There has been alarming news out of the Democratic Republic of Congo in recent days, but also some surprises and promising developments.
On the gloomy side, Congolese health authorities announced a record 26 deaths last week alone of people affected by the Ebola epidemic in the east of the country.
It was the first time that figure had been reached, the Ministry of Health said. Since the beginning of the epidemic, according to reports, there have been 957 Ebola-related deaths.
The current Ebola outbreak in the DRC is the most serious in the history of the virus, after the one that killed more than 11,000 people in West Africa in 2014-2016, according to the UN.
East Africa should pay more attention to the DRC’s struggles with Ebola, because should it lose the fight and there is a spillover, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi could pay dearly.
However, perhaps no country is better placed to help DRC than Uganda, whose first deadly tango with Ebola in 2000—then still an enlightened period of President Yoweri Museveni’s rule before it was beset by corruption and systems were taken over by vested interests—enabled it to develop some of the best anti-Ebola smarts you will find on this continent.
But there was also a very positive development. Congolese prosecutors announced they had dropped an investigation into allegations that popular opposition leader Moise Katumbi hired mercenaries to help oust former president Joseph Kabila’s regime.
This followed a court decision in mid-April to annul a three-year prison sentence imposed on Katumbi. The sentence had been for a trumped-upcharge of property fraud.
Katumbi, a former governor of the country’s copper-mining Katanga region, was charged after defecting from Kabila's ruling party and announcing he would run for president in 2016.
His “crime,” therefore, was the familiar old one in Africa of wanting to lead a country when the occupant of the office has designs to be president for life.
Kabila eventually gave up his bid, and late last year an election produced a shock winner—current President Felix Tshisekedi.
Tshisekedi was polling third in opinion surveys, with the opposition’s Martin Fayulu the far-out favourite to win.
Kabila then pulled the electoral heist, ditching his PPRD party’s candidate Emmanuel Shadary, and helping steal the election for Tshisekedi.
Kabila’s party dominates the legislature, and the view was that Tshisekedi would be little more than his useful puppet. Yet, precisely because he has a weak hand and needs Kabila, Tshisekedi is doing some very unCongolese things.
He has moved to release the hundreds of Kabila’s political prisoners, and has toured the vast country with a humility rarely seen from a Congolese leader.
Tshisekedi seems to be trying to find a legitimacy based on democratic and reformist actions as president, precisely because he didn’t get it the ballot in December.
A modestly stable and democratic DRC, easily the world’s most resource-rich nation, could dramatically alter the fortunes of the region and put a lot of honest money (for once) in people’s pockets.
In terms of global cultural politics, next year its capital Kinshasa will overtake Paris as the largest French-speaking city in the world.
A lot of these changes are happening without being much noticed, because most people still don’t take Tshisekedi seriously.
Maybe for the good of DRC, it should remain that way.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is a researcher and writer on politics and public affairs.