Death in the DRC as Kabila Defends an Illegal Presidency and Pilfered Fortune

As feared, Joseph Kabila’s security forces have killed dozens of people protesting his refusal to exit the presidency December 19, as required under the country’s Constitution. The UN has confirmed 19 dead and scores wounded in the capital city of Kinshasa. There are reports of 10 dead and 47 wounded in the second largest city of Lubumbashi

Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other groups report many people have been arrested and residents of Kinshasa have told Human Rights Watch that Republican Guards were carrying out door-to-door searches and arresting youths.

In a vivid account, complete with photos from the country, John Walsh of the International Business Times, describes police using tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse groups of protesters in several neighborhoods in Kinshasa and protesters chanting, “Bye, bye Kabila.”

However, with hundreds arrested, Kabila appears to have succeeded for now in averting a larger threat to his power and the vast fortune he has amassed for himself and his family. In the hours leading up to the Constitutional end of his term, his government blocked social media such as Facebook and Twitter. Still, determined Congolese are using other means to report and comment on the tense and deadly situation in their country. Those who are able to use Twitter are using the hashtag #CongoCrisis.

No doubt, Kabila will do whatever he must to cling to power. The tenacity and courage of his countrymen, the rule of law and diplomatic pressure mean nothing to him. The prime reason for his obstinacy appears to be money. As the New York Times and other media have reported in the last week, the Kabila family business empire was amassed by dubious means. Not long before Kabila became president at the age 29 in 2001 when his father Laurent was assassinated by a body guard, the younger Kabila had been driving a cab. He likely fears that leaving office could expose him to criminal prosecution for actions that turned him into a multimillionaire on a government salary.

Additional members of his government were slapped with economic sanctions by the U.S. and European Union in the weeks leading up to the legal end of his second full, five-year term. But Kabila appears to be gambling that he and his family will not face sanctions right away. This will give him the time he needs to either come up with an exit strategy or institutionalize his presidency for life. Kabila, like other strongmen, seeks to present himself as indispensable to his country. In fact, his country and its people will always be subordinate to Kabila.

He is continuing to create a democratic façade, engaging the country’s Roman Catholic bishops and second-tier opposition groups in discussions supposedly aimed at an eventual transition but chief opposition leaders refuse to engage with Kabila.

According to the Associated Press, Etienne Tshisekedi, the leader of Congo’s largest opposition party, urged peaceful resistance to what he called Kabila’s “coup d’etat.” In a statement posted on YouTube on Tuesday, he called the president’s actions “treason” and appealed to the Congolese people and the international community to no longer recognize Kabila’s authority.

The major opposition parties want Kabila to declare his plan for vacating the presidency. They also insist the government drop criminal charges against Moise Katumbi. The very popular former Katanga province governor and businessman was nominated earlier this year by a group of opposition parties to seek the presidency in elections that were supposed to take place last month.  Instead Katumbi was forced to flee the country when the government accused him of hiring mercenaries and theft – charges demonstrated to be politically motivated fabrications.

In an interview with the Guardian on the eve of Kabila’s required December 19 exit, Katumbi said, “If I want to go back I can go today or tomorrow but I am a man of peace. I do not want my people to die. We want peace to be our priority. [Kabila] can shoot me, jail me, kill me and create more chaos. I don’t want that. I want a peaceful transfer of power.”

The paper reported that Katumbi had spent weeks traveling between western capitals to rally support. For now, however, the world appears to be crossing its fingers in the hopes that the situation dies down enough to continue to ignore. If the deaths of dozens of people, destabilizing violence in the heart of Africa and the fate of democracy in a country of  80 million people are not enough to prompt a unified effort to end Kabila’s now-illegal presidency and begin a peaceful transition then it is hard to imagine what will. But it is clear that the Congolese people will continue to insist that the world pays attention and acts as soon as possible.