Democratic Republic of the Congo

President Tshisekedi has pledged to shy away from populism, division, hate or tribalism. So far, he gets credit for liberalizing the country’s political climate, at least to a certain extent. Many, however, still argue that he was a hand-picked successor who is a puppet for his unpopular predecessor, Joseph Kabila who still wields control behind the scenes.

Located in Central Africa, The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), formerly Zaire, is the third most populous country in sub-Saharan Africa, with a population over 100 million. It suffers from continued volatile, unpredictable, and potentially dangerous security conditions.  Chronic internal conflicts between government forces and numerous armed groups have contributed to serious humanitarian disasters (Human Rights Watch, 2019). As of 2020, around 19.6 million people are believed to need immediate assistance (International Rescue Committee, 2020). The country has also suffered from unprecedented Ebola outbreaks in recent years as well as the COVID-19 pandemic (International Rescue Committee, 2020).

The initial colonization of the Congo Basin by European powers dates to the late 15th century arrival of Portuguese sailors in the Kingdom of Kongo. Throughout the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, British, Dutch, Portuguese and French powers carried out slave trading along the entire west coast of Africa; the region that falls within the borders of the DRC suffered the worst under the slave trade. In 1885, major European powers agreed to recognize Belgian influence in the Congo basin. Leopold II of Belgium then announced the establishment of the Congo Free State, with Leopold being the de facto owner of the new state. Leopold’s personal rule over Congo from 1885 to 1908 produced epic crimes against humanity, which, many believe exceeded the crimes of even the worst 20th century dictators (Stockton, 2016).

In 1908, the country officially became a Belgian colony. Modern-day Congo—then the “Republic of the Congo”—gained its independence in 1960, with Joseph Kasa-Vubu, alternatively Joseph Kasavubu, becoming the first president. The five years of the Kasavubu presidency were characterized by internal conflict, known as the Congo Crisis. Mobutu Sese Seko, Chief of Staff of the Army, then seized power, marking the beginning of his authoritarian one-man rule, which would last for 30 years. In 1971, he changed the country’s name to the “Republic of Zaire.”

Sese Seko enforced a highly centralized and oppressive regime, which turned state bodies into apparatuses of the party. Anti-communism was one of the key themes of the Sese Seko regime. His economic and foreign policy was Western-oriented–toward the US in particular. Indeed, according to US President Richard Nixon, Zaire was a “good friend and a good investment” (Parker, 1997). US President Jimmy Carter shared this opinion: “Over a period of years, President Mobutu has been a friend of ours. We enjoy good relations with Zaire. We have substantial commercial interests in the country” (Parker, 1997).

Until the end of the Cold war, Western countries openly tolerated his increasingly oppressive but stable regime as a hedge against possible communist expansion. Sese Seko did not have to appeal to the help of populist politics to achieve his political goals. The more he embraced an authoritarian form of politics, the more his regime exhibited symptoms of “the establishment.” For instance, corruption became extremely widespread at all levels of the state, and the term “le mal Zairois” (Zairian Sickness) became popular in the region to define Sese Seko’s mismanagement of his country (Parker, 1997).

This is not to deny that Sese Seko sometimes made populist rhetorical choices, especially at times of crisis. His right-wing nationalist speeches were sauced with street wisdom, which emphasised his shrewd awareness and experience in urban environments. Other than rhetoric, however, his regime didn’t put forth any striking economic or social programs to promote the interests of common citizens, such as social programs to deal with an array of needs including but not limited to poverty and homelessness.

Following a civil war, known as the First Congo War (1996–1997), that deposed the Sese Seko regime, Laurent-Désiré Kabila declared himself the new president. As a revolutionary military leader, Kabila had strong populist features. As soon as he assumed office, he announced a revolutionary change program that included suspending the constitution, changing the country’s name from Zaire to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and suspending elections for at least two years. In addition to employing an authoritarian form of politics under the pretext of restoring order, he assumed a classic charismatic leader role that claimed to embody the will of the people. Many believed that he wanted to create a heroic image of a leader. Kabila was a committed Marxist and thus believed that a revolution was only possible through strong, populist leadership.

In January 2001, Kabila was assassinated by an 18-year-old soldier in his office inside his official residence at the Palais de Marbre. His son, Joseph Kabila, took office ten days after the assassination. When he assumed the presidency, the country was in the midst of another civil war, known as the Second Congo War. Kabila managed to remain in power when “The Sun City Agreement” was signed between some of the warring parties in 2003. He secured another term after winning some 58 percent of total votes as an independent candidate in the 2006 election. In 2011, he was re-elected again with 48 percent of all votes. Many credible organizations, however, raised serious concerns about the transparency of the election (Nossiter, 2011). Kabila was supposed to be up for re-election in 2016, but managed to extend his stay in power an additional two years; he did not seek re-election when the election was finally held, in 2018 (Reid, 2018).

Kabila’s controversial presidency was characterized by continuous wars in eastern Congo and internal rebel forces supported by the neighbouring governments. He was a deeply unpopular president who failed to appeal to the support of large masses. By late 2016, seventy-four percent of the Congolese electorate wanted him to relinquish power immediately (Congo Research Group, 2018). What’s more, 68 percent of respondents welcomed sanctions imposed by the European Union and the US against government officials (Congo Research Group, 2018). It is safe to argue that Kabila’s regime was perceived as the establishment as opposed to a populist government.

In the delayed 2018 election, Félix Tshisekedi, running under the ranks of The Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDSP), secured 38 percent of total votes, becoming the next president of the Congo. Despite many admitted irregularities, the 2018 election became the first peaceful transition of power in the country since independence (Al Jazeera, 2019). In his inaugural speeches, he vowed to shy away from populism, division, hate or tribalism: “We want to build a strong Congo in its cultural diversity. We will promote its development in peace and security. A Congo for each and every one, where everybody has his or her own place,” he said (Al Jazeera, 2019). In the early days of his presidency, he agreed to pardon hundreds of political prisoners and promised to “actively work to create the conditions for the early return of” those who were exiled over political reasons (Gonzales, 2019). Tshisekedi gets credit for liberalizing the country’s political climate to a certain extent, though many still argue that he was a hand-picked successor of Kabila who appears to have retained control behind the scenes (Englebert, 2020).

In terms of civil liberties, DRC is a not-free country (Freedom House, 2020). While Congolese people enjoy regular multiparty elections, the country’s week institutions are a hindrance and leave Congo wide open to rampant corruption as well as malpractice even at the highest levels of the government. In addition to the poor record of political rights, the country also scores relatively poorly in many categories such as personal freedom, same-sex relationships, and religious liberties. In the UN’s Human Development Index, DRC ranks 175 out of 189. Although the country is endowed with rich natural resources, some 73 percent of the Congolese population lived on less than $1.90 a day as of 2018. Similarly, according to the Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index, DRC is considered among the world’s most corrupt countries (Transparency international, 2020). Corruption is indeed a daily practice, from the highest levels of government to the lowest.

October 30, 2021

References

— (2018). “New Bergi/CRG Poll: Cogolese Lack Faith in Electoral Process, Critical of Government.” Congo Research Group. March 30, 2018. http://congoresearchgroup.org/new-bercicrg-poll-congolese-lack-faith-in-electoral-process-critical-of-government/ (accessed on October 21, 2021.)

— (2019). “Felix Tshisekedi sworn in as DR Congo president.” Al Jazeera. January 24, 2019.  https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/1/24/felix-tshisekedi-sworn-in-as-dr-congo-president (accessed on October 21, 2021.)

— (2019). “DR Congo: 1,900 Civilians Killed in Kivus Over 2 Years.” Human Rights Watch.  August 14, 2019. https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/08/14/dr-congo-1900-civilians-killed-kivus-over-2-years (accessed on October 21, 2021.)

— (2020). “Freedom in the World 2019 Narrative Report for Democratic Republic of Congo.” Freedom House. https://freedomhouse.org/country/democratic-republic-congo/freedom-world/2021 (accessed on October 21, 2021.)

— (2020). “Corruption Perception Index.” Transparency International.  https://www.transparency.org/en/countries/democratic-republic-of-the-congo (accessed on October 21, 2021.)

— (2020). “Legacy of violence; Democratic Republic of Congo.” International Rescue Committee. https://www.rescue.org/country/democratic-republic-congo  (accessed on October 21, 2021.)

Gonxales, Richard. (2019). “New Congolese President Pardons About 700 Political Prisoners.” NPR. March 13, 2019. https://www.npr.org/2019/03/13/703255306/new-congolese-president-pardons-about-700-political-prisoners (accessed on October 21, 2021.)

Englebert, Pierre. (2020). “Congo, one year later.” Atlantic Council. January 14, 2020. https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/africasource/congo-one-year-later/ (accessed on October 21, 2021.)

Nossiter, Adam. (2011). “Congo Leader Is Declared Winner in Disputed Vote.” The New York Times. December 9, 2011. https://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/10/world/africa/congo-president-re-elected-in-disputed-vote-raising-fears-of-new-mayhem.html (accessed on October 21, 2021.)

Parker, Aida. (1997). “Zaire: The Hoax of Independence, After Mobutu: The Deluge.” The Aida Parker Newsletter 203.http://www.cycad.com/cgi-bin/Aida/203/203_zaire.html (accessed on October 21, 2021).

Reid, Stuart A. (2018). “Congo’s Slide into Chaos How a State Fails.” Foreign Affairs. January/February 2018.

Stockton, Richard. (2016). “Why Isn’t Belgium’s King Leopold II As Reviled as Hitler or Stalin?” Ati. September 16, 2016. https://allthatsinteresting.com/king-leopold-ii-congo (accessed on October 21, 2021.

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Geographic Location: Central Africa, northeast of Angola

Area: 2,344,858 sq. km.

Regime: Semi-presidential Republic

Population: 105,044,646 (July 2021 est.)

Ethnic Groups: More than 200 African ethnic groups of which the majority are Bantu; the four largest tribes—Mongo, Luba, Kongo (all Bantu), and the Mangbetu-Azande (Hamitic—make up about 45% of the population

Languages: French (official), Lingala (a lingua franca trade language), Kingwana (a dialect of Kiswahili or Swahili), Kikongo, Tshiluba

Religions (2014 est.): Roman Catholic 29.9%, Protestant 26.7%, other Christian 36.5%, Kimbanguist 2.8%, Muslim 1.3%, other (includes syncretic sects and indigenous beliefs) 1.2%, none 1.3%, unspecified .2%

GDP (PPP): $101.302 Billion (2020)

GDP Per Capita (PPP): $556.81 (2020)

Socio-political Situation: Fragile

Main Populism Factors:

  • Tribalism
  • Nationalism
  • Anti-communism
  • Limited left-wing populism
  • Revolutionary socialism

Regime’s Character: Dictatorship

Score: 20/100

MAIN POPULIST ACTORS

People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy, PPRD

Leader: Henri Mova

Ideology: Social democracy

Populism: Limited left wing