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Never in its history has the Democratic Republic of the Congo experienced a peaceful transfer of power. Patrice Lumumba, the country’s first prime minister after independence from Belgium in 1960, was ousted in a coup and assassinated. The military dictator responsible, Mobutu Sese Seko, ruled for more than three decades before being overthrown in 1997. The rebel leader who accomplished that, Laurent-Désiré Kabila, was assassinated in 2001, in the midst of a five-year war that ranks as the world’s deadliest since World War II. Kabila’s son Joseph succeeded him: at 29 years old, he was then the youngest head of state in the world.
Kabila fils has presided over the end of Congo’s war and the fivefold growth of its economy. But other problems still beset the country’s 80 million people: armed violence, human rights abuses, corruption, poverty. Kabila won an election in 2006 that was generally seen as fair and one in 2011 that was not. Congo’s constitution required that the next election be held in 2016, but Kabila delayed it, inviting speculation that he would seek an illegal third term. Congolese took to the streets in protest, and Kabila’s security forces cracked down hard, killing scores. The United States and the European Union responded by banning visas and freezing assets of some of the officials deemed responsible.
This past August, Kabila made the surprise announcement that he was stepping down and also endorsed a successor, who is running in presidential elections scheduled for December 23. On December 10, Kabila, now 47, spoke with Foreign Affairs’ managing editor Stuart Reid at the president’s ranch outside Kinshasa.
What are your biggest accomplishments in office?
The fact that you are here talking to me in a country that is reunified. Otherwise, we were going to go through the same situation as Sudan, with Juba and Khartoum. The fact that two weeks from now we are organizing elections for the third time. The fact that 20 years ago the country had an inflation rate of beyond 10,000 percent and today it’s a one-digit rate.
Do you feel that outsiders tend to forget those achievements?
Not only outsiders but even people within the country. That’s human nature: forgetting what happened three days ago. People have forgotten how bad the situation was. For me, that’s a reason to start worrying, because if you forget the very recent past, it could be very easy to slip back and go to square one.
It’s not the same situation as before. As we speak, we don’t have a civil war in the Congo; we have armed groups vying for the control of a road or a mine, or protecting what they call their tribe. Fifteen years ago, we had close to 100 of those armed groups; today we have fewer than ten. Our main challenge in the east now is the ADF [Allied Democratic Forces], which is a terrorist organization. It’s composed of Ugandans who came into the Congo. They are terrorists recruiting from as far as Ethiopia, farther down toward Mozambique and South Africa. In other areas, we have hotspots that the military is dealing with. But when you have elections and at the same time you have to deal with these armed groups, it becomes much more complicated.
What’s your relationship like with the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo, MONUSCO?
It’s a love-hate relationship. We are in the same boat: if MONUSCO succeeds, then the Congo will have succeeded, and if the Congo succeeds, then MONUSCO and the United Nations will have succeeded. Where there is a difference is in our understanding of success versus MONUSCO’s. Our understanding of success is to make sure that we do away with all the armed groups and that the population, be it in the east or anywhere else, lives in total harmony. But for MONUSCO, success is elections and human rights. That is not and should not be its mission. I’m always reminding the United Nations: the Congo is not Lebanon or Cyprus, where you’ll be deployed for the next 30 years. There was a mission; that mission is coming to an end. And when that happens, MONUSCO will have to pull out.
What have you not been able to accomplish?
Ask the next four presidents of this country the same question and they will tell you that there are one or two tasks left. We’ve achieved quite a lot, yet a lot remains to be done. Peace and stability, especially in the east, is one of those tasks. Economic development—to attract the necessary investments and build a middle class—is another. Infrastructure is a work in progress. We’ll never have sufficient infrastructure, even in the next ten or 15 years. On education, health, agriculture, and the diversification of our economy, we have to pick up speed. And, of course, we have to reinforce our institutions and administration.
Have you made any mistakes in office?
Yes, definitely. A number of mistakes.
What were they?
Oh, I won’t share them with you.
Not even one?
This one I can tell you: in 2011, we were very adamant that elections had to take place, but had we listened to advice from one or two or three people we probably would have pushed those elections for another six months in order for them to have been perfect. But we’re bringing the lessons we learned to these elections of 2018. So yes, we’ve made a number of mistakes because of bad judgment, but we’ve managed to correct most of them.
I am not going to say that I regret any of that. What I might regret are incidents, especially where we had the loss of human lives, where the justice system did not kick in. That is definitely a regret. I very much agree with those critics—and there are many—who believe that much more could have been done. But we had, and still have, so much on our plate. With time, things will get better.
What about corruption? When I landed at the airport here, the man next to me handed over his passport and gave the agent a ten-dollar bill he demanded. Then there is higher-level corruption, often involving mining. Many allegations concern your own family. Does corruption not bother you?
It has been one of our priorities. That’s why we have not only a law insofar as public administration and corruption is concerned but also a very vocal special adviser in the president’s office who deals with this issue. Yes, corruption bothers us, just as much as corruption bothers the administration in the United States and just as much as it bothers the administration in China, where getting caught for corruption is a death sentence. Our weakness has probably been that we did away with the death sentence. We used to sentence people to death for corruption, especially in the military.
About the family: I’m very curious about what is being said, because I haven’t had anything tangible, anything real, presented to me. Look into these hundred business ventures that are being talked about, and you will probably find none. It’s very amusing to hear people talking about this.
Have you ever had to tell members of your family to stop engaging in this or that business activity?
Definitely. But at the same time, I believe Congolese have to invest in their own country, be they members of the family or not. The law does not bar them from doing that. In any case, if they didn’t do that, what else could they do? They don’t work in any government post at all. You won’t find one of them working in a government ministry. You won’t find one of them in diplomacy or anywhere else.
Your siblings are politicians, though.
Depends on what a “politician” means. Two have been elected members of parliament; in fact, they’re vying again to retain their seats. I hope they will. But that’s different from all the other members of the family that people are talking about.
Tell me about growing up in exile in Tanzania and Uganda. Your family was poor and hiding from Mobutu’s hit men.
Trying times, especially for a man like me. Remember that most of the countries in the Southern Hemisphere had to win their independence through armed struggle—countries like Mozambique, Namibia, Angola, Zimbabwe. Most of these countries had their bases in Tanzania. I recently met the president of Mozambique, Filipe Nyusi, and I was very surprised to learn that he was a neighbor of ours in Tanzania. And the PRP [the People’s Revolutionary Party, the rebel group led by Laurent-Désiré Kabila] was one of the movements that was offered help during this very difficult period.
Did Mobutu get anything right?
I’ve always made it a point not to talk about my predecessors, because I don’t want anyone after me to talk about me. But there is one fundamental fact that is undeniable: Mobutu Sese Seko loved his country. But he did not get the priorities in the correct order. His priority was fighting the Cold War, and then when that came to an abrupt end everything crumbled.
You were a commander in your father’s army during the rebellion and invasion in 1996 and 1997. What was that like?
Since 1960, the intention had always been to do away with the regime that assassinated Patrice Lumumba, and the occasion cropped up in 1996. The march started from the east to the west, with the support of a number of countries. What was the experience like? Difficult. One of discovery. And one that built the character of quite a lot of people, especially young people.
How did you react when you heard the news about your father’s assassination?
I was on my way back from visiting one of our military units when I got a phone call. But I wasn’t told that the president was killed; I was told that he had been injured. So there was hope—until I reached the hospital.
When your father’s advisers told you that they wanted you to succeed him as president, why were you so reluctant to take power?
Reluctant? I don’t think that’s the word. I considered it a mission, and there was no time to argue. The situation was that dire.
I’ve heard you have a fear of assassination, given that both your father and your grandfather were assassinated. Is that true?
No. It’s not that I’m afraid of assassination. The truth is that I always talk about death in order to make it—what word should I use?—nonsense. Why should we be afraid of death? It’s a journey we all have to take one day.
That’s very fatalistic.
I agree. But one should always hope that death will come as late as possible.
The United States and the European Union have issued sanctions against various members of your government. What effect have these had?
The effect has been to create animosity and misunderstanding between the Congo and these countries. We don’t seem to be speaking the same language. These sanctions are unjust, illegal, and politically motivated. The idea was that these individuals are the ones who are impeding the electoral process, so slap sanctions on them. But those individuals were not impeding the electoral process. In fact, they were playing a very big role in facilitating it. When you make decisions sitting in Washington or in Brussels without seeing the reality of what’s happening on the ground, there’s a very big chance that you make the wrong decision.
What do the United States and the EU not understand about Congo?
What do they understand? If the scholars and political elite in America and Europe are using Heart of Darknessas a basis of their reflection, then they’re getting the picture completely wrong. Europe and America should see the Congo as a viable partner, an important country that will definitely play a role in the future, not only in the immediate region but also across the continent. If they look at the Congo in that light, then dialogue will become much easier. But if they look at the Congo as a country run by people whom they can push around, the Congolese people won’t accept that.
What effect did the United States’ Cold War meddling in Congo have on the country?
Three years ago, I met an American envoy—I’m not going to give you the name. After our meeting with everybody else, he asked if he could see me tête-à-tête. He turns to me and says, “Mr. President, I am aware of the role that my country has played in the turmoil of the 1960s, and that turmoil has gone a long way toward what is playing out now in the Congo. But I’ve come in good faith and want to change all that.” So you have the answer to the question, from an American envoy.
Has that history shaped your perception of the United States?
The United States is a great nation that has given so much to the world. It has also received so much from the world: through the slave trade, Africa gave its sons and daughters to America. Africa can benefit from the technology of this great country and benefit from the values that come from America—and all the other countries of the world.
When do you think relations between the United States and your government began to break down?
We’ve always had very good relations with the United States, especially from 2001 to 2012. What went wrong? My reading of the situation is that at a given point in time, NGOs captured the American system. Now, you have lobbyists giving the completely wrong message. We don’t seem to understand what exactly it was that the administration wanted back then. And that has carried on up to today.
How are relations with the Trump administration?
We have a new ambassador in town, after a lapse of two years without an American ambassador here. It’s a good step in itself.
How about relations with countries in the region?
We are on very good terms with our neighbors, because we have made them realize that there is much more to gain in a peaceful Congo. There is business to be done. Without war, the region will prosper; with war, the region will go down the drain.
Are there parts of the Congolese state that you cannot control?
No, nothing is beyond our control as far as the Congolese state is concerned. There is not a square centimeter of Congolese territory we cannot reach. But we have an administration that is still in its infancy. It has to grow, so that we can do away not only with corruption but also with the illegal cross-border movement of goods, especially minerals.
To give an example of someone you weren’t able to control, your minister of development was encouraging militias in the Kasai region to burn down villages.
What’s the name?
Was he a minister of development?
Yes. He was eventually fired.
That’s why governments fall, as in Belgium and elsewhere. The composition of the current government is the opposition, civil society, and of course the majority. Kanku was, I believe, one of those who came from the opposition, integrated into the government. And yes, he was fired.
Have foreign mining companies given enough back to Congo?
No. But we’ve now put mechanisms in place in order to take what is rightfully ours, meaning the taxes from the revenues that we’ve not been receiving. We’ve revised the mining code. Over the next coming months and years, we will multiply our revenues three to four times. And even after the new mining code was adopted, mining companies have still shown a lot of interest.
What are your views on climate change, and what do you think Congo’s contribution to fighting it can be?
Climate change is a scientific reality—no question about that. Our contribution to the fight against it has been to keep the biodiversity and the forest in the Congo River Basin intact. I passionately don’t believe any of the promises being made that there will be compensation for that. We are doing it for humanity, and that’s more than enough compensation for the Congo.
Now that elections are happening, there has been a great deal of worry that they will not be fair. Will they be fair? Will they go smoothly?
I’m very worried about the negative energy that comes out with each and every step we take. First it was, “Is the opposition going to be integrated or not?” After that was resolved, it was, “Is Kabila going to stand or is he not going to stand?” Each and every step that we take, you always have criticism. “We don’t believe that the government really going to finance the elections.” Elections have been financed 90 percent today. We intend to make these elections well organized—I use the word “perfect.” And up to now, we haven’t had any major incidents. It has been worth the wait.
Why did you pick Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary as your successor?
It wasn’t a pick; it was on the basis of criteria that close to 30 political groupings advanced the name of Shadary—just as you have a pick in Germany for the next president of the ruling party. Among the criteria we had, we stated that we needed a Congolese who was determined, ready to work for this country, not a tribalist, someone who will think not of his province of origin but rather of the country as a whole, someone who will not be corrupt, and so on. We had eight criteria. He was one of those who met them.
Do you think he’ll win?
Let’s hope and wait for the people to decide.
If he doesn’t win, will you accept the outcome?
You see, now that’s another negative question. We have organized these elections in order to accept the results of the elections. When those results are announced by the electoral commission and confirmed by the constitutional court, they will be accepted by everybody.
Did your family want you to remain president?
I don’t think so. We have not had this conversation. But I know that my mother is happy. And if my mother is happy, I’m happy.
You have said that you’re not ruling out running again in 2023. What sorts of things would cause you to run again?
I didn’t say I’m not ruling out running again; I said I’m not ruling out anything in life or in politics. I joked about not ruling out becoming an astronaut. I am currently doing my environmental work. I’ll continue to do that.
What’s more likely: that you’ll become an astronaut or that you’ll run for president?
Which one is the hardest? I always like to take on the hardest. I don’t know. But time will tell.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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