KINSHASA, Congo — Congo may be approaching its first peaceful, democratic transfer of power in nearly 60 years, but Joseph Kabila, who has been president for the last 17, refused to rule out a return to power once he becomes eligible again after sitting out a term.
Elections are scheduled for Dec. 23, when this central African country of 80 million will elect its fifth leader since independence in 1960. The vote was delayed for more than two years, allowing Kabila to stay on well past a constitutionally mandated term limit. In August, Kabila announced he would step down and handpicked a candidate to succeed him.
“In life, as a rule, one should never rule anything out,” Kabila, 47, said in an interview Sunday. He inherited the presidency at age 29 from his father, Laurent-Désiré, who was assassinated in 2001.
Congolese opposition figures have raised fears that the elections will be rigged in favor of Kabila’s chosen successor, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, allowing the longtime president to continue his control over the country’s political apparatus, which includes lucrative state-owned mining companies. Congo is the world’s leading producer of cobalt, an essential component in many electronic devices.
If seen as credible, this month’s elections would mark a key rite of passage in Congo’s young democracy. Kabila said Congo is ready for free elections, and that even though an opposition win would be “a big change and a big challenge for the country,” he would abide by any result. The opposition attempted to unite behind a single candidate, but a proposed coalition fell apart less than 24 hours after it was agreed upon.
“The opposition has to get its house in order for it to be relevant in Congolese politics,” Kabila said.
Shadary was a relative unknown in Congolese politics before Kabila propelled him to the candidacy. He was previously Congo’s interior minister, and he remains on a European Union sanctions list after being accused of orchestrating deadly repression of protests against previous election delays. The E.U.’s election observers will not be in Congo for this month’s vote.
Some diplomats and international observers still express skepticism that the election will take place on time. Congo’s lack of infrastructure and massive size make the distribution and eventual counting of ballots difficult — and this year it will all begin just before Christmas in this devout and predominantly Catholic country.
Even Corneille Nangaa, the president of Congo’s election commission, wouldn’t rule out that disruptions before election day could lead to further postponement. Nangaa said that while almost all the necessary election machinery is in place, including 105,000 electronic voting machines, there were some elements of the election, such as security, that were out of his control.
“I’m a little bit afraid. Imagine if voters are on the line and terrorists go with a machine gun and shoot everybody,” he told reporters on Saturday.
Insecurity and conflict are widespread across Congo and played a role in previous election delays. More than 100 armed groups operate in the country, and attacks against Congo’s military and civilians happen with regularity in areas of Kasai, North Kivu and Ituri provinces. In the interview, Kabila named the Allied Democratic Forces, an extremist group with alleged ties to the Islamic State, as the country’s gravest security threat. He called on the United States to further its cooperation with Congo on counterterrorism operations.
The insecurity persists despite Kabila’s crowning achievement: unifying Congo after a brutal, grinding war, triggered by spillover from the Rwandan genocide, which splintered the country between 1996 and 2003. A young Kabila abandoned his father’s grand, militaristic tendencies and initiated a peace plan that also saw him turn toward the West — rather than regional powers — for financial assistance.
“Kabila was the great liberalizer and friend of the Western lending institutions, and the first to hold legitimate elections in the Congo,” said Jason Stearns, director of New York University’s Congo Research Group. “But he ruled by fragmenting the country. ‘I don’t have to be strong, just stronger than everyone else’ was his method of staying in power, and the byproduct is constant conflict in regions of the country where challenges to his rule might originate.”
In Kasai, fighting between the military and ethnic militias has driven hundreds of thousands from their homes. In March 2017, two U.N. investigators, an American and a Swede, were killed while looking into massacres committed by both sides. And in eastern Congo, a constellation of armed groups ranging from the ADF to small, village-level militias known as Mai-Mai control pockets of land.
Last year, U.N. humanitarian agencies reported that 4.4 million Congolese were internally displaced, though this year the official total dropped to 1.37 million. Aid groups have accused the United Nations of bowing to government pressure to reduce the numbers, saying it is impossible that nearly 3 million people returned to their homes when the security situation has remained volatile. The United Nations denies manipulating the data, and Kabila pushed back against what he saw as humanitarian opportunism.
“We do have those challenges, but don’t multiply them by a hundred in order to get the necessary donor money that the Congolese people don’t even see,” he said. “We don’t want the Congo to be used in order to raise funds.”
The lack of peace and economic opportunity for most Congolese has led to a precipitous decline in Kabila’s approval rating. In a poll released by the Congo Research Group in October, Kabila was at a dismal 18 percent.
“It’s still totally possible that Kabila will come back and be president again. He’s young, remember,” said Francesca Bomboko, a Congolese political analyst with the Office of Studies for Research and International Consulting in Kinshasa. “It is even more likely if the opposition wins and performs poorly. People will become nostalgic for him.”
Kabila seems to think of himself as a survivor, too. In the interview Sunday, he named “Apocalypto,” the 2006 Mel Gibson film based in the ancient Maya civilization, as his favorite, saying he identified with the main character, who escapes from captors who tried to sacrifice him.
“And in the end, he lives, no?” said Kabila, flashing a smile.