In Congo, third time's no charm

By every right, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) ought to be one of the richest countries in the world. The Belgian geologist René Jules Cornet, whose work in the 1890s uncovered the Congo's immense mineral reserves — currently valued by some estimates at more than $24 trillion and including 70 percent of the world's coltan, 30 percent of its diamond reserves, as well as vast amounts of cobalt, copper, gold and many other sought-after primary commodities — dubbed the territory a "veritable geological scandal." The real scandal, however, is that this treasure has yet to better the lives of the people of Africa's second-largest and fourth-most populous country. To the contrary, the most recent edition of the United Nations Development Program's Human Development Index ranked the lush, mineral-rich DRC at the absolute bottom of the 187 countries and territories included in the survey (tying landlocked, mostly desert Niger for last place), while the Fund for Peace's 2013 Failed States Index put the country in 177th place out of 178 countries (just a notch above long-collapsed Somalia).

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Instead of prosperity, the Congo's wealth has brought a seemingly endless procession of unscrupulous adventurers eager to exploit its riches: from Leopold II of the Belgians who, at the Berlin Conference in 1885, persuaded the crowned heads of Europe, most of whom were his cousins, to gift him with a territory 76 times larger than his tiny kingdom as his own personal property, to Mobutu Seso Seko, who was allowed by the "logic" of the Cold War to likewise rule the same area as a private fief, to the current president, Joseph Kabila, who, at the ripe old age of 29, inherited the job from his assassinated father in 2001.

On paper, the DRC has improved somewhat on the younger Kabila's watch. Thanks in part to the presence of the world's largest United Nations peacekeeping mission and the more robust stance those forces have taken in recent years toward various armed groups, the violent conflicts which have torn the Congo apart for more than a generation have been reduced to more manageable proportions. Consequently, since 2002, the country's economy has grown an average of 6 percent a year and this year it is expected to top 9 percent. However, as in the past, little of the newfound prosperity has trickled down to the population, 95 percent of whom live on less than $2 a day. The World Food Program estimates that more than half of Congolese children are either acutely or chronically malnourished.

Its official name notwithstanding, the DRC also suffers from a troubling democracy deficit. In the more than 17 years which the Kabilas, père et fils, have held sway over the country, local elections have never been held: to this day, every last mayor, burgmeister and neighborhood chief in the length and breadth of the Congo is appointed by presidential decree from the far-off capital of Kinshasa. Last month, the election commission announced yet another postponement in the long-delayed voting for municipal and local government officials that had, most recently, been scheduled to begin in June 2015.

Despite his long hold on power, the incumbent president who, in 2011, awarded himself a second five-year term in elections which were roundly criticized by official observers from the European Union and the Carter Center, and denounced as "treachery, lies, and terror" by the DRC's Roman Catholic bishops, whose nearly 40,000 trained poll watchers provided exhaustive evidence to back for the assertion, now finds himself in a bind of his own making. The constitution, approved by a referendum Joseph Kabila himself presided over in 2005, not only limits a president to two consecutive five-year terms (article 70), but also contains a clause (article 220) that specifically stipulates that — along with the republican form of government, universal suffrage and other basic provisions — the limit on presidential terms is absolute and not subject to "any constitutional revision."

This last provision has been recently subject to considerable diplomatic efforts by the United States and others. During his visit to the DRC last month, Secretary of State John Kerry publicly urged Kabila to respect the constitution and not attempt to seek another term: "The United States of America believes that a country is strengthened, that people have respect for their nation and their government, when a constitutional process is properly implemented and upheld by that government. ... We're a country with term limits. We live by them. We had several hundred years of transformation under that process, and we encourage other countries to adhere to their constitution." To this end, America's chief diplomat announced that the United States would contribute $30 million, most of which will go to nongovernmental organizations, to help the Congolese hold elections.

Briefing the press during Kerry's trip, Special Envoy to the Great Lakes Region and the DRC Russell Feingold was even more explicit than his former Senate colleague: "The people of this country have a right to have their constitution respected. They have a right to choose their president in accordance with their constitution. The constitution here provides for two terms. ... That provision should be respected." Earlier this month, Feingold joined the special envoys of the UN, the African Union and the European Union at a meeting with the head of the DRC's national election commission where the diplomats called for the publication of a comprehensive election calendar that included a fixed date for the 2016 presidential poll.

Kabila is not taking the pressure lying down. While his some of his spokesmen have been howling about foreigners who "meddle in domestic affairs," the president is using the Congo's prodigious resources to secure alternative backing from outsiders perceived to be more open to his staying in power. According to Congolese sources, availing himself of Russian President Vladimir Putin's conflict with the United States and its European partners over Ukraine, as well as Russia's renewed interest in Africa, Kabila recently dispatched Ambassador-at-Large Sérafin Ngwej to Moscow with a proposal to buy $3 billion in weapons. Meanwhile, Defense Minister Alexandre Luba Ntambo was sent to Beijing in early June for talks with Xu Qiliang, vice chairman of China's Central Military Commission, on expanding bilateral security ties to match the economic links.

With so much at stake, things are likely to get much rougher before they get any smoother in the heart of Africa.

Pham is director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center.