Democratic Republic of Congo at a Crossroads

Posted on 10/6/13
By Gregory Mthembu-Salter | Via The Africa Report
Downtown Kinshasa, DRC. (Photo by Tom)
Downtown Kinshasa, DRC. (Photo by Tom)

GDP growth is soaring, inflation is low, and the resource potential is huge. Can the Democratic Republic of Congo achieve its potential or will vested interests trip it up?

On the 53rd anniversary of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) independence from Belgium on 30 June, President Joseph Kabila said the country has “all of the advantages necessary to join the ranks of the emerging markets”.

But there are competing narratives about whether the DRC can play this winning hand. One is a reformist story, told compellingly by prime minister Augustin Matata Ponyo.

According to this version, the country’s macroeconomic management is finally improving, resulting in gross domestic product (GDP) growth that puts the DRC in the African top five and a lower inflation rate than at any time since the 1960s.

The reformist narrative concedes that political governance is progressing more fitfully, but it maintains that it is advancing nonetheless.

This crowd argues that a competent and technocratic government is steadily replacing short-sighted bureaucratic rent seeking.

Another view sees a depressing slide back into dictatorship.

According to this narrative, the burgeoning business interests of President Joseph Kabila’s clans simply do not permit the president to retire since a different president might cancel the more controversial deals.

If that were true, it would mean Kabila would be obliged to change the constitution in order to run for, and win, a third presidential term.

Donors would need to decide whether to accept this and stay or denounce it and leave.

Either way, it would make the millions of dollars they have poured into elections since 2006 seem like an extraordinary waste of money.

In his interview, Matata Ponyo takes issue with this latter version of events, emphasizing instead Kabila’s credentials as a tolerant democrat and the degree to which Matata Ponyo’s reform agenda has the backing of the president.

It is true that Kabila is criticized in the Congolese media in a way that would not be allowed across the river in Brazzaville, in Luanda or in Kigali.

And it is also true that Matata Ponyo has introduced significant reforms, including bancarisation, a policy of paying civil servants and soldiers electronically and directly into their bank accounts rather than in cash.

With senior civil servants and military officers in charge of distribution, it used to be a perfect recipe for embezzlement.

Katangans want prizes

If Kabila opts for a third term, however, he would need the backing of the party bosses of the Alliance pour la Majorité Présidentielle, the coalition that formed to back his presidential bid in 2006.

The price for that backing would include money and jobs, and the choicest job available is the prime minister’s.

Kinshasa’s rumour mill is busy with suggestions that Matata Ponyo’s time as prime minister is running out, and he himself concedes that “reforms can eat reformers”.

But a real GDP growth rate of 8.3% in 2013, despite constrained growth in the mining sector, and inflation from January to May of 0.3% in a country once known for hyper-inflation, speak for themselves.

Kabila would need to consider who else could maintain these figures before removing his prime minister.

A third term would also require the group that pushed Kabila into power – most of whom hail from northern Katanga province – to remain unified.

This may no longer be the case, following the 2012 death of Augustin Katumba Mwanke, Kabila’s premier political adviser and the orchestrator of the Katangan group.

The Katanga heavyweights include: Jean-Claude Masangu, the former central bank governor, who is now looking for a new job; Albert Yuma, the chairman of the board at Gécamines, the copper and cobalt mining parastatal; and suspended police chief John Numbi, who was caught up in the scandal surrounding the death of human rights campaigner Floribert Chebeya in 2010 and is now busy denying claims that he is involved in the financing of Katangan militias.

Without Katumba Mwanke to coordinate and balance competing ambitions, Kabila may struggle to retain their loyalties.

That is before Katanga’s governor Moïse Katumbi and his barely hidden presidential yearnings are factored into the mix.

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