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Tom Lodge points out that the Democratic Republic of the Congo continues, on Kabila's egregious watch, to be picked apart by regional jackals. But can the seeds of an active civil society that Lodge detects in the Congo begin to bear positive fruit despite the odds? His opening sets the stage: "A cease-fire does not constitute a peace. The Lusaka Accord, signed by many of the adversaries in the Congo between July and August, was a significant achievement as it represented a serious effort to address the security issues of the conflict as well as the political tensions that lie at the heart of the Congo's crisis. However, as recent events suggest, much can still go wrong." (jbv)

vol 15 no 2

"Democracy may yet happen": Tom Lodge in the Congo
Tom Lodge

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 15 No 2, February 2000
Page 11



Tom Lodge is Research Director at the Electoral Institute of Southern Africa and Professor of Political Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand. He visited Kinshasa in October.

A cease-fire does not constitute a peace. The Lusaka Accord, signed by many of the adversaries in the Congo between July and August, was a significant achievement as it represented a serious effort to address the security issues of the conflict as well as the political tensions that lie at the heart of the Congo's crisis. However, as recent events suggest, much can still go wrong.

From civil war to stalemate

The Accord brought about a cessation in an eleven-month civil war that had its origins in the military operation which brought Laurent Kabila to power in 1997. Kabila is a veteran of the anti-Mobutu opposition with a political pedigree dating back to his involvement in guerilla movements during the mid1960s. Despite this, his accession in 1997 was mainly a consequence of his adoption as a figurehead by Uganda and Rwanda in their effort to bring down the Mobutu administration through an invasion that consequently also ended Zaire-backed insurgencies across their borders. Kabila's force was drawn from Rwandan soldiers.

In August 1998 an anti-Kabila revolt/mutiny was supported by Uganda and Rwanda. It began after Kabila ordered all Rwandan soldiers to leave the country on August 2, accusing them of plotting a coup. The Rwandans were becoming increasingly annoyed by Kabila's reluctance, or his inability, to act decisively against the Interahamwe militia, an anti-Tutsi Rwandan force which had been partly responsible for the Rwandan genocide in 1994. After a fairly rapid progression in which the rebels captured key centres in the eastern provinces, Kabila's ability to enlist the military aid of foreign allies caused the fighting to develop into a stalemate. This opened the way for the endorsement of the Zambian/South African-sponsored Accord by the six governments involved. The Congolese rebels signed later after an internal conflict within the main rebel group, the Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD).

Two factions of the RCD now exist, one based in Kisangeni, backed by Uganda, and led by an elderly history professor, Wamba dia Wamba, and the other ensconced in Goma and presided over by the more assertive Emile Illungu, who enjoys Rwandan support. Wamba dia Wamba is apparently concerned about the motivations informing Rwandan influence, as he believes that the RCD risks becoming reduced to an agency underpinning Rwandan/Banyamulenge security rather than a force for Congolese liberation. The Goma-based faction is bigger, though reports in October indicate an upsurge in discontent within it in reaction to high-handed behaviour by Illungu and his mishandling of financial matters. In RCD areas, Ugandan and Rwandan commanders often play a leading governing role. For example, Uganda's Brigadier James Kazini has decreed new provincial boundaries and has set up investment trusts. Local people are displeased because of the RCD administration's habit of not paying its bills, as well as its inability to sell locally-grown produce in Kinshasa. Goma-RCD soldiers are unpaid for long periods and hence depend on whatever they can extract from civilians.

Another rebel signatory to the Accord is the Mouvement pour la libération du Congo (MLC), led by a former Zairean army officer, Jean Peirre Bemba, the son of one of Kabila's cabinet ministers. The MLC operates in Equateur province and this year it captured Gbadolite, Mobutu's home town, twice. It musters about 10,000 soldiers and reports suggest it organized local elections and attempted to install some kind of civilian administration in the areas under its control. A third insurgent grouping, more ephemeral than the RCD factions or the MLC, is the Union des nationalistes républicains pour la liberation (UNAREL) formed by members of Mobutu's former presidential guard. On March 2, it captured Bolobo, a city 400 kilometres upstream from Kinshasa. It is based in Congo-Brazzaville, and it has not signed the Lusaka Accord.

The difficulties of peacekeeping

The Accord's security provisions include the establishment of a Joint Military Commission, a sixteen-person body composed of two delegates from each belligerent. This body was meant to supervise peacekeeping operations until the arrival of UN forces, yet the UN is unlikely to support a full-scale peacekeeping force. At the moment, the UN presence is limited to a mission of 18 officers though there are plans to expand this group to ninety unarmed observers who will be based at the field headquarters of the different military forces. The OAU has sponsored a comparable mission. For more extensive operations, it seems quite likely that the combatants may be required to transform themselves into a peacekeeping body. This would itself be difficult as the main task for peacekeepers would extend well beyond conventional peacekeeping operations. They would be expected to disarm the Interahamwe militia, and dispatch any genocidaires amongst them to the Arusha war crimes tribunal. Rounding up the Interahamwe represents a massive project as estimates of their numbers range from 15,000 to 45,000, and many are well armed. If they are not suppressed, the Rwandan security anxieties that fuelled this latest round of Congolese warfare will intensify.

To date, Kabila's ascendancy has largely remained dependent on his foreign allies, in particular, the Zimbabweans, who offered the largest and best equipped of the local armies available, with 10,000 soldiers present. According to an October 5, 1999 article in Business Day, Zimbabwe spent US$166 million in the first half of 1999 alone. But Zimbabwe cannot maintain its present expenditure on this force much longer. If its members are to remain, then someone else will have to pay. If they go, then a major source of security for the Kabila administration will have departed. At the moment, most of the key strategic points in Kinshasa and Katanga are guarded by Zimbabweans, but they are not popular among the local citizens, not least because of the public belief that the Congolese government pays for their presence and that in Kinshasa, they receive free board and lodging at expensive hotels. As Zimbabwe's commitment to Kabila's cause looks increasingly uncertain, the Kinshasa government has made the effort to reinvigorate the Congolese Armed Forces.

The establishment of a Joint Military Commission, the deployment of a peacekeeping force, and the disarming of militias were each intended to have been accomplished within four months of the Accord's initial signing in July. However, the United Nations was only able to dispatch a twelve-person preparatory team to rebel-held cities in early November after arriving in Kinshasa on October 20th; the Commission has barely functioned even though both South Africa and the European Union made contributions to its budget; the UN Security Council rejected Kofi Annan's recommendation that it should sponsor a force of 500 military observers. Five months after the signing of the Accord, its main military objectives seem as far away as ever.

Renewed fighting

After a fortnight of the different sides trading accusations of cease-fire violations, full-scale fighting resumed in mid-November in Equateur between the DRC army and the MLC, followed by a flare-up in hostilities between government soldiers and Angola's UNITA in the province adjacent to Kinshasa, Bas-Congo. In the eastern regions, Zimbabwean and Namibian soldiers once again went to war with the RCD rebels. Complicating matters further, Mai-Mai militias, one of the groupings excluded from the Accord have intermittently clashed with RCD and Ugandan soldiers in Kasai since mid November. There are a number of other guerilla groups and militias, Congolese and foreign, which cannot be accommodated within the Accord without upsetting one of the main signatories and that must, therefore, be forcibly disarmed. Heavy rainfall at the beginning of December, as well as the flooding of the Congo river may bring this phase of conflict to a temporary halt, though it seems unlikely that it would render the Congolese adversaries more amenable to reconciliation. The renewal in fighting was accompanied by martial broadcasting from Kinshasa in which Kabila promised his supporters victory and described his opponents as "Rwandan dogs ... adventurers." Bill-boards have been erected along the main roads around Kinshasa reminding its citizens that "Peace has a price; you have to earn it" and that "The price of dignity is the vanquishing of the oppressor." The fighting was also preceded by a major series of DRC arms procurements including six Antonov aircraft as well as Scud missiles. 70,000 new recruits are undergoing training.

Political challenge ahead

Supposing, though, that the military objectives of the Accord were achieved before the end of the rainy season encourages a resumption of warfare, many of the deeper political sources of tension would still remain. Oddly enough, the concerns of the main body of Congolese rebels, the RCD, may be relatively easy to address. The RCD is largely drawn from Congolese Tutsis, the Banyamulenge, descendants of migrants from Rwanda, whose Congolese citizenship was withdrawn in 1981. Restoring their civic status may not be welcomed in the congested areas they occupy or amongst Kinshasa political leaders, but such a measure is considered conceivable by Congolese analysts, even though the 1992 National Conference refused restoration of citizenship to this group. The two other rebel groups, the Mouvement pour la libération du Congo (MLC) and the Union des nationalistes républicains (UNAREL) are both more ephemeral than the RCD and they too could be accommodated through amnesty provisions, especially for former Mobutistes. None of these groups have the political stature to become major forces in any democratic contest; hence attempting to incorporate them within a new political framework will not require major concessions from the governing authorities. The more profound political challenges lie outside the issues which provoked the anti-Kabila rebellion.

The Accord refers to a National Dialogue that is to begin within 45 days of the signing of the Accord and to close 45 days later with agreement on a new political dispensation. Long since this deadline, the Dialogue has yet to begin, though the signatories initially agreed that the same group that played such a key role in Mozambique's transition, the Church grouping Santo Egidio, should play the role of facilitator. In addition, none of the Congo's 400 or so political parties has obtained legal registration, mainly because the conditions imposed by the Kabila administration are far too demanding. Kabila's Decree 194, issued in January 1999, makes party registration conditional on a $10,000 deposit, evidence of organization in every province, leadership locally resident for at least a year, and no foreign affiliations. Laurent Kabila has called for a "National Debate" to precede the Dialogue but opposition groups rejected this proposal, viewing it as an effort by the government to set the constitutional agenda and to restrict participation in the Dialogue.

Of the political parties there are only a few to which local commentators attribute any significance, including Etienne Tshisekedi's Union pour la démocratie et le progrès social (UDPS), supposedly the largest and best organized Congolese political party. Its main support is in Kasai province. Tshisekedi was a prime minister in 1992 during the period when Mobutu was reluctantly making concessions to the democratic opposition. He was imprisoned for a year or so by Kabila and released in July 1998, on the eve of a currency reform. His public standing now is uncertain. There is also Andre Bo-Boliko's Parti social chrétien, and the Parti Lumumbiste unifié, led by yet another 1960's old-timer, Antoine Gizenga, apparently the strongest opposition group in Kinshasa itself. None of the political parties can claim an organized following. Their leadership has little experience of open-structured forms of mobilization, and by necessity has had to function in a clandestine way. Judgements about the respective support of each party must remain speculative.

Meanwhile to fill the political vacuum, the government organized about 400 or so Comités de pouvoir populaire (CPPS). These local bodies, clustered chiefly around Kinshasa and Lumumbashi, perform a number of administrative duties, including the suppression of black market trade. Kabila's spokesmen clearly view them as serving a political representative function, and in the centre of Kinshasa their members are easy to spot with their T-shirts emblazoned with the legend: "Mzee Kabila, voici votre base." Kabila's critics view the CPPs as building blocks for a renascent one-party state. The language used by Kabila's admirers suggests that they may have a point. Raphael Ghenda, Kabila's spokesman, described the establishment of the CPPs as the work of "the creator, the thinker, the initiator, the master craftsman, and the chief architect." However, even some of Kabila's supporters are sceptical about the extent to which the CPPs embody committed public support for the president. A writer in a generally pro-government newspaper noted that while the CPPs were a good idea at their inception, the rush to join them was a prime example of "l'opportunisme du Congolaise." For each of the Committees in the communes of Kinshasa, the administration has budgeted Cf80,000 (US$20,000). This money is officially intended to be spent on public works projects, but no plans for these exist either in central government or in municipalities. Even so the funds have been handed over to the CPPs whose members spend it as they please. There are now plans to establish armed local defense militias that will act under the authority of the Committees.


In fairness to the government, the areas under its control have succeeded in establishing a measure of economic stability, and even the illegal trading operations use the reformed local currency. In Kinshasa there is plenty of food available in the open-air market, most of it supplied from the capital's traditional economic hinterland in the Congo basin, a region in which the authorities have concentrated development expenditure. How many can afford to buy it is another question, since, according to local charities, many of Kinshasa's citizens eat a proper meal only every other day. Privatization of certain services such as airlines and cellular telephones have made life a little easier for the middle class, though the official cost of petrol remains a public grievance.

For the first year or so, the administration acquired a measure of popularity in Kinshasa due primarily to its efforts to combat corruption, slow down the rate of inflation successfully, and repair infrastructure and restore services. The expenditure on the war caused a swift deterioration in the quality of administration, especially away from the main cities. In any case, effectively the country is now divided between four separate administrations. Yet, even in the areas under Kabila's authority communication can be very difficult. For example, road travel to Kasai can take several days. Inflation has also accelerated: in September 1999, for example, the price of a cup of rice in Kinshasa's market increased from Cf2.70 to Cf4.00, a tin of powdered milk cost one third more, and the cost of firewood doubled. Inflation is projected to reach 300 per cent by the end of the year, in comparison to the low level of 7.3 per cent achieved in the first six months of 1997. 100,000 formal jobs have been lost since the war according to the Confédération générale du travail du Congo, and more livelihoods are threatened as a consequence of Kabila's recent ban on "triangular trade" (petty hawking by civilians).

It is just as important not to underestimate the capability of the Congolese state as it is not to overestimate its strengths. Much of the administrative deterioration is quite recent. In 1984, the government was capable of conducting a well-managed national census, though it may also be indicative that statistical analysis of this particular achievement was continuing as late as 1993. At a more mundane level routine civic order is still maintained by the yellow jacketed traffic policemen who stand on podiums at every intersection in the major cities.


Kabila's government does indeed have an authoritarian predisposition. While tiny newspapers do print plenty of critical commentary there are almost weekly arrests of journalists. On November 7, 1999, Polycarpe Okwoy, the editor of Solidarite, was detained by armed men who arrived at his office after his newspaper printed a story that the finance minister had been imprisoned. However, official bullying may be more the result of entrenched reflexes amongst officials (including the 27 separate police forces inherited from Mobutu) than any systematic intention to impose dictatorship. Fifty years ago this was one of the most authoritarian colonial territories in Africa; even today at sunrise and sunset people still stand to attention as the flag is raised and lowered, just as they did then, though perhaps with different emotions. Laurent Kabila's government is publicly committed to the principles of dialogue inherent in the Accord with their implicit Messages of tolerance and power-sharing. Yet, such commitments are in uneasy juxtaposition with the charismatic cult which has developed around Kabila's persona. Large, expensively printed posters bearing his portrait adorn the main streets. Even uniformed civil servants wear his face on lapel badges.

But democracy may yet happen. It is important to remember that just before Kabila's accession the politicians had reached consensus on a draft constitution. And though the political opposition lacks structure (without a trade union base it was very easy for Kabila to suppress dissenters) the Congo still retains an extraordinarily impressive human rights movement. It draws much of its vitality from the churches, the one force of civil society that Mobutu was unable to destroy, and which often paralleled the state's functions in its provision of welfare services. A Ligue des électeurs was created in April 1990. From its humble back-yard offices in Kinshasa, the League has managed to reach 17 million people through voter education programs administered by 18,000 voluntary formateurs. It draws together a national network of 584 local community organizations. These include a Catholic student movement with branches in all tertiary institutions, an illustration of the importance of the religious base in this associational life. Comparable organizations in the field of electoral training and monitoring include La Ligue nationale pour les élections libres et transparentes, the Organisation des femmes chrétiennes pour la democratie et le developpment, and the Ligue Congolese des électeurs. An alliance of these and other organizations led to a demonstration of 80,000 through central Kinshasa on August 2, the anniversary of the rebellion, to mark the opening of a "Campaign for durable peace in the DRC." In the harsh material conditions which confront any effort to organize associational life in this fragmented country this kind of activity is extremely impressive. Whether the political leadership has the will to make democracy happen remains debatable, but if they choose to, they will find within the citizenry plenty of democrats to help them.

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