Democratic Republic of Congo President Joseph Kabila, whose term in office should have ended by now, doesn’t appear to want to step down.
In a SPIEGEL interview, he discusses delays in elections and does not rule out the possibility of a third term.
SPIEGEL: Mr. President, why do you make public appearances so rarely?
Kabila: I believe that what’s much more important is not what you say, but what you do. And I am a doer.
SPIEGEL: You have now ruled for 16 years. What did you achieve so far?
Kabila: In January 2001, when I took the oath of office, the country was divided — we had fighting in the east, we had a frontline of 3,000 kilometers (1,864 miles), we had four or five separate armies deployed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Our economy was almost non-existent. Our infrastructure was in very bad shape. We had a situation of lawlessness. What is the situation today? We have a united country. We have a single currency. We have managed to stabilize the economy, despite difficulties. We could talk all day about all those achievements.
SPIEGEL: But from the outside, the situation in your country is perceived very differently. One of the greatest disappointments of Europe and the West is the postponement of democratic elections after the Dec. 19 election deadline passed last year. You also didn’t step down.
Kabila: This disappointment is a disappointment for myself. In 2011, the same West wanted us to postpone the elections. At the time, we insisted that those elections were going to be held as planned.
SPIEGEL: So, why was it possible to hold elections in very difficult times then, but not today?
Kabila: It’s primarily because we were not well prepared. In 2011, we had 32 million registered voters, now we have between 42 and 45 million registered voters we have to cater to. The second and most important reason: After 2011, the rebel group M23 in the east of the country started a war. We had to put all our resources at the disposal of the defence forces. So, elections back then were not a priority. We are not going to finance elections when we need to fight to win back occupied territory. Those were the two main reasons why elections were not held at the end of last year. You can organize elections any day, even tomorrow. But what will be the result of chaotic elections? More chaos!
SPIEGEL: The missed election deadline triggered bloody riots. In the aftermath, the Congolese Conference of Catholic Bishops brokered an agreement between the government and the opposition, including your promise to hold elections by the end of this year.
Kabila: I didn’t promise anything! I’d like elections to take place as soon as possible. But we want perfect elections, not just any kind of elections. And it’s the electoral commission that organizes elections in this country — this is what most people forget. We have an independent commission which, according to our constitution, is in charge of organizing elections. That commission is already working and the results are positive. We are moving towards 24 million already registered voters. We are moving forward.
SPIEGEL: One could have the impression that there is no sincere political will to hold these elections. Some people suspect that you would like to change the constitution which includes term limits for the president after two five year legislative periods. Do you want to do that?
Kabila: When did I talk about changing this rule? Nobody as of today can produce any oral or written statement from me talking about changing the constitution.
SPIEGEL: This is a perfect opportunity to clarify that all.
Kabila: I’ve clarified that. All this noise about changing the constitution is just pure nonsense.
SPIEGEL: Still, there is the suspicion that you would follow the example of the presidents of Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda or Congo and change the constitution to extend your time in office.
Kabila: If you want to talk about countries that changed their constitutions, let’s talk about countries in Europe. The idea that it’s only Africa which has the tendency of changing constitutions is biased and not correct. To change the constitution is constitutional. Within the constitution there is the word “referendum.” You can change the constitution by referendum. But we have not yet called for a referendum. As of today, we have not yet organized any meeting or discussions on how to change the constitution.
SPIEGEL: Does the Congolese constitution somehow allow the interpretation that a third term in office is possible?
Kabila: Our constitution is a very clear one. That interpretation is not in the constitution.
SPIEGEL: So, there will be no third term for President Joseph Kabila?
Kabila: It depends what a third term is. We don’t intend to violate the constitution. How do you do it without violating the constitution?
SPIEGEL: Perhaps because you see a possibility to interpret the constitution in a certain way.
Kabila: Neither you nor I cannot interpret the constitution. Only the constitutional courts can interpret the constitution.
SPIEGEL: Is this a clear “no”?
Kabila: A clear no about what?
SPIEGEL: To a third term of your presidency.
Kabila: I don’t want to talk about a third term, because nowhere in the constitution do we talk of a third term. It’s an invention from enlightened brains somewhere in Europe or elsewhere.
SPIEGEL: Those enlightened brains ask themselves why the president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo did not step down at the time. You would have been celebrated as the father of Congolese democracy, as a role model for Africa. What makes it so difficult to step down, Mr. President?
Kabila: You are coming from your air-conditioned offices in Berlin and Cape Town, and I hope you will find time to understand the Congo and its difficulties. In any case, the father of democracy is Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister after our independence, who was assassinated under conditions that to this day nobody can clearly understand. So, for me, this title is not the most important thing. You can go down in history as the father of democracy, but you can also go down as the person who brought about chaos just by stepping down. The constitution is very clear as to how and when the president hands over power. He can only hand power over to an elected successor.
SPIEGEL: Which means you have to hold elections promptly.
Kabila: And that’s why we are working 24 hours a day in order for those elections to be held.
SPIEGEL: The G-20 countries are preparing a major Africa initiative, Germany is even promoting a kind of Marshall Plan for the continent. But in exchange, they are demanding good governance, political reforms and democratic elections. They are particularly worried about your country, because there are currently no longer any legitimate institutions. Neither the president nor the parliament is legitimate at this point.
Kabila: It’s not up to the West or any scholar to decide whether our institutions are legitimate or not. That’s for our constitutional court to decide. And two, as for the Marshall Plan or whatever it is, I don’t believe in that. Africans have been fed this kind of language for the last 50 years. The West exploited Africa and now it wants to save it. We have been living with this hypocrisy for too long. Africa can only be saved by Africans. Why are we talking about a Marshall Plan now? It’s because you see a lot of immigrants moving into Europe. And when Europe senses danger, it needs to do something to keep all these Africans at home where they belong. But is this done in good faith? No, not at all. So, for me, it’s pure hypocrisy.
President Kabila during his interview: “When Europe senses danger, it needs to do something to keep all these Africans at home where they belong.”
SPIEGEL: At the same time, Germany provides some 256 million euros a year in aid to the Democratic Republic of Congo. That’s another reason there is grave disappointment on the part of the German government, and they don’t really know if they have a partner in you.
Kabila: Well, that goes both ways. There is a lack of trust in us, there is also lack of trust in them.
SPIEGEL: Investors see corruption as a big issue here; many millions of dollars are disappearing from state institutions.
Kabila: Yes, we have a problem with corruption like any other country in the world. We realize that and we are taking measures, it is a struggle that takes time.
SPIEGEL: Your former minister of public service found out that out of 1.2 million civil servants on the books, more than a half-million don’t actually exist. But those salaries are paid nonetheless and the money seems to be disappearing.
Kabila: And how did he discover that? Because we started a new program for transparency.
SPIEGEL: The minister wanted to reorganize the public service sector, but after a disagreement with the government you parted ways and he joined the opposition.
Kabila: He did not leave because of that. He left because his party wanted to become the opposition (party), which is a common phenomenon here.
SPIEGEL: The minister wrote a letter to you rejecting the change of the constitution and a third term in office of President Kabila.
Kabila: I have explained this issue to you.
SPIEGEL: There are other respected former governors like Moïse Katumbi. He did a good job in Katanga province in the south of the country. He tried to work with you, but he turned against you in 2015.
Kabila: I do not want to be pushed into talking about individuals. One of the reasons why a number of people have decided to go into the opposition were the reforms we carried out. Katanga, for instance, is bigger than Germany. We had to subdivide it, which is constitutional — and we need to respect the law.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Katumbi was sentenced to three years in prison for alleged fraud and fled the country. The Conference of Catholic Bishops called the trial a farce, with the sole goal to getting rid of a political rival. True or false?
Kabila: Well, it’s not up to me to say whether it’s true or false. It’s up to the justice system. Being a Catholic bishop does not mean that you are a saint. I have not asked the bishops to replace the justice system in this country. There is no case between the government and Mr. Katumbi as an individual. He has to deal with the justice system in this country.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Katumbi has vowed to return soon. Is that your worst nightmare?
Kabila: I don’t have any nightmares.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Katumbi could call on the Congolese to mount mass protests. It’s possible that millions of people could show up to welcome him.
Kabila: And then, what next? If you think that somebody is above the law because he has 1 or 2 million people following him, we would not have a lawful country.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Katumbi is perceived as a new bearer of hope, also in the West. Influential media report positively about him. What is your strategy for dealing with this challenge?
Kabila: There is no challenge and I don’t need a strategy. The Congolese people will decide about the future of this country. We are talking about democracy. Democracy was assassinated here when Patrice Lumumba was assassinated. And who brought democracy back to this country? We are the ones who did that after pushing out the dictatorship in 1997. Now, the Congo is becoming a punching bag. Congo this, Congo that, Congo and the human rights. But we don’t act on the basis of what the West thinks.
SPIEGEL: The European Union and the United States have already imposed financial sanctions on high-ranking members of your government, including your intelligence chief. Western diplomats even talk about the possibility of placing sanctions on you. Is this something you can completely ignore?
Kabila: I have always tried to live my life as a just and humble person. When these sanctions were announced, Europe should have questioned the people who have been sanctioned as well as to find the truth. That did not happen. How can Europe act fairly? Do they base their decisions on hearsay?
SPIEGEL: On assessments that are based on the research of their officials.
Kabila: Please, please your Western officials! I am all against neo-colonialism and these actions just perpetuate it.
SPIEGEL: So, you’re saying the assessments are baseless?
Kabila: What I want to say is: The correct thing would have been to share the assessments with us and the people involved. But the sanctions are not going to stop us from organizing elections. And it’s not the kind of pressure that’s going to push us into doing anything else.
SPIEGEL: Your father was murdered by an aid and a body guard who was one of his most trusted people. Whom do you trust?
Kabila: I believe that God exists and I trust in God. I trust in the judgement of the Congolese people, that we are moving in the right direction.
SPIEGEL: We hear elderly people in the streets saying: We do not want another Mobutu, a tyrant, who plundered the country for 32 years.
Kabila: Whom are the people comparing Mobutu to? I don’t think it’s an appropriate question as far as I am concerned.
SPIEGEL: Well, then answer this question: When exactly will elections be held?
Kabila: I would like you to meet with the Electoral Commission to get that answer. The Congo is a continent unto itself. Don’t look at the Congo through the window of Berlin. We don’t even have 10 percent of the infrastructure you have in Germany. Can you imagine holding elections 2,000 kilometers from here?
SPIEGEL: So, it may take longer to organize the election?
Kabila: It might take longer or not. As I mentioned earlier: If you organize chaotic elections, you will get chaos.
SPIEGEL: Where do you see your role or position after the official end of your term in office?
Kabila: Well, I’ll leave that to myself. Don’t worry, I’m not going to commit suicide. And I will definitively continue to be of service to my country.
Congo President Joseph Kabila’s interview with Germany Weekly Der Spiegel online version]