Averting Another Crisis in Congo

The writing is on the wall.

Photographer: EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP/Getty Images

Apologists for a despot will invariably mention his ability to maintain stability. Congo’s President Joseph Kabila is falling short of even this dismal standard, which may be the most compelling reason for him to give up his unconstitutional effort to stay in power.

Neighboring Burundi, where President Pierre Nkurunziza’s bloody bid for an illegal third term has created more than 300,000 refugees, shows just why Kabila must be persuaded to change course. If anything, the stakes in Congo, Africa’s second largest and fourth most populous country, are much higher.

From 1996 to 2003, Congo and its neighbors (along with more than 20 armed groups) were embroiled in “Africa’s World War,” which cost millions of lives. Continuing strife, not least over Congo's mineral resources, has kept in place the United Nation’s biggest and most expensive peacekeeping mission. Donors have poured more than $40 billion into Congo for peacekeeping and development over the last two decades.

Now Kabila’s attempt to stay past his second presidential term, which ended Dec. 19, is triggering protest and bloodshed. He has repeatedly postponed elections and plans to stay in office until April 2018 -- the earliest he says they can be held. Public discontent has brought mounting repression: When protesters took to the street last week with pots and pans, they were met with live ammunition. Anti-government militias are stepping up their attacks, citing the regime’s fraying legitimacy.

Meanwhile, Kabila has funneled hundreds of millions of dollars from Congo’s economy to himself and his family through a network of more than 70 companies and shady Western middlemen. Earlier this fall, a U.S. hedge fund pled guilty to spreading $100 million in bribes to secure mineral concessions in the Congo and elsewhere.

As the leading donors for peacekeeping and development, the U.S. and European Union have a significant role and interest in curbing such abuses. So far, their sanctions have been limited to a handful of individuals in Kabila’s government. They need to take aim at the network of those who run his family’s private businesses, targeting acts of looting and public corruption in Congo as the U.S. has done in Libya and Venezuela. Strong forensic research and clear guidance can ensure that such measures hit their intended targets with minimal collateral damage.

Of course, as with any sanctions, these should be designed more to shape the future than to punish the past. The goal: If talks between Kabila and the opposition break down, sanctions should be used to persuade Kabila to uphold the existing constitution, step down for an interim administration that has public support, and speed up elections for his successor. China, whose hammer grip on Congo’s mining sector gives it a strong interest in stability, should also use its influence with Kabila on the country’s behalf.

The strongest influences on Kabila, however, should be Congo’s neighbors. Few of them are paragons of democracy or transparency. Yet they will bear the brunt of the suffering if Congo again explodes.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.