18 August 2017

Africa: 'Never Betray Congo' - a Warning to the SADC Summit


South Africa and Angola's leaders may be preoccupied with domestic events, but they ignore Congo at the region's peril.

This weekend, as the Southern African Development (SADC) heads of state meet in Pretoria to discuss developments in the region, they will do so under new stewardship from Angola and South Africa. Angola will assume leadership of the Organ on Politics Defence and Security Cooperation (OPDSC). South Africa assumes overall chairmanship.

More than any of the other 13 SADC members, these two countries have an instrumental role to play in influencing a positive outcome for the people of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). President José Eduardo dos Santos and President Jacob Zuma Africa both enjoy good relationships with President Joseph Kabila, which they have leveraged to engage the Congo on related issues through the International Conference on the Great Lakes (ICGLR).

However, both Angola and South Africa are currently facing seismic domestic shifts that are likely to distract them from unfolding events in the DRC. On 23 August - just days after the Summit - Angolans will go to the polls, following which President dos Santos is expected to step down after 38 years in office. Power is likely to transfer to long-time dos Santos supporter and ruling MPLA stalwart João Lourenço. But uncertainty remains around how the new president is likely to deal with the dynastic power of the first family, who occupy strategic positions of wealth and authority over the country's resources.

In South Africa, President Zuma's position has never been more precarious. On 8 August, he survived his eighth vote of no confidence - performed for the first time by secret ballot - with the narrowest margin yet. The final tally shows significant party dissent as approximately 15% of ruling African National Congress (ANC) MPs voted for the motion.

The ANC is fractured, and factional infighting is likely to ramp up ahead of the party's elective conference in December that will decide Zuma's successor. Many analysts doubt he will remain South Africa's president for much longer after that.

Tragedy imminent

In spite of these pressing developments, it is imperative that regional leaders not lose sight of the fact that tragedy is once again imminent in the DRC.

Amidst opposition calls for President Kabila to hold elections - meant to have been staged in 2016 - Congolese citizens continue to pay with their lives. In September 2016, 50 people in Kinshasa died in clashes with police protesting the announcement that government would not hold elections that year. Now, in August 2017, reports are circulating about the deaths of 14 people -branded as secessionist rebels from the group Bundu dia Kongo - at the hands of state security forces in the capital.

More frighteningly, a mounting humanitarian crisis has been developing in the Kasai region bordering Angola. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights released a report in early-August, which found that more than 250 people, including 62 children, were killed in the DRC between mid-March and mid-June, mainly in Kasai.

In a ministerial mission to DRC in April 2017, the SADC Troika - the three-member leadership - of the OPDSC did little more than release a statement, which "condemned the escalation of violence and insecurity in the Kasai Provinces... and encouraged the Government to strengthen the capacity and presence of local state institutions".

In the same release, SADC ministers congratulated President Kabila for his efforts in pushing the political process forward. Yet by July, the head of DRC's electoral body was announcing that the government would not be holding elections as promised by December 2017.

For all its rhetoric of furthering regional integration, encouraging multilateralism and building strong institutions, SADC is still largely driven by the will of individual political leaders. If South Africa and Angola give in to their pressing domestic circumstances, it minimises the opportunities for proactive engagement in preventing a political crisis in the region come December. The regional organisation must take a greater interest in the unfolding events in the DRC and in overcoming the impasse regarding the handover of power from Kabila. A peaceful outcome is necessary not just for the DRC but the entire region.

As SADC leaders meet to discuss developments in the Congo this weekend, let them be reminded of the words presiding over former President Laurent Kabila's Mausoleum in Kinshasa: "Ne Jamais Trahir le Congo". Never Betray Congo. The world, and the Congo, is watching.

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