Congo’s New Mobutu

As the Democratic Republic of the Congo turns 50 this month, its leader is taking a page from Mobutu Sese Seko’s playbook on repression. And the West is helping him.

You might expect that the Democratic Republic of the Congo -- which suffered under what was arguably the most brutal colonial administration in sub-Saharan Africa, a dismal three decades of repression under strongman Mobutu Sese Seko, and a regional war that resulted in the deaths of some 5.4 million and counting -- would want to move on from its past. But the country's 50-year independence celebration on June 30 will do exactly the opposite: In an attempt to recreate that historic day in 1960 when Congo's first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, took over the reins of leadership from Belgium's King Baudouin, President Joseph Kabila has invited the former colonial power's current sovereign, Albert II, to be the guest of honor. Yet try as Kabila might, casting himself in the same light as Congo's iconic independence leader is proving a difficult sell these days. It's much more accurate to say that he is the new Mobutu.

The two leaders have a disheartening amount in common. Mobutu, archetype of the African strongman, was fond of pink champagne, leopard-skin hats, and pushing political opponents out of helicopters while his backers in Washington footed the bill. Mobutu siphoned vast profits from Congo's mineral wealth and presided over a willfully dysfunctional state. Kabila is less audacious -- so far -- but his government has a similar penchant for silencing political opponents. As to his backers, it's true that the good old days of Cold War money have ended, but what Congo has now is equally good: loads of donors, from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Union to bilaterals like Britain, the United States, and France, who hold their noses but don't let bad politics chase them out.

Now 50 years into Congo's woeful history as an independent country, the stakes are as high as ever to get things right -- and the consequences as dire if yet another leader chooses self-perpetuation over progress.

Why? Because today's Congo is about as dismal as a country can get. Nearly 80 percent of the country's 70 million people survive on less than $2 a day, annual government spending on health care amounts to just $7 per person (only Burundi spends less), and one out of every 10 infants never makes it to childhood. Three hundred thousand refugees are still afraid to return home despite the official end of the war seven years ago, and most of the country's 2 million internally displaced people fled their homes since 2007. And even as foreign rebels and homegrown militias continue to stalk the eastern borderlands and a new rebellion gains ground in the remote north, Kabila is calling for Congo's U.N. peacekeeping mission -- already struggling to compensate for the shortcomings of a singularly incompetent national army -- to begin pulling out. The symbolic withdrawal of 2,000 of the United Nations' 20,000 peacekeepers seems to have sated the young president's appetite for more sovereignty ahead of the June 30 celebrations. But many fear that with further downsizing Congo could backslide into generalized chaos.

Few had heard of Joseph Kabila before 1996 when he emerged from exile in Tanzania to serve as an officer in a Rwandan-supported rebellion led by his father, Laurent. When the rag-tag force swept practically unopposed across the vast country, Western governments reveled in Mobutu's downfall. But before long, Kabila the father, with his rampant cronyism and bizarre affinity for Marxist rhetoric, was eliciting gasps of horror from the likes of U.S Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. His decision to break with his Rwandan backers in 1998 helped plunge Congo into the deadliest conflict since World War II. Laurent was assassinated by his bodyguard three years later, and his son, Joseph, took the reins. It was hoped that he would be a new leader, a symbol of progress and reconciliation. And when he won Congo's first democratic election in four decades in 2006, he did so much to the relief of Western diplomats who thought him flawed, but vastly preferable to his chief opponent, the populist former warlord Jean-Pierre Bemba.

But any chance that Kabila, then 35, would usher Congo toward a new era of freedom, democracy, and respect for human rights soon fizzled. In January 2007, just weeks after his swearing in, Kabila ordered police to clamp down on a small politico-religious sect known as Bundu dia Kongo, which was protesting what it alleged -- and not without reason -- was the rigging of the gubernatorial election in western Bas-Congo province. More than 100 members of the sect were shot or stabbed to death, and the security forces would return about a year later and slaughter over 200 more.

"The fact that we said nothing and the U.N. hushed up their own report into the incident told Kabila everything he needed to know about how much he could get away with in the future," one Western diplomat, who was posted to Congo at the time, told me.

Indeed, it was only the beginning. In just three short years, Kabila's regime has amassed one of the world's worst human rights records. The government has arrested, tortured, and murdered political opponents. In March 2007, hundreds of civilians were killed when clashes erupted between Kabila's army and Bemba's personal security detail on the streets of downtown Kinshasa. In the wake of the fighting, as Bemba fled to Portugal, military intelligence officers and soldiers rounded up hundreds of politicians and activists from his political coalition, suspected supporters, and civilians from his home province of Equateur. Around 100 cases of summary executions were reported to the United Nations during the crackdown, and investigators later discovered around 40 bodies, some blindfolded or with their hands tied behind their backs, floating in the Congo River. From August 2006 to May 2008, Kabila's elite Republican Guard alone was responsible for 125 summary executions and "disappearances," according to Human Rights Watch. More than three years on, the political opposition has yet to reorganize. Backed by a docile parliament and a stacked judiciary, Kabila is left to rule with a free hand.

But "rule" would be a gross overstatement. Africa's third-largest country is horribly fractured. Roads and railways have fallen into ruin, and expensive air travel is well beyond the reach of most Congolese. The result is an ever-deepening divide between the inhabitants of its jungle north and savannah south, its Lingala-speaking west and its Swahiliphone east, destroying national identity and fanning the flames of tribalism.  

It is the country's lawless east where the byproduct of this callous neglect is felt most strongly, with conflict simmering and occasionally erupting. This is where Congo's army -- an ill-equipped and poorly trained force cobbled together under the 2003 peace deal from formerly rival government loyalists, rebels, and militia factions -- commits rampant human rights abuses, including looting, rape, and murder. In May last year, soldiers killed at least 50 Rwandan refugees in a village called Shalio, according to the United Nations. Between May and September, Human Rights Watch documented at least 270 killings, mostly of women, children, and the elderly, by government troops near the town of Lukweti. And in November, the army opened fire on villages where thousands of civilians had gather to receive measles jabs from French medical charity, Médecins Sans Frontières. These are just a few of the worst incidents that have come to light.

Against a backdrop of such lawlessness and violence, it would seem that one more death would be just a drop in the well. After all, human rights activists and journalists have been the targets of assassination since 2005, when leading human rights activist Pascal Kabungulu Kibembi was shot dead in the eastern city of Bukavu. But the recent murder of Floribert Chebeya, perhaps Congo's most respected human rights defender, has had an unprecedented impact.

On June 1, Chebeya was summoned to meet with General John Numbi, head of the national police force and a much-feared member of Kabila's secretive inner circle. For years, the activist had been a constant thorn in the side of the regime, helping to expose the killings of Bemba supporters in 2007 and campaigning for improved prison conditions. But perhaps his most blatant affront to Kabila was his call for an amnesty for 51 prisoners condemned for involvement in the murder of the president's father, Laurent.

Chebeya had been the target of threats and intimidation in the past and, in the weeks before his death, told friends he believed he was again under surveillance. He left his office at 5:00 p.m. A few hours later he sent a text message to his wife saying he was still waiting at Numbi's office. By 9:00 p.m. that evening, when he no longer answered his phone, friends and colleagues already feared the worst. He was found dead in the back seat of his car the next morning on the outskirts of Kinshasa's sprawling slums.

Details released by the police smacked of a ham-handed cover-up. The body of the 47-year-old was found in the backseat, surrounded by used condoms and sexual stimulants, as if he had somehow perished during a Viagra-fuelled tryst with a prostitute. His driver had disappeared and has yet to be found. Family members and U.N. human rights officials were given only limited access to the body, stoking further suspicion. "Floribert Chebeya was killed in circumstances which strongly suggest official responsibility," Philip Alston, the U.N.'s special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, said in a speech to the Human Rights Council in Geneva on June 3. The day before, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had offered the world body's assistance in investigating the alleged murder -- assistance that was declined. Meanwhile, individual countries also protested. The United States issued a statement expressing that it was "deeply concerned." Britain urged Congo to carry out a full investigation.

Beyond the finger-wagging, however, there's been little else in the way of applying pressure or demanding transparency from Kabila's regime. On paper, the West should have leverage; donor financing amounts to $2.6 billion, almost half of Congo's 2010 budget, and that doesn't include the nearly $830 million the United Nations is requesting of donors for emergency humanitarian assistance and projects to prop up the failing -- or non-existent -- education and health care systems. Western governments, with the United States taking the lead, also pay nearly $1.4 billion annually for Congo's  U.N. peacekeeping mission -- the world's largest.

However, the game is not that simple anymore. After winning the 2006 elections, Kabila set out to solicit foreign investment and diversify his donor portfolio, reducing his dependence on traditional Western partners in favor of Turkey, Iran, and India. Kabila's greatest coup so far was the signing of a $6 billion package with Beijing that essentially outsourced Congo's post-war reconstruction and development to Chinese companies in exchange for rights to tap lucrative copper and cobalt mines. Chinese firms are building or rehabilitating thousands of miles of roads and rail lines, hundreds of hospitals, health centers, and schools, and thousands of homes for government employees.  Meanwhile, China's policy of not meddling in the internal affairs of its global partners has, for many in Kabila's government, come as a refreshing change from the West's endless lectures on good governance and human rights.

The West's involvement in Africa is not nearly as straightforward as it was during the Cold War. Today, the West wants more than just friendship; it wants change. Institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF demand economic and political reforms in exchange for loans. And bilateral aid often requires development gains, such as health and education. In Congo, however, the development needs are so great that it's enormously difficult to contemplate pulling aid money out over governmental misbehavior. No one wants to make a decision that would deprive children of clean drinking water or rape victims of medical treatment to prove a political point. "To a certain extent Kabila is holding them hostage to their own development goals. They've already invested heavily. They have to spend this money. And they have to show that past investments were not in vain," Jason Stearns, an independent Congo analyst and writer, said in an interview. "They're also hostage to their own budgetary processes. And he calls their bluff every time."

That's exactly what he'll do on June 30, when Kabila's triumphant moment will most likely go off without a hitch. After grumblings from Brussels about the shady circumstances of Chebeya's death, Kabila duly suspended his chief of police and several other officers while investigations are carried out. Though Dutch medical examiners were eventually allowed to assist with the autopsy, preliminary findings were inconclusive, and Congo's attorney general Flory Kabange Numbi said on June 3 that a joint investigation with outside participants was out of the question. In the end, it will be a superficial inquiry and one of Congo's most dogged advocates for justice and human rights will still be dead. 

The second coming of Mobutu should be a major cause for concern for Congo's destitute population -- not to mention the prospects of establishing lasting peace in the region. But apparently, it isn't. If the IMF goes ahead with the expected cancellation of the bulk of the country's $13.1 billion debt in the coming weeks, Kabila will get an added boost as he opens his campaign for a second and, in theory final, term. "I see Kabila winning a second election, with the West overlooking violence and fraud that does not rise to levels which would be unacceptable politically, and then settling back into the same routine of attempting quiet diplomacy while he continues to consolidate power," a former Kinshasa-based diplomat told me.

"And then I expect a lot of feigned surprise when Kabila forces through changes to the constitution which enable him to stay in power beyond his second term."


The Wrath of Kan

Can this man clean up Japan's mess?

Should Finance Minister Naoto Kan become Japan's next prime minister on Friday, as most observers predict, it won't be the first time he will have shouldered the responsibility for cleaning up after Yukio Hatoyama. Kan succeeded him as party chairman back in 2002, when Hatoyama resigned over talks he had held with the rival party. Now, Kan seems to be swooping in again in the wake of Hatoyama's sudden resignation, hoping to limit the damage from the outgoing prime minister's disastrous nine months in power. Then as now, Kan boasts more experience in government than his predecessor and a style that could hardly be more different. His hot temper and self-made expertise might be just what Japan needs if it hopes to keep a prime minister for a period of longer than a few months.

Japan urgently needs a strong leader. Less than a year after Hatoyama and his Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) swept away half a century of nearly unbroken rule by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in September, their coalition today looks frayed and tired. Hatoyama got bogged down in a disagreement with the United States over where to relocate Futenma, a strategically important U.S. Marine air base on Okinawa. In late May, after months of painful public dithering, he finally signed on to a 2006 agreement hammered out by the previous LDP government -- which provoked a revolt in his governing coalition and deep shock among an unprepared public. With his party in disarray and an approval rating headed for the single digits, Hatoyama resigned Wednesday, along with the DPJ's powerful party secretary, Ichiro Ozawa.

Enter Kan. He is a figure already well known to investors and analysts as the fiscal conservative who has spent the last six months trying to relieve Japan's stifling debt burden (roughly 200 percent of GDP) and reinvigorate a stagnant economy. While he has actively called for Japan to follow the path of fiscal responsibility, and pointed ominously to Greece as a direction Japan might follow if his reforms are not implemented, his short time as finance minister has not seen considerable progress in this direction.

Kan is also known as a pacifist in line with Japan's old left tradition. While serving in the Japanese legislature, he advocated a greater role for the Japanese military under the banner of the United Nations and opposed sending the country's troops to Iraq, as the United States has hoped Japan would. After meeting with Japan's then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in 2003, he commented, "The decision to send troops to Iraq is based on a fundamental miscalculation." Still, unlike Hatoyama, Kan is unlikely to fumble matters of foreign policy and relations with the country's most important ally, having watched and learned from the Futenma debacle.

Kan's upbringing could be a key asset. Hatoyama's entry into politics was lubricated by family connections (his father was also prime minister). Kan, on the other hand, is a rarity for Japanese politicians -- a self-made man. His path to power was neither direct nor easy. An aspiring scientist in his youth, Kan majored in physics at the Tokyo Institute of Technology and opened his own patent office in 1974. He made his political debut shortly thereafter as a civic activist and entered the Japanese parliament in 1980 as a member of the lower house. It was after exposing a massive scandal, however, that Kan truly burst onto the national scene in the 1990s, as health minister in the LDP government. HIV-tainted blood was entering the country's blood supply, and the government had been covering it up. Kan exposed the details to public acclaim.

But Kan soon faced his own series of scandals. In 1998, he resigned his post after his affair with a television newscaster went public and he simultaneously admitted that he had failed to pay into the national pension fund. Just five years later, Kan was forced to resign from his leadership of the DPJ over another failure to pay. This time, Kan made formal penance: He shaved his head, put on a Buddhist monk's robes, and traveled to the traditional pilgrimage destination of Shikoku island and its 88 temples. It worked. Japan's comeback kid, he remained a senior figure inside the DPJ and served as deputy prime minister and finance minister in the Hatoyama cabinet.

Behind the scenes in Tokyo, he is known as "Ira-Kan" or "Irritable Kan" for his quick temper (cue the Wrath of Khan jokes). He has also cultivated a reputation as a serious policymaker with a popular touch and has built good relationships with politicians both within the DPJ and across a broad ideological and geographical spectrum.

How did Kan manage to survive? Even amid the scandals, he projected an image of probity and sincerity. As China's People's Daily put it, "In an era of bureaucrats and back room dealings, Kan's transparent politics were completely unprecedented and his honesty was enthusiastically praised by the public and the media." That jives well with the sentiment that brought the DPJ to power in the first place -- a vow to take power back from unelected bureaucrats and shake up Japan's stultified politics.

Hatoyama made little headway on this reform agenda. But a Prime Minister Kan would require less on-the-job training, allowing him to avoid his predecessor's rookie mistakes and take on entrenched interests within the bureaucracy, while navigating the divides within his own party.

He'll need all the political savvy and strength he can muster. With the loss of its two most prominent leaders, Hatoyama and Ozawa (the real force behind the party's successful rise to power), the DPJ is in turmoil. The party's junior lawmakers -- who were largely sidelined for the past nine months -- are hungry to wield more authority in the next administration. Kan is no acolyte of Ozawa's, but he is one of the party's founders and is still a member of the old guard. The other probable contenders for prime minister -- which include Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada, Transport Minister Seiji Maehara, and chairman of the lower house's environment committee Shinji Tarutoko -- carry the banner of an eager, younger DPJ generation that is dissatisfied with the old guard's penchant for backroom negotiations. Kan is likely to prevail in the short term, but he will be harried by the next generation of lawmakers after a July upper-house election that is looking disastrous for the DPJ, and certainly at the party's September conclave.

Ozawa's fall will also pose a more direct challenge to Kan's leadership. In resigning, Ozawa has freed the DPJ of its biggest public relations albatross -- he has been accused of accepting questionable campaign donations. But his departure is also a huge loss, as Ozawa's almost mythic power within the party served as a unifying force. Since taking control of the DPJ, Ozawa has relentlessly pursued the destruction of the LDP (his former party) and would use his clout and his political genius to cultivate and aid loyal candidates. Many saw Ozawa as the only man who could lead the DPJ out of the wilderness to power, and his success in 2009 only solidified this reputation. It would be naive to think that Ozawa's exit is complete, given that his loyal lieutenants will continue to wield significant power. Still, without his commanding presence, today's DPJ looks like an uneasy amalgam of aging former socialists, young pragmatists, and refugees from the LDP.

Then there is the job of actually running Japan. As prime minister, Kan will likely move to trim government spending -- no easy task, as he has surely learned in the finance ministry. With Japan's population aging rapidly, social outlays for health care and pensions are set to increase, and Kan might be tempted to make his cuts from Japan's defense budget. But that looks harder to justify after North Korea's sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan and the growing military assertiveness of China, which conducted a provocative naval exercise near Japan this spring.

And then there's Futenma, the U.S. base issue that unseated Hatoyama. Although the U.S.-Japan joint statement issued on May 27 defused bilateral tensions for the short term, the game is far from over in Japan. After the July election, the DPJ will have to persuade the Social Democratic Party -- which bolted from the ruling coalition after Hatoyama signed the base agreement with the Americans -- to rejoin the government. Okinawans will likely seek to foil any attempt by Tokyo to actually implement the Futenma deal, and the United States exhibits no willingness to reopen negotiations. Hatoyama's hasty exit has vividly demonstrated that the Japanese still judge their leaders in part on their ability to successfully manage the alliance.

Tough as the coming months may be, Hatoyama's and Ozawa's departures herald the end of the beginning in Japan's political transformation. In fact, these resignations are a sign that the change heralded by the DPJ's rise to power is continuing. It was the failure to live up to the DPJ's promises that caused Hatoyama to resign -- not the DPJ's reform agenda itself.

Still, don't bet on political stability in Tokyo. Of Japan's 13 prime ministers since 1991, only three have lasted more than two years. Kan might be of a different breed, but the hostile environment he faces is essentially unchanged. So unless something unexpected happens, get used to more resignations and more new prime ministers.

Kiyoshi Ota/Getty Images