US officials warn of chaos in DRC if President Kabila declines to surrender power

Thursday February 11 2016

Democratic Republic of Congo's President Joseph

Democratic Republic of Congo's President Joseph Kabila. PHOTO | TUTONDELE MIANKENDA | AFP

By KEVIN J. KELLEY in New York

Senior US officials have warned that the Democratic Republic of Congo could be hit by violence worse than Burundi’s if President Joseph Kabila does not surrender power later this year.

“A political crisis is building as the DRC prepares — or rather fails to prepare — for upcoming, historic elections scheduled for this November,” Ambassador Thomas Perriello, President Obama’s special envoy to the Great Lakes told the congress on February 10, 2016.

“If the DRC chooses the path taken by Burundi, the scale of human suffering could dwarf what we have seen next door.”

The DRC’s constitution states that a president cannot serve for more than two terms. But President Kabila, who took office in 2001, has not indicated whether he will respect that provision.

Mr Perriello’s stark warning was echoed on Wednesday by Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield.

Speaking to the same US Senate committee, she said a political confrontation over respect for the DRC’s constitution could carry “potentially disastrous results for the people of the DRC and the region.”

The US views the DRC as a strategically important nation in Africa due not only to its size but also because of its enormous mineral wealth. Washington also fears that widespread fighting in the DRC could suck in neighbouring nations, as occurred between 1998 and 2003 when nine African states took part in what became known as the First African World War.

Both officials pointed to the destabilisation of Burundi as an example of what can happen to a country whose leader clings to power while ignoring binding commitments to step down.

Ms Thomas-Greenfield suggested that Burundi’s prospects for internal peace do not appear not promising.

Referring to the Burundian government’s move to hold talks with some of its opponents, the State Department’s top Africa diplomat said, “We do not expect much out of this internal dialogue, as it lacks credibility, funding and externally-based opposition members.”

Freedom of expression

The talks are also “taking place in an environment characterised by fear, repression, and lack of freedom of expression,” Ms Thomas-Greenfield added.

She seemed to hold out a small hope, however, that the African Union might eventually deploy peacekeeping troops in Burundi. The assistant secretary made note of an AU statement that a delegation of five heads of state will consult with Burundi’s leader about deployment of such a force.

Ms Thomas-Greenfield also said the US has discussed with Rwanda’s government “credible reports” that Burundian refugees inside Rwanda have been recruited by groups seeking the armed overthrow of President Pierre Nkurunzizia.

Ambassador Perriello said he had received such reports first-hand.

Three Burundian former child soldiers now in the DRC had recently told him that they were recruited in Rwandan refugee camps and trained in part by Rwandans, the special envoy testified. They were then led into the DRC en route to fight inside Burundi, he added.

Rwanda has promised to investigate reports of recruitment and to prevent such actions, Ms Thomas-Greenfield told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

She also called the senators’ attention to what she described as a problematic electoral environment in Uganda.

She expressed US concern about “obstruction and dispersal” of some opposition rallies in the run-up to the February 18 vote. A climate of fear and intimidation appears to be gripping Uganda, “and could raise questions about the fairness of the process,” Ms Thomas-Greenfield declared.