By Sasha Lezhnev and Sarah Gardiner
In the wake of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (hereafter Congo) flawed December 2018 elections, it is important for the international community to focus on key areas that can have a lasting impact in the country, in particular on addressing high-level corruption. Corruption is at the core of a particular type of systemic corruption in Congo – a form of state capture – that incentivizes certain elites inside and outside the country to derive personal profit via illicit financial activity while undermining government institutions and the rule of law in the deeply impoverished country. Human rights abuses are also endemic to this system.
Concerns extend far beyond vote rigging and lack of transparency during the vote tabulation process, with leaked results from Congo’s electoral commission and results compiled by the Catholic Church election observation mission showing that opposition coalition candidate Martin Fayulu had won by a landslide and not the candidate ultimately declared victorious, Félix Tshisekedi. Ultimately, this election rigging occurred in order to perpetuate a status quo of systemic corruption and violence. Achieving progress in other key areas hinges on meaningfully addressing grand corruption in Congo, or reform measures will be blocked by elites with a vested interest in perpetuating systemic state capture. Unless there is a major impact on grand corruption, endemic armed conflict – perpetuated in large part by corrupt elements in the Congolese army – will continue largely unabated alongside other human rights abuses and poverty. Moreover, efforts to improve Congo’s investment climate as well as implement much-needed judicial, security sector, and other governance reforms will falter.
Despite the way in which the new government came to power, bolstered by a new parliamentary majority held by ex-president Joseph Kabila’s political coalition, Congo’s current political transition offers some new opportunities to begin to enact critical transparency and accountability reforms. The fact that the election was both largely peaceful and transferred power to an opposition candidate, albeit one far more closely aligned with Kabila than Fayulu, indicates that there is some window for reform.
This moment of opportunity requires a two-track approach: engaging with the new administration in support of anti-corruption, transparency and accountability reforms on the one hand; and more aggressive financial pressure targeted toward the heart of the system of violent kleptocracy. The latter will provide the new government the political space it needs to enact key reforms.
The United States, European Union, and African Union can play key roles in combating corruption by leveraging Congolese reform efforts to transform Congo’s deeply embedded kleptocratic system. While closely engaging with Congolese civil society and the government on good governance, transparency, security and anti-corruption reforms, these actors should make strategic use of financial pressure against high-profile corrupt actors. Recent US sanctions against three senior electoral commission officials are an important step to hold accountable those responsible for election fraud. However, much more significant financial pressure is needed on political leaders and their commercial partners inside and outside Congo in order to have a real impact leading to desperately needed transparency and good governance reforms. These actors have profited personally from a corrupt system that enables violence while the majority of the country has suffered from poor health services, education and infrastructure, as well as security services that are frequently predatory on the civilian population. The use of financial pressure tools will be key to undermining the influence of former president Joseph Kabila and his inner circle, who were involved in extensive corruption during their time in office and yet continue to wield significant – perhaps even preponderant – influence in the new government, including in the military, the parliament, the judiciary, and the executive.
Anti-corruption reforms in Congo will only succeed if they are strongly supported by Congolese civil society and backed by international financial pressure, particularly through targeted network sanctions and anti-money laundering measures. The United States has a unique ability to exert financial pressure on corrupt actors because of Congo’s reliance on US dollar transactions, which are overwhelmingly cleared by US banks and other financial institutions. The European Union, individual European governments and the African Union also have critical roles to play, as corrupt officials frequently travel to and own properties and bank accounts in Europe and elsewhere in Africa.
Through this two-pronged approach, the United States, European Union and African Union can help create political space to allow President Tshisekedi to follow through on reforms to transform Congo’s corrupt system into a more democratic, transparent state. Targeted network sanctions and anti-money laundering measures against officials, their companies and networks of associates involved in corruption would marginalize them from positions of power and therefore lessen their influence in the new government. For example, it will be difficult for Tshisekedi to name officials under sanctions as ministers for fear of sparking further sanctions and anti-money laundering measures. Similarly, financial measures targeting corrupt business deals over state contracts could also pressure the Tshisekedi government to investigate and potentially re-negotiate these deals.