What does 2010 bring for the Congo? Part I

What does 2010 have in store for the Congo?

A few things to think about. In the first installment, let’s look at elections:

Whom to believe? Abbe Malu Malu, the head of the electoral commission, who said in November that local elections will be held as scheduled in 2010? Or President Kabila, who told parliament on December 7 that local elections would not be held until 2011. These elections were supposed to take place in 2008, but were delayed due to legislative foot-dragging (several laws had to be passed for elections to take place) and the government’s inaction. Closely linked to these delays is the constitutional requirement to create 26 provinces out of the current 11 and the granting of 40% of national revenues to the provinces. This decentralization was supposed to take place within three years of Kabila’s inauguration (i.e. by December 2009).

In other words, the democratic institutions that are supposed to be the bedrock of post-conflict stability are looking increasingly shaky. Even the elected institutions that exist have performed poorly. While the Union pour la Nation opposition (led by the MLC) won 42 per cent of the presidential elections and had the de facto majority in three provincial assemblies, the ruling coalition has been able to co-opt and coerce its way to power in all 11 provinces, most recently in the MLC own bastion of Equateur. The national assembly, which is controlled by the ruling coalition, has done a relatively poor job of overseeing government action – they have called in some ministers for questioning, and they carried out several audits (most notably, the senate audit of mining contracts), but have had little impact at the end of the day. Ever since Evariste Boshab took over as president of the national assembly in 2009, the national assembly had pretty much become a sounding board or echo chamber for government policy.

We can’t just blame the government. The opposition is weak and divided – the main MLC opposition is managed by Jean-Pierre Bemba from his exile at the ICC prison in The Hague, and is riven by internal feuds. The veteran UDPS opposition is threatened by the health of Etienne Tshisekedi, who has spent much of the past year in medical treatment in Belgium and South Africa. In his absence, his party had also been divided by internal squabbles. There are no other obvious contenders for the moment, although Kabila was seriously concerned by Vital Kamerhe (former head of national assembly, forcefully removed in January 2009) and remains worried by the popularity of Moise Katumbi, governor of Katanga.

Even though elections are still almost two years away, the prospect of facing new elections has become an obsession of the presidential clique. It may be in this vein that we should see the departure of Katumba Mwanke, the powerful presidential advisor, from leading the AMP coalition. In any case, in speaking with other presidential advisors, Kabila’s strategy does not seem to be based on winning a popularity contest as on exploiting the weakness of his opponents and controlling the electoral process. In other words, he plans on winning the election by making sure no legitimate opponent emerges. In this sense, he is inspired by his neighbors to the north and south – Sassou Nguesso in Congo-Brazzaville and Edourado dos Santos in Angola, both resource-rich countries that hold elections but where the parties in power use corruption and repression to anchor their control over the country.

Kabila is worried, however, that he will not be able to live up to some of the promises he made when he was sworn in three years ago. The backbone of his plan has been the “Cinq Chantiers” (the five construction sites) – water & electricity, health & education, housing, employment and infrastructure. The government has more or less sub-contracted these projects out to the Chinese government, which has promised to provide $6 billion in infrastructure projects and loans in return for control of 10 million metric tons of copper and 600,000 tons of cobalt.Four major infrastructure projects are already nearing completion, but many of criticized the deal as being too generous towards the Chinese partners.

The other main problem is security in the East. The violence was worse this year than since the height of the war in 1999/2000, and many Kivutians are fed up with the president, even though they overwhelmingly voted for him in 2006. During a recent trip to Bukavu, formerly his electoral base, people threw stones at Kabila’s motorcade. Although the government says that they are ending the Kimia II operations and that they have finished off 75% of all FDLR combatants, I doubt that the Rwandan rebels are finished. In addition, the ex-CDNP rebellion maintains command and control over many of its soldiers and continues to operate a parallel administration in much of Masisi territory.

In light of his faltering popularity, Kabila will probably try to influence the electoral process. It’s too early to say whether he will just try to control the media and security forces, as he did during the last elections, or whether he will try to actually rig the ballot. He has already told donors that he wants them to finance the local elections, but not the national ones, perhaps an indication that he wants them to keep out of the process, which was closely supervised by donors last time.