ON THE streets of Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the backfiring of an old car sounded like a gunshot. “It’s Burkina!” yelled a woman, referring jovially to recent riots in Burkina Faso, which led to the downfall of its president, Blaise Compaoré, after 27 years in power. Laughter erupted from the crowd around her. The second and final five-year term of Congo’s president, Joseph Kabila (pictured), is supposed to end in 2016. But most people think he will try to extend his stay, just as Mr Compaoré did.
That would have equally baleful consequences, says Vital Kamerhe, who finished third in the country’s presidential election last time around and plans to run again, if the constitution is upheld. “Burkina is a lesson for us,” he says. So was Congo’s own experience of a leader-for-life, Mobutu Sese Seko, who ruled for 32 years until 1997. By the time he was ousted, he had enriched himself but wrecked the country, now numbering 68m people. A decade of bloody chaos ensued.
With Mobutu in mind, Congo’s constitution of 2006 was meant to heal the wounds of war and prevent the return of dictatorship. “The number and length of the mandates of the president,” it states, “cannot be the object of any constitutional revision.” But Mr Kabila seems loth to say unequivocally that he will step down.
Some of his most senior advisers and the president of the senate have come out against any constitutional change. So has the Catholic church. The American special envoy to the region, Russ Feingold, has told Mr Kabila to move on, while discussing guarantees for his future security. Mr Kamerhe says that, if he wins, he will ensure Mr Kabila’s future safety. But any allegation of corruption, he adds, will have to be investigated.
While Mr Kabila dithers, the economy has been stalling, according to the IMF. Local bankers and businessmen say they are not being paid by the government. Reforms of laws on mining and oil are on hold. Electricity shortages have shrunk productivity. Political uncertainty is deterring investors.
Far from reassuring people of his intention to leave, Mr Kabila has taken drastic measures suggesting the opposite. He has reorganised the army, putting his most loyal men in key positions, and has jailed one of Mr Kamerhe’s top deputies for insulting him. Last month the head of the UN’s human-rights office in Kinshasa was expelled after it issued a report criticising an anti-crime campaign by the government that involved the extra-judicial killing of at least 50 people.
This was a slap in the face for the UN, which has been spending more than a billion dollars a year in Congo to keep the peace and foster democracy. Last year its peacekeepers helped Congo’s ramshackle army defeat a rebellion—widely thought to be backed by the governments of neighbouring Rwanda and Uganda—that had hamstrung Mr Kabila for almost a decade.
Mindful of rising doubts about him in the West, Mr Kabila may seek friends elsewhere. Dozens of contracts for oil, hydropower, farming and mining projects worth billions of dollars are in the offing. A Kabila confidant is in charge of an unaudited minerals-for-infrastructure deal with China that includes $3 billion meant for roads and hospitals. South Africa is keen to clinch a hydroelectric deal worth $12 billion to provide power from the Congo river. Angola wants an agreement over oil off the coastline it shares with Congo. Such things may win friends and give Mr Kabila and his economy some respite. They may not bolster Congo’s fragile democracy.