Ever since winning a second full term in a universally discredited election in 2011, Democratic Republic of the Congo President Joseph Kabila has been doing everything he could to ensure the election of his successor, scheduled for this fall, would not take place. A story published by Bloomberg News today helps explain why: Kabila and his family have been looting the country.
Bloomberg News, with support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, traced the Kabilas’ interests by amassing an archive of hundreds of thousands of pages of corporate documents. Given that so much of the DRC’s economy is informal and cash-based and transactions are notoriously opaque, it is impossible to determine the exact value of the illicit Kabila business empire. However, the documents that were obtained show the Kabilas have built a network of businesses that reaches into every corner of the DRC’s economy and enriched themselves with perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars.
The DRC has mineral deposits valued in the trillions of dollars, vast stretches of farmland, natural beauty to attract tourists and a population of nearly 80 million people, many of them young, ambitious and eager to build a better life under a democratic government. Today it is clearer than ever that Kabila is the single greatest impediment to the country realizing its potential and the enemy of his people’s aspirations for freedom and prosperity.
This should reinforce the case and add an even greater sense of urgency to extending targeted sanctions the United States and other countries have applied over the years directly to Kabila and members of his family.
The civil war Kabila inherited when he came to power in 2001 destroyed the country’s copper industry and wreaked economic havoc. But the conflict ended in 2003 and foreign investment has gradually returned, helping to generate more than 100,000 jobs in the mining and oil sectors alone, according to Bloomberg. The economy tripled in size and yet the Congolese people are among the poorest in the world. World Bank data show that nearly two-thirds of the Congolese live on less than $1.90 per day.
The Kabilas, of course, have done much better over that period. After in-depth analysis of thousands of documents and dozens of interviews with bankers, businessmen, miners, farmers and former government officials, Bloomberg reported:
Two of the family’s businesses alone own diamond permits that stretch more than 450 miles across Congo’s southwestern border with Angola. Family members also have stakes in banks, farms, fuel distributors, airline operators, a road builder, hotels, a pharmaceutical supplier, travel agencies, boutiques and nightclubs. Another venture even tried to launch a rat into space on a rocket.
The few figures available in publicly accessible documents show investments worth more than $30 million in just two companies. Estimated revenue for another company exceeds $350 million over four years.
Beyond these astonishing examples of siphoning the nation’s wealth, there are apparently dozens of joint ventures and shell corporations in an empire of kleptomania so vast even rent paid by the UN for a police station can end up the Kabila family’s pockets.
There was supposed to be an election late last month in the DRC. The country’s Constitution adopted ten years ago – and often touted by Kabila as proof of his democratic intentions – limits him to two full terms and stipulates that he is to depart this coming Monday, December 19.
Kabila, of course, is staying put – at least for now. His maneuverings to amend the Constitution, hastily conduct a national census, redraw political boundaries, starve the election commission of the funds needed to prepare for elections and stunts such as the ongoing “national dialogue” in recent years have succeeded in delaying elections for at least a year, maybe two years. (Today, there are reports his government is shutting down social media communications, obviously to muffle the public outcry about his ignoring the December 19 deadline.) If he continues to have his way, these ploys will give Kabila enough time to further dismantle the country’s fragile democracy and squirrel away his ill-gotten gains, safe for him and his family to enjoy through the presidency for life he is clearly contemplating.
What can the United States and the international community do about this? In the last week, the United States and the European Community announced the extension of economic sanctions against Evariste Boshab, the country’s interior minister, and Kalev Mutondo, the head of its intelligence service. Similarly, the European Union slapped sanctions on seven officials, including Ilunga Kampete, commander of the Republican Guard.
Preventing members of Kabila’s inner circle from gaining access to assets in the U.S. and making them economic pariahs makes sense. But it is time to go after the people who have plundered more the country’s wealth than anyone else – Joseph Kabila and his family. Only when Kabila knows he risks all by trying to cling to power will he try to negotiate a departure and pave the way for democratic transition. Now is the time for sanctions.
The U.S. House and Senate have given their overwhelming approval for President Obama to take such action. In one of the final acts of his presidency, Barack Obama could secure a legacy as a true champion of African democracy and an intrepid steward of U.S. economic and security interests on the continent. If he does not act in his remaining month in office, there is a real chance the DRC could soon erupt in violence that could kill countless Congolese and ignite a regional crisis, ready for terrorists to exploit. If President Obama has regarded sanctions on Kabila and members of his family as a last resort, it is time ask what conditions would better justify this last-resort option than Bloomberg’s revelations and growing crisis the Kabilas have created for their countrymen.