The Risks of Recentralization in the DRC

4 MINS READFeb 9, 2011 | 13:17 GMT
Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) President Joseph Kabila is slowly recentralizing government control in the vast central African country with an eye toward national elections in November. As he reasserts Kinshasa's writ, however, Kabila will run up against entrenched interests not happy to see increasing government interference. In the run-up to the election, Kabila will have to tread carefully in order to balance DRC national interests with regional and extraterritorial ones. And if he moves too aggressively, violence could ensue. Kabila understands these pressure points, however, and will likely moderate his government's behavior to avoid provoking a threatening reaction from subnational or extraterritorial rivals.
On Feb. 8, according to a STRATFOR source, some 20 members of the Congolese armed forces attacked the airport in Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), hoisting the Katanga provincial flag before melting away into the city. At least one civilian was killed and one soldier wounded. In recent years, Lubumbashi had been threatened by Katangan secessionists but never actually attacked. Less than a month before, in an ongoing maritime border dispute with neighboring Angola, DRC Prime Minister Adolphe Muzito instructed a government committee to prepare a case to bring to the United Nations. Kinshasa is arguing that the continental-shelf border should be redrawn to give the DRC jurisdiction over oil fields found in Angolan oil blocks 14 and 15. For obvious reasons, Angola has been stalling for years on reaching any kind of resolution. Both events illustrate the volatile context in which DRC President Joseph Kabila now finds himself in the run-up to national elections scheduled for November. Kabila was first elected president in 2006, though he has served as the country's president since 2001, when he was appointed by regime elites to succeed his father, Laurent-Desire Kabila, after his father was assassinated by a bodyguard. (Click here to enlarge image) Kabila has struggled to govern the vast central African country, which is made up of regions that have long preferred to act as autonomous entities rather than political territories rubber-stamping whatever the central government wants. The richest and most politically coherent province outside of the capital region is copper- and cobalt-producing Katanga, whose economy is more integrated with southern Africa, with provincial trade routes flowing to and from South Africa. While the relationship between Katanga and Kinshasa is tenuous, it is not in open conflict. The province does maintain political links with Kinshasa, and as long Katanga receives a commensurate value (which amounts to about half the country's national budget) in return for the minerals-based tax revenue it sends to Kinshasa, it will continue to maintain these political links without significant protest. But should Kinshasa try to assert more control over Katanga, provincial authorities and the ruling Katangan elite could begin to demand independence — which the province did fight for briefly in the 1960s. The Kabila government has also tried to impose its writ over the eastern part of the country, most notably in North Kivu and South Kivu. In recent years, the Kivus have been like the American Wild West, with no single actor in the control of the region, which is carved up and essentially looted by warlords, militias and politicians — both regional and national — with no real allegiance to Kinshasa. Also exploiting the chaos are foreign militias controlling parts of the minerals trade for benefit of their various patrons, namely Rwanda and Uganda. Kabila recently tried to ban the trade in minerals from the Kivus, publicly to rein in "conflict" but privately as a means to gain government control of the region. Earlier government efforts to control the Kivus by force, such as a major offensive in 2007 to defeat Rwandan-backed Tutsi rebels, proved unsuccessful. There is also the matter of the considerable amount of oil wealth at stake in the maritime territorial dispute with Angola. The two blocks are already producing a combined several hundred thousand barrels of crude oil per day (bpd), more than 10 times the DRC's daily production, and they could produce as much as 1 million bpd. Angola will resist Kabila's efforts politically at first, but if he pushes too hard, Luanda could move to bring Kabila down. If Kabila is not too aggressive on either front — regional or extraterritorial — he will see a manageable level of banditry and political violence but no meaningful disruption during his election campaign. If he throws caution to the wind and makes a grab in Katanga or on the continental shelf, he will quickly run into stiff opposition, which could at least mean the financing of a new political opposition, though more traditional methods of financing armed secessionists cannot be ruled out. Kabila is prudent, however, and even though he wants to extend his government's influence to other parts of the country and gain greater control over mineral resources, he will likely play his hand carefully. The maritime dispute will probably involve international mediators, and even if Kinshasa is awarded sovereignty over the oil blocks, there will still be ways of negotiating joint-development treaties with the Angolans that would safeguard Luanda's interests and reduce the potential for conflict with Kinshasa.

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