On Wednesday, the top US diplomat hopes to showcase the potential for democracy and climate action here in one of Africa’s largest countries. But the receding reality stopped the way.
Within hours of Secretary of State Anthony J. Blinken to the DRC – as he repeatedly called for free and fair presidential elections and “on schedule” next year – whose government has arrested a key opposition leader.
Forced to walk away from his talking points, Blinken admitted what he called a “setback,” noting that he was “worried about any steps being 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 Felix Tshisekedi has arrested Jean-Marc Capond, who is under investigation on charges not disclosed to the public. Kapond, a lawmaker and former deputy speaker of parliament, was a close ally of Tshisekedi until a sharp feud broke out between the two earlier this year.
Kabond then formed an opposition political party and described Tshisekedi, who is running for re-election, as a “danger”. Capond’s lawyer was quoted by local media as saying that his client was charged with contempt of comments.
The incident illustrates the fragility of efforts to build democratic institutions in parts of Africa, undermining stability and increasing violence.
Blinken spoke after meeting with Congolese computer students studying election transparency and how to counter disinformation, a program pushed in part by the United States.
Tshisekedi’s assumption of the presidency in January 2019 marked Congo’s first peaceful transfer of power since it gained independence more than 60 years ago, but it came as part of a power-sharing arrangement that left its legitimacy in question. Since then, his administration has been marred by what the State Department has called “endemic” corruption, as well as human rights abuses and efforts to silence critics.
He also sounded alarm bells recently by announcing plans to sell parts of vital tropical forests in the Congo Basin and peatlands for oil and gas exploration. He says his country needs the revenue, even though the land and its unique ecological makeup are seen as essential to countering climate change.
The Congo Basin forest includes the world’s largest tropical peatlands, a swampy soil that stores carbon deposits and keeps greenhouse gases from damaging the planet’s atmosphere and fragile ecosystem. The area is also home to indigenous people, hundreds of bird species and the largest number of great apes in the world.
The vast forests of exotic trees in the aquarium also clear the air, but it is greatly depleted by illegal logging. Congo recently secured pledges from international donors of nearly half a billion dollars to combat deforestation. The decision to auction off the area’s parcels angered some donors, who accused the government of treason.
At a joint news conference with Blinken on Tuesday, Foreign Minister Christoph Lutendola defended the decision.
“Our commitment to protecting biodiversity is, as I said, a guarantee — I want to assure everyone here that we will remain resolute about the commitment,” he said in French, speaking through an interpreter. He said the pieces would not be “sold,” but rather would be auctioned off as concessions out of necessity.
“The Democratic Republic of the Congo is a contradiction … a rich country, but its population is very poor,” he added. “The challenge is to find a balance, a balance between the welfare of the Congolese people as well as the need to ensure … an environmental framework.”
His comments have done nothing to reassure environmentalists, who say even a limited amount of oil and gas exploration will unleash a “carbon bomb” of destruction.
Blinken also met in Kinshasa on Wednesday with a number of academics and professionals from eastern Congo, where a violent militia that the United Nations says it supports has attacked neighboring Rwanda and killed many civilians. Blinken said trying to defuse tensions between Rwanda and Congo was a major objective of his visit, and he traveled to the Rwandan capital Kigali later Wednesday.
Congolese and international activists have called on Blinken to take a strong stand with the Tshisekedi government and firmly denounce the mounting repression.
“The Democratic Republic of the Congo under President Felix Tshisekedi faces widespread human rights abuses and corruption, prolonged attacks on civilians by numerous armed groups, and failed democratic institutions,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement. “The Congo Basin’s peatlands and forests, which are essential in the fight against climate change, are increasingly at risk from logging and mining.”
Ida Sawyer, who handles conflict resolution for the human rights group and expert on Africa, has called on the Biden administration to reappoint a special envoy for the Great Lakes region comprising Congo and Rwanda.
Otherwise, she said in an interview, “Tshisekedi’s lack of legitimacy [means] You won’t see him enact reforms.”