The DRC’s Perfect Storm: A Nation on the Brink of Civil War

By: Shannon Mizzi, Columnist

Photo Credit: MUN Planet

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is simultaneously experiencing a tense political crisis, a deep economic downturn, and increasing unrest in its notoriously unstable eastern provinces, where over 40 armed rebel groups (both domestic and foreign) operate.[i] This “perfect storm” of factors threatens to push the country back into brutal civil war. The DRC has a long history of civil conflicts, experiencing war following its independence in 1960 and again from 1997 to 2003. Nearly 5.4 million people have died in conflicts since 1994, 90 percent of whom were civilians.[ii] Previous civil wars were instigated by or destabilized neighboring countries, and a backslide into civil war could threaten the stability of the entire central African region. The African Union (AU) should work with the broader international community to exert strong pressure on President Kabila, who must follow through on his agreement to hold democratic elections this year.

President Joseph Kabila has been in power since 2001, but was first democratically elected in 2006, and re-elected in 2011. While his constitutionally-mandated five-year term was scheduled to end in December 2016, he delayed national elections and began negotiating with opposition party stakeholders to remain in power until 2018 (the DRC’s constitution does not allow a third term). This, as well as a power-sharing arrangement, was agreed upon in November of last year. The prime minister and his cabinet resigned in November as agreed, ensuring opposition members will hold those positions until Kabila departs. However, there are some worrying signs that Kabila may be laying the groundwork to renege on the agreement and to change the constitution so that he can stand for re-election. His treasury minister has already announced that it would be too expensive to hold elections as scheduled this year, and some observers fear that Kabila may use unrest in eastern Congo as an excuse to hold onto power.[iii] This is the opposite of what the people want; in a late 2016 survey conducted while the deal was being negotiated, 74 percent of respondents stated Kabila should leave office at the end of 2016.[iv] The national police force (PNC) has grown more repressive over the last year, and has been accused of widespread human rights violations, including the murders of over 100 pro-democracy protesters last fall.[v] While Kabila held a 44 percent approval rating in early 2015, this number has plummeted to the low teens.[vi]

Despite containing over $24 trillion in untapped mineral resources, the DRC comes in at 176th on the Human Development Index.[vii] While its economic growth rate has stayed between 4-9% for the last six years, the country has seen little economic or infrastructural development of the kind that would attract sustainable FDI or employ the country’s young population.[viii] The population has received few benefits from this rapid economic growth, and rightly blames government corruption and a lack of spending on public goods necessary to stimulate the economy. Congolese also complain of an over-centralization of power by the national government, leaving local governments unable to choose or fund projects that would most benefit their communities.[ix] However, the DRC has recently entered a period of genuine economic downturn. Drought is reducing the reliability of electricity delivery, the prices of basic commodities are rising rapidly, and the Congolese franc is weakening.[x] In some areas of the country, education has become unaffordable,[1] and national unemployment hovers around 46%.[xi] Even the salaries of government employees have fallen by 30%.[xii] This is a dangerous situation in a country with an abundance of both small arms and lootable resources, and a median age of 18. Young people unable to attend school or find employment may be more likely to engage in rebellion, having less to lose, and as government income decreases there is less for Kabila to use to buy the support of elites.

On top of this, in eastern Congo about 2.2 million people have been displaced by violence perpetrated by armed militia groups, some domestic and some foreign, coming from Rwanda and Uganda.[xiii] The civil war in the 1990s was sparked by the Rwandan genocide, when Hutu génocidaires used the area as a base to cross in and out of Rwanda. In 1996, Rwanda invaded the DRC in an attempt to stop these cross-border raids; eight other countries got involved in proxy wars, leaving DRC a collapsed state. Many of the militias operating in North Kivu today are remnants of this “African world war.” While eastern Congo is severely underdeveloped, it is extremely rich in minerals, and much of the violence stems from competition between rebel groups for these resources and surrounding land. The area could devolve into chaos if political instability and a loss of government legitimacy lights the spark.

The African Union has been closely involved in the negotiation process over the new power-sharing agreement in DRC. However, under new AU Chair Moussa Faki Mahamat, it must now focus on holding Kabila to his commitments, ensuring elections are held in September. A saving grace that could prevent or mitigate civil war may be the presence of MONUSCO (UN Stabilization Mission in the DRC), through which 19,000 peacekeepers are currently deployed in the DRC.[xiv] This is a very real example where withdrawal of US funding for UN peacekeeping missions could be disastrous. The AU and MONUSCO should also continue to work on demobilization and disarmament in eastern Congo, reintegrating former fighters into the licit economy. The US has sanctioned Kabila government officials and security force leaders for their harsh response to protesters this fall, and this month the European Union promised to follow suit if Kabila delays elections.[xv] Almost 20 percnt of the country’s budget comes from foreign aid, which could also be leveraged to pressure Kabila into stepping down on time.[xvi]

The DRC resides in a politically and economically unstable neighborhood. South Sudan and the Central African Republic are experiencing civil wars and humanitarian crises, and there is no guarantee Burundi will not spiral into civil war. If the DRC were to collapse, its struggling neighbors could be further destabilized. President Kabila’s use of delay tactics is unacceptable to the Congolese, and, combined with the current economic crisis and the ongoing violence in the east, could spell disaster. There has never been a successful democratic transition of power in the DRC since its independence in 1960. The AU and the international community must work together to ensure that transition happens in 2018.

[i] “Armed Groups in Eastern Congo,” Enough.

[ii] Ida Sawyer, et al., “The Eastern Congo: A CFR InfoGuide Presentation,” Council on Foreign Relations, October 2016.!/

[iii] “Felix Tshisekedi: Congo opposition leader’s son takes over,” BBC News Africa, March 3, 2017.

[iv] Aaron Ross, “Congolese oppose extension of Kabila’s mandate, poll shows,” Reuters, October 25, 2016.

[v] Crisis Group Briefing No. 123, “Boulevard of Broken Dreams: The ‘Street’ and Politics in DR Congo,” International Crisis Group, October 13, 2016.

[vi] Aaron Ross, “Congolese oppose extension of Kabila’s mandate, poll shows,” Reuters, October 25, 2016.

[vii] Esther Yu Hsi Lee, “The Paradox of Congo: How the World’s Wealthiest Country Became Home to the World’s Poorest People,” Think Progress, May 28, 2016.

[viii] “Congo GDP Annual Growth Rate,” Trading Economics, 2017.

[ix] “Tens of Thousands of People Uprooted by Militia Violence in Congo- UN,” Reuters, January 15, 2017.

[x] Eddie Isango, “DRC Faces Power Shortage Caused By Drought,” Voice of America, March 10, 2017.; Hans Hoebeke and Philippe Kadima Cintu, “Hungry for Change: The Economics Underlying DR Congo’s Political Crisis,” International Crisis Group, December 12, 2016.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] “Twelve Points for the New African Union Commission Chairperson,” International Crisis Group, March 13, 2017.

[xiv] “MONUSCO Background,” UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 2016.

[xv] Office of Foreign Assets Control, “Democratic Republic of the Congo Santions Program,” Department of the Treasury, October 5, 2016.

[xvi] “The Eastern Congo” CFR Presentation.!/

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