The French philosopher Claude Lefort once wrote that the essence of democracy is the ‘emptiness’ of power. While the throne may temporarily be occupied by any man, no man shall claim it as his own. If this is true, then the Congolese have good reason to be angry.
On Thursday May 26, the Congolese people took to the streets to vent their disgust with a recent Constitutional Court Ruling which determined that in the absence of elections President Kabila will maintain his seat on the throne, even if this absence is of his own making. The Court’s ruling, while deeply disquieting, accurately reflects recent Congolese history, where the dominant political principle has become not the emptiness of power but its continuity.
DRC’s first popularly elected Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba was forced out and later killed for proposing a radical break from Belgian authority. NATO partners then ushered in a military strongman who, it was believed, had sufficient control of the army to quell growing unrest. This same international community then looked the other way as Mobutu feasted for decades on a fattening mix of mineral monies and foreign aid, only introducing ‘democracy’ in his final days as a means of protecting his neck.
The rest as they say is history: as Mobutu’s power waned DRC’s neighbours ushered in a new king, the guerrilla-for-hire Laurent Kabila. Kabila was then assassinated for having turned the tables on his former masters, only to be replaced by his son Joseph.
Once the new President was in place the international community set to work ensuring he would remain there for some time to come. In the lead up to the 2006 election Kabila received strong support from the Kinshasa based CIAT, an internationally-backed parallel executive which came to be known around Kinshasa as the sauver le pouvoir or ‘support the incumbent power’ (Trefon, 2011: 23). This, coupled with renewed donor financing to the tune of $3.9 billion led many Congolese to believe that Kabila was ‘the candidate of the white man’ (Reyntjens, 2009: 272).
On the military front, in 2003 the European Union launched a military stabilization mission in support of the President’s efforts to pacify Bunia. By 2008, MONUC, the UN mission in DRC, had set up a small stabilization office to help develop a similar counterinsurgency strategy for the entire Eastern Region. In 2010, the mission was renamed MONUSCO, the ‘S’ denoting the mission’s new mandate to help stabilize conflict zones on behalf of the state. Then, in 2013, MONUSCO’s mandate was expanded to include the ‘neutralization’ of armed groups through the creation of an all-African ‘Force Intervention Brigade’. Simply put, the UN has made its soldiers an appendage of the Congolese government.
It is no wonder then that the UN chose to look the other way when in 2011, despite a fractured opposition, the President’s supporters chose to tamper with the vote. While certainly MONUSCO would have preferred free and fair elections, the UN had simply invested too much time and money in President Kabila to stand up for democracy. MONUSCO, in other words, proved incapable of differentiating between support for the Congolese state and support for the Kabila regime.
Flash forward five years and it would seem MONUSCO remains incapable of drawing this distinction. While certainly some individual MONUSCO officials have taken steps to protect democracy, it has simultaneously gone ahead with fresh joint military operations against the ADF rebels and continuous to push for similar joint actions against FDLR. This, despite the fact that the army (FARDC) have been accused of serious human rights abuses in both cases. While MONUSCO’s hope is that by neutralizing armed groups they may help create space for democracy, the reality is that FARDC stabilization activities cannot be detached from the President’s bid to maintain power.
In the case of FDLR, for instance, Human Rights Watch has found evidence to suggest that the FARDC lured and imprisoned Rwandan refugees, ex-combatants and demobilized child soldiers under the guise of fake registration schemes. They then subsequently counted these individuals as captured combatants, allowing Foreign Minister Raymond Tshibanda to arrive at the absurd conclusion that FDLR had been reduced to 108 fighters. These actions have a clear political logic: on the one hand, the Foreign Minister’s rhetoric is meant to put pressure on the UN to leave or reduce its numbers; MONUSCO’s continued presence in DRC 10 year on being a major blight on the President’s record. On the other hand, arbitrary arrests are clearly meant to send a signal to Rwanda that the President is serious about the elimination of FDLR; a message meant to secure tacit Rwandan support for Kabila’s bid to maintain power. (As if to confirm this reading, the government has just this week recommenced negotiations with M23).
Equally, in the case of ADF, MONUSCO’s choice to partake in joint operations adds a thin veneer of legitimacy to government’s misleading claims that the attacks in Beni have been perpetrated by ‘Islamic terrorists’ from Uganda. While it is true that Congolese civil society groups have in the past called on the UN to take action taken in Beni and Lubero to stop the recent spate of massacres, most activists are now well aware that these attacks are linked to members of the government and/or military and have for this reason called for an international criminal investigation into the killings. In the absence of such an investigation, joint operations against ADF may mean that MONUSCO does little more than reshuffle economic and political power dynamics in Beni in favour of the Presidential coalition.
Even worse, by backing operations against ADF in the absence of a criminal investigation the UN has also sent a clear message to Congolese civil society activists: that MONUSCO operates through the office of the President not as an independent check on his increasingly arbitrary authority. In fact, during street protests in Goma MONUSCO frequently deploys armoured personal carriers and peacekeepers who line up alongside the police and, on occasion FARDC, forming a solid security wall which clearly communicates where MONUSCO stands. While there have been a few cases in which MONUSCO officials have shielded protestors from arrest, this is not the norm and I have personally witnessed arbitrary arrests being made in full view on-looking peacekeepers.
In short, the UN is incapable of supporting democracy in DRC because its operations have, since independence, been based on the same flawed theory of ‘stabilization’ which holds that sovereignty flows from the top down. Despite recent attempts on the part of the Stabilization Support Unit to rethink stabilization as a concept, the norm remains ‘Clear, Hold, Build’ a military strategy which views all ungoverned spaces as islands of instability. According to this view, an absence or even contestation of state power is equivalent to a power vacuum; meaning, for the UN, the only safe form of democracy is a ‘transitional’ or ‘interim’ one. This, of course, works all too well for the Congolese political class whose approach remains: ‘first we negotiate, than the people vote’.