Joseph Kabila, Congo Strongman, Will Step Down After 17 Years in Power

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Joseph Kabila, Congo Strongman, Will Step Down After 17 Years in PowerJoseph Kabila, who took over the Democratic Republic of Congo at age 29 after the assassination of his father in 2001, announced on Wednesday he would not stand for re-election, raising hopes the country might carry out a peaceful transition of power for the first time in its modern history.

Mr. Kabila had long overstayed his welcome as leader, and for two years, Congolese opposition groups, the African Union, the United States and the United Nations had all urged Mr. Kabila not to defy term limits and seek a third term in voting scheduled for December.

This week, The Financial Times reported that the Trump administration was prepared to tighten financial sanctions against Mr. Kabila and his associates if he did not agree to relinquish power. In June 2017, the Treasury Department imposed sanctions against Gen. François Olenga, one of Mr. Kabila’s most senior military officials, and in December it put forward sanctions against Dan Gertler, an Israeli businessman who is close to the president.

Opposition activists rejoiced at the president’s decision, but also cautioned that it was only a first step toward an orderly transition of power.

“What matters for the moment is that the Constitution, whether willingly or not, has been respected,” said Senator Jacques Ndjoli, a member of an opposition party, the Movement for the Liberation of Congo. “Despite the multiple attempts to circumvent the Constitution, President Kabila finally understood that the supreme law applies to everyone.”

The United States, too, voiced approval of the decision. “We welcome reports that President Kabila will not seek a third term in accordance with his country’s Constitution,” Nikki R. Haley, the American ambassador to the United Nations, said in a statement.

It remains uncertain, however, whether Congo — a former Belgian colony that since 1885 has suffered almost unrelentingly from misrule, exploitation and violence — will be ready to carry out credible elections.

“Just because Kabila has endorsed a candidate and it seems the campaign will begin does not mean that an election by the promised date is a foregone conclusion,” said J. Peter Pham, vice president and director of the Africa Center of the Atlantic Council, a nongovernmental organization in Washington, D.C. “Vigilance and engagement on the part of Congolese civil society and the international community are needed now more than ever.”

Mr. Kabila, now 47, took power after the assassination of his father, Laurent, and won subsequent presidential elections in 2006 and 2011. His most recent term officially was to have ended in late 2016, but the election was put off as rival factions tried to negotiate a way to avoid a recurrence of deadly violence during the vote.

Protests urging Mr. Kabila to relinquish power have periodically rocked major cities like Kinshasa, the capital; Lubumbashi; and Kisangani. Several people died in protests at the start of this year.

Congo, a vast and ethnically diverse nation, has never had a peaceful transition of power. Independence in 1960 was immediately followed by conflicts among various factions, backed by different sides in the Cold War.

The country’s first prime minister, the nationalist and socialist Patrice Lumumba, was removed in a 1961 coup and subsequently executed. In 1965, a former Army commander, Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, seized power in a coup and ruled the country, which he renamed Zaire, for three decades.

Mr. Kabila’s father, Laurent Kabila, took power in 1997 when Mobutu Sese Seko — as the strongman had styled himself — fled the country and died in exile months later. Four years later, Laurent Kabila was felled by a bullet fired by a bodyguard, leaving his son in power.

Congo is one of the world’s most resource-rich countries, but its people are among the world’s poorest. Millions of Congolese died in two successive wars, from 1996 to 1997 and from 1998 to 2003, that drew in neighboring countries like Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Angola, Chad and Zimbabwe.

Mr. Kabila, while standing aside, announced his support for an ally, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, 57, a former interior minister and vice president, to run for president in the Dec. 23 elections.

Other candidates who might seek to participate in the elections include the opposition leader Moïse Katumbi, who has been living in exile and was blocked last weekend from returning home; Félix Tshisekedi, son of a veteran opposition leader, Étienne Tshisekedi, who died early last year; and a former vice president, Jean-Pierre Bemba.

The International Criminal Court in 2016 convicted Mr. Bemba of war crimes in 2016 over his role in a campaign of rape, murder and torture in the Central African Republic in 2002 and 2003. Mr. Bemba was sentenced to 18 years in prison. But in June his conviction was tossed out on appeal, and he returned to Kinshasa in triumph last week after a decade away.

During Mr. Shadary’s 14 months as interior minister, he was associated with repressive police violence in Kinshasa and in the southern province of Kasai.

In May 2017, Mr. Shadary was one of several Congolese officials against whom the Council of the European Union imposed sanctions for what it called “serious human rights violations.”

As examples, it cited a violent crackdown on members of the Bundu Dia Kongo, a religious movement in Kongo Central province, and “the disproportionate use of force and violent repression” in Kasai Province.

At the United Nations, a spokesman, Farhan Aziz Haq, said Mr. Kabila’s announcement was an encouraging sign.

“We welcome the continued progress towards the holding of free, fair and peaceful elections on 23 December in accordance with the Constitution and the 31 December 2016 agreement,” Mr. Haq said, referring to an accord that provided for a peacefully managed transition consistent with democratic principles.

In Congress, Representative Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he approved of Mr. Kabila’s decision — “after 17 dark and bloody years” — to step down.

“Now, deadly government crackdowns must stop so the Congolese people can choose their next president in free, fair and transparent elections,” Mr. Royce said. “Any credible election will allow opposition candidates to run campaigns free from legal harassment, intimidation and physical harm.”

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