America’s top diplomat on Wednesday was hoping to showcase the potential for democracy and climate action here in one of Africa’s largest countries. But backsliding reality got in the way.
Within hours of Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken’s arrival in the Democratic Republic of Congo — as he repeatedly urged free, fair and “on time” presidential elections next year — its government arrested a key opposition leader.
Forced to depart from his talking points, Blinken acknowledged what he called a “setback,” noting that he was “concerned for any steps taken that could actually reduce political space.” Blinken said he would raise the matter with the Congolese government and ask for an explanation.
The government of President Félix Tshisekedi arrested Jean-Marc Kabund, who has been under investigation for charges that have not been disclosed to the public. Kabund, a lawmaker and former vice president of parliament, was a close ally of Tshisekedi until the two had a bitter falling out earlier this year.
Kabund then formed an opposition political party and called Tshisekedi, who is running for reelection, a “danger.” Kabund’s lawyer was quoted in local media saying his client had been accused of contempt for the comments.
The incident illustrates how fragile efforts remain to build democratic institutions in parts of Africa, undermining stability and furthering violence.
Blinken spoke after meeting with Congolese computer students who are studying election transparency and how to counter disinformation, a program partially paid for by the U.S.
Tshisekedi’s assumption of the presidency in January 2019 marked the first peaceful transfer of power in Congo since it gained independence more than 60 years ago, but it came as part of a power-sharing arrangement that left his legitimacy questioned. Since then, his administration has been marred by what the State Department has called “pervasive” corruption, as well as human rights abuses and efforts to silence critics.
He also set off alarm bells recently by announcing plans to auction portions of the vital Congo Basin’s tropical forests and peatlands for oil and gas exploration. He says his country needs the revenue, though the land and its unique ecological makeup are considered essential to countering climate change.
The Congo Basin forest encompasses the world’s largest tropical peatland, swampy soil that stores carbon deposits and keeps the greenhouse gases from damaging the planet’s atmosphere and fragile ecosystem. The area is also home to Indigenous peoples, hundreds of bird species and the world’s largest population of great apes.
The vast forests of exotic trees in the basin also cleanse the air, but are being grossly depleted by illegal logging. Congo recently secured pledges from international donors of around half a billion dollars to combat deforestation. The decision to auction off parcels of the region has angered some of the donors who have accused the government of betrayal.
In a joint news conference with Blinken on Tuesday, Foreign Minister Christophe Lutundula defended the decision.
“Our commitment to protect, as I said, the biodiversity and to ensure — I want to assure everybody here that we will stay firm regarding the commitment,” he said in French, speaking through an interpreter. The lots will not be “sold,” he said, but auctioned as concessions out of necessity.
“The DRC is a paradox … a wealthy country but with a very poor population,” he added. “The challenge is to find an equilibrium, a balance between the well-being of Congolese people and also the necessity to guarantee … an ecological framework.”
His statements did little to reassure environmentalists, who say even a limited amount of oil and gas exploration would release a “carbon bomb” of destruction.
Blinken also met in Kinshasa on Wednesday with several academics and professionals from eastern Congo, where a violent militia that the United Nations says is backed by neighboring Rwanda has attacked and killed numerous civilians. Blinken has said an effort to defuse the tensions between Rwanda and Congo were a main goal of his trip and he traveled to the Rwandan capital of Kigali later Wednesday.
Congolese and international activists called on Blinken to take a forceful position with the Tshisekedi government and firmly denounce escalating repression.
“DR Congo under President Félix Tshisekedi is facing widespread human rights abuses and corruption, protracted attacks on civilians by numerous armed groups, and failed democratic institutions,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement. “The Congo Basin’s forests and peatlands, which are essential in the fight against climate change, are at increasing risk of logging and mining.”
Ida Sawyer, who handles conflict resolution for the human rights group and is an expert on Africa, called for the Biden administration to re-appoint a special envoy for the Great Lakes region that includes Congo and Rwanda.
Otherwise, she said in an interview, “Tshisekedi’s lack of legitimacy [means] you won’t see him enacting reforms.”