Last Friday, President Joseph Kabila called an impromptu press conference in Kinshasa, during which he spoke for over two and a half hours. My general thoughts below, followed by a fact check of his main points.
A few things struck me watching the press conference. First, how at ease the president was––he joked, he went off on tangents, and spoke for hours, often without reading from notes. This was not the usual tone a head of state takes who is under pressure and is addressing a nation in crisis. In fact, and this is the second impression, he did not think the nation is in crisis. He went back in history to 2001 and showed how on all accounts––security, the economy, and politically––the country had improved. There is no political uncertainty, he said, and the country is much better off today than in the past.
The most unsettling aspect of his speech was the tendency to blame others, to refuse to accept responsibility. He said that the violence in the Kasais was the fault of the terrorist Kamuina Nsapu, even though we know that the FARDC was responsible for at least as much abuse as the Kamuina Nsapu. He also said that the crisis there was due to impunity for the rebellions there around independence––a bizarre analysis, given that that was almost 60 years ago, and not mentioning the manipulation of customary authority there by his own government, and in particular by his former minister of the interior Evariste Boshab.
Similarly, with regard to the East, he said that foreign armed groups were to blame for most of insecurity there. But we know that there are over 100 different Congolese armed groups active in the Kivus, that many of them have links to the FARDC or local elites, and that the FARDC itself is responsible for the bulks of human rights violations. A similar logic was applied to the banning of demonstrations in Kinshasa: he blamed this on the inability of opposition parties to hold peaceful rallies, blaming them for rioting and violence in 2015 in particular. It is difficult to square that analysis with the scenes we have seen play out in the streets of Kinshasa, Goma, Kasindi, Bukavu in recent weeks, were peaceful protesters led by the priests have been beaten, tear gassed and arrested by the police without provocation.
Finally, what he did not say: He scrupulously dodged questions about his own political future, referring journalists to the constitution. While he said that elections were too expensive for the Congo––$1,2 billion for the coming series of elections––he said that they would hold elections in 2018 (conditions permitting) and that any reforms would come after that.
- The Congo is better off today than when I took power in January 2001.
There is so much packed into this statement that it is difficult to evaluate. On the one hand, it is clear that the Congo is now a unified country, with ostensibly democratic institutions. In 2001, it was divided in half a dozen parts, with trench warfare and counterinsurgency. According to the UN, by almost any social indicator, the average Congolese is better off––life expectancy has increased by almost ten years (from 50 to 60, although this is mostly continuing a trend that has been on a similar path for the past 50 years), children are expected to stay in school longer, and childhood mortality decreased by 50% between 2007 and 2013 alone.
What this broad statement masks are variation both over time and across different segments of the population: The country’s governance and security improved dramatically between 2003 and 2007, after which it dipped. There are now 4,3 million displaced people, more than at any point during the Congo war (the high-water mark had been 3,9 million in 2002), and 120 different armed groups in the eastern Congo.
In economic terms, the end of the official war and the opening of the country to multinational investment increased the size of the economy dramatically––GDP per capita soared from $154 to $444. This did however not lead to a commensurate drop in poverty––this only dropped by 8% between 2004 and 2012, a period during which the economy per capita grew by 106%. This dramatic influx of money into a shaky political system has arguably exacerbated governance considerably.
- Today 24 of 26 provinces and 140 of 145 territories are relatively stable.
It is correct that most of the country is not experiencing violent warfare. While this does not mean that conditions are great elsewhere––there are suggestions, for example, that sexual violence is as bad in some “peaceful” parts of the country as it is war zones––it is important to point out.
However, it is not correct, as he later says, that 90% of the five Kasai provinces have been pacified, leaving only North and South Kivu troubled. As of November 2017, there were still 896,000 people displaced in the Kasais, 130,000 of whom were displaced since March 2017. In January 2018, the UN Secretary General said that:
On 30 November, MONUSCO received reports of mass killings in Kamonia territory, Kasai Province. MONUSCO investigation teams deployed to the area and verified that FARDC soldiers had shot at a crowd at the market in Kabeya Lumbu on 30 November, killing at least 13 persons, including 5 women. Eight other persons were injured by gunshots, including four women. Two of the injured later died. Across Kasai Province, Kamonia remains the main area of insecurity with a residual presence of Kamuina Nsapu militia and Bana Mura armed groups.
Similarly, 717,000 people remained displaced in Tanganyika province and 306,000 in Maniema, while the FRPI remain active in Ituri province. While conflict dynamics in all of those places (with the exception of Maniema) were trending downward, it is difficult to say that they have been pacified––numerous armed groups still operate there, kill civilians and attack the government.
- The main security challenge that remained after the reunification was foreign armed groups.
There is some truth to this––foreign armed groups are some of the largest and strongest insurgents, and act as force multipliers for many other groups. But there are 120 different armed groups in the Kivus, 95% of which are Congolese. But we know that that many of them have links to the FARDC or local elites, and that the FARDC itself is responsible for the bulks of human rights violations.
- The problem is Kasai is due to local impunity dating back to rebellions that began at independence period.
This was a strange statement––the Luba rebellion of 1960-1962 was born of a complex rivalry (instigated and shaped by colonial adninistrators) between the Lulua and Luba communities, and the repression of the rebellion was as abusive as the local feuding. The Kamuina Nsapu, on the other hand, had nothing to do with these communal tensions and much more to do with the manipulation of local customary structures by the central government, especially former interior minister Evariste Boshab, who is from Kasai province.
- I am the only one to have campaigned for the adoption of the constitution––the others rejected it and stayed in bistros and in embassies. When I see those defending that constitution today, I crack up laughing.
This is only partially true––the political party that rejected the referendum and voter registration was the UDPS, which eventually reversed its position. The other political parties had helped draft the constitution and supported it.
- Who killed the constitution in DRC in 1960? The assassination of Lumumba—that was death of democracy.
This is a dig at Belgium, with whom Kabila is at loggerheads. The larger point here is that Belgium cannot be giving the Congolese lessons on democracy after having been complicit in many attacks against democratic rights throughout history. This would be a fair point if Belgium were the only one protesting against violations of the constitution. It is not, but it is an easy target, so voilà.
- No other country has a press as free as ours.
The Congo ranks 154 out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Border’s rankings. There is, however, a more interesting point, not captured by RSF’s rankings. The Congo is not Stalinist––it does not repress a free press like North Korea, or even Rwanda. Instead of shuttering critical papers, truth is buried by obfuscation, “fake news” (sound familiar?), and a dysfunctional media market that makes it difficult to fund and train good journalists. That, however, is a broad, social and economic challenge for which the government is not solely responsible.
- The Catholic Church rejected the 2006 elections: « Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s. »
It is true that Cardinal Frédéric Etsou, the head of the Catholic Church in the Congo at the time, rejected the 2006 election results, saying that western powers were trying to impose Joseph Kabila as president. None of the observer missions, all of which thought the process was largely free and fair, agreed with him. Then––as, to a certain degree, now––the Church was divided, with many priests from the East of the country in particular backing the electoral process.
For the president to then say, as he did in the press conference, that “Jesus was never the head of an electoral commission,” is a bit strange. There was not much democracy to be had in Roman-occupied Judaea. More to the point, a Catholic priest was in fact that head of the electoral commission in the Congo between 2004-2007 and 2013-2015, Apollinaire Malu-Malu. And the broader argument that the church should not get involved in politics is contradicted by centuries of events, liberation theology, et cetera. Of course, this was more an opinion rather than a factual statement.
- The reason the electoral process has been delayed is the M23 rebellion, which consumed time and resources.
This is unlikely. The M23 did prompt a huge FARDC offensive, which probably cost a lot. It is difficult to say how much exactly––the budget of 2012 shows that the line for national defense was overspent by around $20 million, and that of the presidency (which is reportedly sometimes used for security issues) by $55 million. But that is not a reason for delaying elections––the controversial agro-industrial Bukanga Lonzo project, which began in 2014, cost $82 million (and some say has little to show for it).
The real reason is more complicated––it involves the decision to re-register the entire population, repeated national negotiations that led to uncertainty about the process, turnover in the election commission, and considerable feet-dragging.
- We completely funded the 2011 elections.
RFI already fact-checked this: MONUSCO paid for 7% of the 2011 elections through their logistical support. But it is certainly true that the Congolese government paid for much more of these elections than the 2006 ones.
- MONUSCO has never defeated an armed group.
This is mostly true, although MONUSCO has supported the FARDC in its military operations for many years now, and played an important role in the fight against the M23 in 2012/2013 and against Ituri armed groups in 2004/2005.
The statement is not, however, entirely fair. MONUSCO, however, is not responsible for fighting armed groups: the Congolese government is. How many armed groups has the Congolese government defeated? Probably several, although “defeated” is a tricky word. It has killed several armed group leaders (Bede, Morgan) but in general has been unsuccessful at dismantling them. Armed groups have proliferated dramatically in recent years, going from around 70 in 2015 to 120 in 2017.
- MONUSCO thought the Kamuina Nsapu was not a security security threat until two of their experts were murdered––after they refused to inform our security officials of their work.
This is not accurate. MONUSCO did react to the violence in the Kasais, although it was slow to build up its capacity there. And it did not attack the KN––it did not think that it would be added value there, the Kamuina Nsapu was not a grassroots uprising that made it difficult to distinguish between combatants and civilians, and the Force Intervention Brigade that usually conducts aggressive operations was tied down in the East.
However, as RFI and Reuters have reported, the more disingenuous part of this statement is the part about the UN experts. When Michael Sharp and Zaida Catalán arrived in Kananga in March 2017, they immediately got in touch with the FARDC command there. It was the FARDC commander of operations who then put them in touch with an interpreter, who in turn helped organize their fatal trip to Bunkonde. As phone call logs show, the interpreter and a cousin who helped organized the trip were in touch throughout with senior government officials.
- The constitution protects the right to protest but also allows government to refuse protests in the interest of security.
The constitution guarantees the right to demonstrate. It simply says:
The freedom of demonstration is guaranteed. All demonstrations on public roads or in open air oblige the organizers to inform the competent administrative authority in writing. No one may be forced to take part in a demonstration. The law determines the application measures.
There is no specific law on public demonstrations, although the president has now promised such a law. Delly Sesanga, an opposition MP, proposed a law two years ago that was never adopted.
The state can probably argue that it can impose limits on demonstrations in the interest of law and order, but that argument has never been made in a court of law, nor does that argument hold much water.
- Cite one member of my family who is in government––none. I believe you have to work hard to make a living, and that’s what my family is doing.
He said this at the very end, after joking that no one had asked him about his wealth and that of his family. We have written a report about this. Just because his family members are not in government does not mean that their activities are necessarily beyond reproach. We examine numerous potential conflicts of interest and business ventures in which his family may have benefitted from their access to the state. But he makes an interesting point: Under Mobutu, patronage was doled out largely through positions. Now, due to the privatization of the state and its resources, patronage is also handed out through contracts, business ventures, and resource concessions.