STANDING IN DEFIANCE
Despite a good start, the DRC president is seen as aloof and alienated from his people, and the country is characterised by escalating repression, instability and volatility
One morning last November, Congolese president Joseph Kabila’s motorcade bullied a path through Kinshasa’s traffic towards the Palais du Peuple (Palace of the People), which houses the senate and the national assembly. Kabila rarely ventures into public view, and speaks even less frequently, but he wanted to reminisce about his 16 years in power.
At the Palais, Kabila told legislators that he had inherited “a country in tatters, a nonstate” bedevilled by a “vicious circle of hyperinflation and the depreciation of the national currency”. He claimed to have stopped a civil war and re-established the unitary state, midwifed the adoption of a new constitution and the birth of democracy, and presided over years of uninterrupted economic growth. This autobiography — with the protagonist as pacifier, unifier and nation builder — was received raucously by the president’s partisans.
True, the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly known as Zaire, was in an infernal condition in January 2001, when Joseph Kabila succeeded his father, Laurent-désiré, who had been assassinated by a bodyguard.
Just 29 at the time, Kabila unexpectedly found himself head of a vast state shorn of huge chunks that were controlled by rebel armies backed by Uganda and Rwanda.
His arrival “unlocked a lot of progress”, says Stephanie Wolters of the Institute for Security Studies.
The political neophyte enjoyed the goodwill of a population exhausted by conflict. “I was in exile in Cape Town and I asked my church to pray for him,” says Albert Moleka, a former heavyweight in the Union for Democracy & Social Progress, Congo’s oldest and largest opposition party. “Everyone wanted to give him a chance,” he says.
Benefiting from international pressure, Kabila brokered the withdrawal of Rwandan and Ugandan troops and concluded a peace deal. In July 2003, a transitional government was installed in which Kabila shared power with four vice-presidents.
The Congolese voted overwhelmingly for a new constitution in 2005 and a year later Kabila triumphed in the country’s first democratic elections since 1960. “The international community moved quickly to organise the elections to give Kabila a modicum of legitimacy and legality,” says Mvemba Dizolele, a Congolese lecturer at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, of the polls.
If most observers can sympathise with Kabila’s interpretation of the early years, they’re less indulgent towards the presidential version of what followed — the period after he had consolidated power and legitimacy.
High mineral prices have underwritten sharp growth through much of Kabila’s elected presidency, peaking at 9% in 2014, but those heady days are over. Low copper and oil prices slashed growth to 2.5% in
2016, while the Congolese franc has shed half its value against the dollar since last year and inflation has leapt to over 25% after several years of stability.
The Congolese, at present being pummelled by deteriorating purchasing power, now wonder what the boom years brought them. “The international organisations kept saying Congo was one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, but every year we go from crisis to crisis and . . . growth is not reflected in everyday life,” says Dizolele.
The government’s annual budget has never exceeded Us$9bn, a paltry sum for a country of between 75m and 85m people.