s Fate?
The UN Security Council is keeping a close eye on the events that unfold in the DRC. Nonetheless, the UN needs to be unorthodox with their approach if it is going to stop a civil war, which is firmly in the realms of possibility.
China holds the rights to one of the largest copper mines in the world in the east of the country. If there were any signs that rebel tribes could raid the mine, then China would likely push international bodies to intervene. The fate of the DRC might depend on how China chooses to act.
If Kabila refuses to step down in the foreseeable future, the rest of the country will look to the UN for guidance and protection. Concentrated sanctions on the country’s exports are probably the only way to freeze Kabila out.
The events in Syria have a large global following, which has put pressure on world leaders to act against the inhumane treatment of its people. For whatever reason, the DRC does not have that privilege.
Nevertheless, like Syria, if the UN decides to take a back seat as political tensions mount, a violent civil war in the DRC will be inevitable.