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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."

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