Congolese President Joseph Kabila seems ready to exit stage left, but he's not quite ready to leave the building. Jeune Afrique, a well-respected media outlet that focuses on African affairs, reported in late March that Kabila was carefully weighing potential successors in preparation for general elections Dec. 23. But despite demands from domestic opponents and the international community to finally step down after his term ended in late 2016, Kabila does not appear intent on retreating very far. Instead, the longtime president has begun the search for a malleable character who will permit him to keep pulling the strings from behind the scenes.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo is a giant at the heart of the African continent that boasts rich deposits of metals such as gold, copper, cobalt and uranium. Contrary to rumors that the country's president, Joseph Kabila, is angling to stay in power formally, Stratfor has long argued that he wants to anoint a weak successor whom he can easily control. Now credible news reports suggest that Kabila has begun weighing potential successors.
Going in Search of Goldilocks
Since the assassination of his father and predecessor in 2001, Kabila has presided over a political system that has neutralized potential rivals and successors. Under mounting pressure to depart, however, the president has launched a search for just the perfect candidate: someone who is strong enough to prevent the collapse of the security and political system but weak enough that he or she won't threaten Kabila and his family's extensive economic interests throughout the country. Kabila need only look south for a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of handing off power to a successor; former Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos made way for Joao Lourenco in 2017, only for the new leader to target his family with corruption charges.
Perhaps having learned from dos Santos' misfortune, Kabila rejiggered his ruling People's Party for Reconstruction and Democracy. As a result of his maneuvering, the party scrapped the position of general secretary in favor of a seat for a party president. Details on the new post are still scant, but Kabila may have authorized the change to give himself a platform from which he can oversee his fractious political alliance and keep clandestine control over the military and security services. Still, Kabila will want a successor with knowledge of the Democratic Republic of the Congo's security situation. Enter Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, the country's former vice prime minister for the interior, whom Kabila recently promoted to his party's top spot. Although Shadary is not the only figure potentially in line for the presidency, he boasts experience in security and has a close relationship with Kabila, which could put him in good stead.
The Fly in the Ointment
The president, however, will face challenges in the planned elections. The death of prominent opposition figure Etienne Tshisekedi last year left Kabila's political foes without a strong leader, but one figure who could threaten his grip on power is Moise Katumbi. A popular former governor of the mineral-rich Katanga province, Katumbi recently formed a political opposition front called Ensemble ("Together") to run in the elections. And though he was once an ally of Kabila, Katumbi — who is currently in self-imposed exile — now could become the biggest thorn in the president's side because of his wealth and popularity. Whether the emerging opposition leader's name shows up on the ballot may be another story, though. Congolese law prohibits dual citizenship, yet officials recently revealed that Katumbi was a citizen simultaneously of Italy and of his home country for 17 years. Authorities often turn a blind eye to these kinds of transgressions. Even so, the revelation likely will push Kabila's allies in the electoral commission to try to sideline Katumbi on the basis of his infraction.
In choosing how to proceed with the vote, Kabila must also assuage the international community's concerns, since Kinshasa's biggest foreign policy priority is to stave off more sanctions. Foreign institutions have pushed the Congolese government in recent months to allow observers to monitor the elections and also offered to help fund the polls, but the Democratic Republic of the Congo has rejected the proposals as "foreign interference." Without external funding, the country is likely to have trouble financing the polls, though recently enacted mining taxes could provide it with enough cash to conduct the vote in a way that will benefit the incumbent.
Nevertheless, Kabila's best-laid plans may be going awry. The U.N. Security Council voted unanimously March 27 to strengthen the role of its Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) to ensure the security and credibility of the Dec. 23 election. Under the new resolution, MONUSCO's commanders and nearly 16,000 troops will be on hand to register voters, facilitate a transfer of power in January 2019, observe and report human rights abuses, and to help train train Congolese police to secure the polls. This mandatory assistance could scuttle Kabila's attempts to pass off a potentially flawed election as a legitimate affair.
Regardless of the extent of the international community's involvement in the coming vote, it is clear that the end is approaching for Kabila after almost two decades in power. His intention to quit — at least formally — is obvious, and more than a few figures are currently jockeying alongside Shadary to become the heir apparent. What's less clear is whether the longtime president will favor any of these contenders enough to entrust his successor with the reins of the country while he retreats into the shadows.