A Democratic Call to the Congo

04/27/2015 04:30 pm ET | Updated Jun 24, 2015

Not long after Nigerians, for the first time in their country's history, voted out the incumbent head of state last month--and after President Goodluck Jonathan promptly called to graciously concede to his challenger, retired Major Gen. Muhammadu Buhari--President Barack Obama made a call of his own to Joseph Kabila, president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Obama, citing the historic triumph of democracy in Nigeria, encouraged the Congolese ruler to make free and fair elections and a peaceful transition next year his legacy.

The DRC has a population of more than 77 million people spread across the 11th largest national territory in the world. It is endowed with immense mineral reserves, currently valued by some estimates at more than $24 trillion. Fair and free elections in such a vast country would not only honor the aspirations of its people but also put wind in the sails of democracy across Africa. This is an objective worthy of the United States' own principles as well as it practical interest in encouraging political stability on the continent.

Regrettably, Kabila continues to show no inclination to embrace the legacy of a statesman that his American counterpart urged him to embrace. If anything, faced with the prospect of surrendering power he has held since 2001, he seems intent on subverting the Congolese constitution and dealing ever more ruthlessly with both the political opposition and civil society. Earlier this year, he proposed changes in the country's electoral law which opposition political parties and civil society groups denounced as a ploy to extend the president's rule. The changes were dropped following mass protests in which at least forty people were killed by security forces. In mid-March, the regime clumsily arrested a U.S. diplomat in a sweep of participants at a press conference organized for visiting African pro-democracy activists. The U.S. official was released after a few hours but some three dozen others, including members of Filimbi ("Whistle"), a civil society group that encourages youth engagement in politics, were illegally detained and tortured according to Human Rights Watch. Three activists remain in the custody of the dreaded Congolese National Intelligence Agency.

Earlier this month, police in the eastern part of the country arrested five members of another pro-democracy youth group, Lucha, for the "crime" of protesting the ongoing detention of their colleagues who were caught in the earlier round up in the capital of Kinshasa. Their crime, according to Reuters, was encouraging residents of Goma, near the Rwandan border, "to participate in five minutes of protest by whistling, honking horns and banging on pots and pans at 5 p.m." Human Rights Watch subsequently reported that the authorities have even gone so far arrest and interrogate employees of a bank who had simply opened and administered a modest account for the activists.

In recent weeks, the discovery of hundreds of bodies in a mass grave near Kinshasa has drawn even more international scrutiny. After local residents in the district of Maluku complained of a strong stench, government authorities admitted that they buried 421 corpses in a mass grave on the night of March 19, but claimed that the remains were those of fetuses, stillborn babies, and homeless people from the city morgue. But the secretive, middle-of-the-night burial and the fact that it occurred just days after the arrests of protesters has roused the suspicion of human rights organizations and on April 15, the U.N. mission in the DRC called on the government to exhume the bodies and account for what happened in this grisly episode.

In light of these revelations, it is no wonder that Kabila is unnerved by the clatter of pots and pans. His nearly decade-and-a-half tenure has never been an easy one. At the ripe old age of 29, he inherited the presidency from his assassinated father, a warlord who seized power in the chaos following the collapse of the Mobuto Sese Seko dictatorship. His "reelection" in 2011 was universally panned: the official results were criticized by international monitors from the European Union and the Carter Center for irregularities and denounced as "treachery, lies, and terror" by the DRC's Roman Catholic bishops, who demanded unsuccessfully that they be annulled. In the end, it was telling that the only African leader who wasn't too embarrassed to show his face at the inauguration ceremony was Zimbabwe's aging despot, Robert Mugabe.

But should Kabila step aside next year as the DRC's constitution unambiguously requires him to do--the charter not only bans a third consecutive term, but specifically forbids any amendment to remove presidential term limits--he would likely face an uneasy retirement with the prospect of criminal prosecution for the rather poor human rights record of his regime (one of his former vice presidents, Jean-Pierre Bemba, is currently on trial in The Hague before the International Criminal Court), to say nothing of its economic mismanagement of what is one of the richest countries in the world in terms of natural resources.

Even though the DRC's elections are not scheduled until late 2016, now is the time for Washington to begin doing more to advance democratic governance on a continent that the administration itself has described as "more important than ever to the security and prosperity of the international community, and to the United States in particular." Unfortunately, aside from the occasional instances such as Obama's call to Kabila or last month's House Africa subcommittee hearing on U.S. support for elections in Africa, there has been an overall decline in support for democracy across the whole of government. Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace estimates that U.S. Agency for International Development funding for democracy assistance in Africa has declined 43 percent since 2009.

In Africa, as elsewhere, the internal political dynamics of each country are unique, but the recent milestone achieved by Nigeria in its democratic transition has given hope that, at long last, progress in governance will match the continent's much-vaunted economic rise. So far, however, Joseph Kabila's recent actions in the DRC threaten to render Nigeria's success an aberration, rather than a harbinger, proving sadly once again that the despot's stability trumps the democrat's uncertainty in Africa. Rather than watch passively as this very real possibility plays out in the coming months, the United States should match the spirit of President Obama's phone call with the words, deeds, and resources that affirm the constitutionally-mandated transition in the DRC and the promise that democratic processes hold out for not just the Congolese, but also for hundreds of millions of other Africans.

J. Peter Pham is Director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council.