KINSHASA, Congo — Secretary of State John F. Kerry on Sunday congratulated this desperately poor but resource-rich nation on its commitment to enacting economic reforms and defeating a brutal rebel militia.
But Congo also offers a cautionary tale about African politics, and about how hard it may be to leave the days of the African strongman behind.
Kerry said the administration would increase aid tied to elections in Congo from $12 million to $30 million, but he insisted that the nation stick to pledges to hold on-time elections and continue to prosecute armed groups. Some of the additional money also will go to help demobilize former rebels.
The funds could be cut, however, if President Joseph Kabila fails to schedule elections for 2016 or moves to change the country’s constitutional limit of two consecutive elected presidential terms, as his political opponents fear he will do.
“I believe the president’s legacy is a legacy that is very important for the country, and that he has an opportunity, which he understands, to be able to put the country on a continued path of democracy,” Kerry said after a meeting with Kabila.
He added, however, that “the constitutional process needs to be respected and adhered to.”
Kabila took power when his father, Laurent, was assassinated in 2001. The elder Kabila had assumed power as a hero in 1997 when he overthrew strongman Mobuto Sese Seko. He quickly became an isolated and detested dictator.
Joseph Kabila was more popular, and won a full presidential term in 2006 elections widely judged to be legitimate, but he is accused of rigging his 2011 reelection. He would step aside two years from now unless the constitution is changed or elections canceled.
The Obama administration’s policy on Africa has officially rested on attacking government corruption and cronyism and defending human rights. That has not stopped the administration from expanding security and counterterrorism partnerships with long-serving African leaders with poor democratic records, however.
Kabila, who did not address reporters following his meeting with Kerry, has become something of a darling of the Obama administration for his success in routing the vicious rebel militia M23 last year and signing up to a roster of security and economic reforms.
“Their military performed admirably in this past year, a military that frankly in the past has not always received the highest reviews,” said Russ Feingold, the administration’s special envoy to the war-scarred African Great Lakes region.
Kabila, however, has shown less commitment to go after another rebel group, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), which has hideouts in eastern Congo. The group includes men who carried out the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, Feingold said.
Part of Kerry’s goal in a two-day visit was to urge Kabila to finish the job.
“This is a moment where the D.R.C., despite its many challenges, particularly in the eastern part of the country, can build on its successes,” Feingold said, using the acronym for the country’s full name, the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Much of the upheaval and lawlessness in the country’s eastern regions are a legacy of the Rwandan genocide and wars that followed. Securing the area is seen as a key to unlocking staggering mineral wealth.
But Kabila’s plans to launch a major military push against the FDLR are paused, for reasons not entirely clear.
“President Kabila needs to give the green light to say it is time to take them on militarily,” Feingold said, adding that the United States and other countries would provide economic and other support.
U.S. funds are available immediately to help with Kabila’s estimated $100 million plan to disarm and reintegrate former fighters, U.S. officials said. Some 12,000 rebels are believed to be members of several militias in the country’s east.
The European Union has also indicated it may help fund the demobilization but has sought additional assurances from Kabila’s government after two similar efforts to disband militias failed.
Kerry also urged neighboring Uganda and Rwanda to keep commitments to demobilize militants and grant amnesty where appropriate.
Uganda is one of those nations with which the U.S. government has expanded security ties since Obama took office. Its leader, President Yoweri Museveni, took power in 1986. President Paul Kagame of Rwanda took power in 2000. The United States finds significant fault with political freedom and elections in both countries.
Washington is encouraging Kabila, 42, to take a different path.
“He’s a young man with an enormous amount of time to be able to continue to contribute to his country, and I’m quite confident that he will weigh all of those issues as he makes a decision about the future,” Kerry said Sunday.
“We’re a country with term limits. We live by them,” he added. “We had several hundred years of transformation under that process, and we encourage other countries to adhere to their constitution.”