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Vital Kamerhe
Vital Kamerhe, photographed at a press conference in Geneva on November 11, 2018. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP)

The High Court in Gombe, Kinshasa, has found Vital Kamerhe, former chief of staff to President Félix Tshisekedi of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, guilty of embezzlement and sentenced him to twenty years in prison. His co-accused, Lebanese real estate developer Jammal Samih, got the same sentence. They were accused of diverting money meant for President Tshisekedi’s 100 Days Program to fake companies, including about US$50 million earmarked for public housing.

Kamerhe had been in charge of overseeing 100 Days Program, an ambitious infrastructure project with an allocated budget of just under US$500 million.

The proceedings have been the subject of much political debate in the DRC, as Kamerhe is also the leader of the opposition Union for the Congolese Nation political party, a member of Tshisekedi’s Cap pour le Changement (CACH) coalition. Kamerhe may have taken the fall for the botched rollout of the 100 Days Program, but in truth this case was also about Tshisekedi and his desire to set himself apart from his predecessor, former president Joseph Kabila. Many accuse Kabila of striking a deal with Tshisekedi ahead of the 2018 presidential election in order to remain an influential force in the next government.

 

There was justifiable concern over the awarding of contracts to cronies

 

Acknowledging the Congolese people’s desire for recognizable and immediate change from past governance, Tshisekedi launched the 100 Days Program on March 2, 2019, even though the DRC did not have an elected parliament yet. The legality and legitimacy of the project were suspect from the outset, which may have passed unremarked had it proven successful. Justifiable concern over the awarding of contracts to cronies and poor judgment in the allocation of funds continued to hamper the initiative.

Officially, “l’affaire Kamerhe” may be over, but as a political omen it is unlikely to disappear anytime soon.

 

DRC Ebola
Medical staff at Bwera Hospital in Bwera, Uganda, near the border with the DRC, rehearse working in protective gear in an Ebola treatment unit in December 2018. A number of units were set up to prepare for possible cases after the Ebola outbreak in North Kivu, DRC, in August 2018. (Isaac Kasamani/AFP)

The Democratic Republic of the Congo declared a new Ebola outbreak after five people have died of the deadly virus disease in the city of Mbandaka in Equateur province. No one knows how the virus resurfaced during a time that travel restrictions are in place to stem the spread of COVID-19.

Less than two months ago, the DRC was on the point of declaring an official end to the Ebola epidemic that had lasted for two years and killed more than 2,000 people. Then new cases surfaced in Beni, the epicenter of the outbreak in the provinces of North Kivu, South Kivu, and Ituri. Yet the authorities believed the outbreak was in its “final phase”.

 

“This is a reminder that COVID-19 is not the only health threat people face”

 

The Ebola cases in Mbandaka come at a time that the country is also battling measles and COVID-19. “This is a reminder that COVID-19 is not the only health threat people face,” says Dr. Tedros Adhanom, director general of the World Health Organization. “Although much of our attention is on the pandemic, WHO is continuing to monitor and respond to many other health emergencies.”

WHO has sent a team to support the response to the new outbreak. Mbandaka is a busy transport hub on the Congo River, near the border with the Republic of Congo, so there is concern that the virus could spread.

 

The Largest Measles Outbreak in the World

In the past year, the DRC has also reported 369,520 measles cases and 6,779 deaths, according to WHOMédecins Sans Frontières, which has teams working in various parts of the country to help with patient care, vaccination, and monitoring the spread, says all twenty-six provinces of the country have been affected by the outbreak.

Young children are dying from a disease that can be prevented through vaccination. Whereas the rising number of measles cases in the rest of the world can mostly be attributed to a reluctance to use vaccines, in the DRC it’s caused by poor access to healthcare. Dr. Xavier Crespin, chief of health for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) in the DRC, says a lack of investment in healthcare over the past five years, combined with vaccine shortages, high rates of malnutrition, and ongoing conflict, has created a “national crisis”. Logistical difficulties because of bad roads and long distances—the DRC is the second largest country on the continent—contribute to the problem.

 

 

DRC army
Soldiers of the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (FARDC) confront members of the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) in Opira, North Kivu.

On Sunday, May 24, at least seven villagers were killed in their homes and others were reportedly kidnapped in the DRC’s North Kivu province in an attack attributed to the Ugandan rebel group Allied Democratic Forces (ADF).

Members of the ADF settled in the forests along the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s eastern border following their expulsion by Ugandan forces in the mid-1990s. They were tolerated by the locals until about six years ago, when they began to attack civilians and raze villages. They frequently target military bases in order to steal weapons and ammunition before retreating into the forest, where local farming operations help them stay active despite no known source of formal funding.

 

Secretive Jihadist Group

This latest attack casts further doubt on the efficacy of a Congolese military operation launched in October 2019 to dislodge the ADF from the Beni region in North Kivu province. The DRC’s armed forces, FARDC, did succeed in pushing rebels out of their stronghold while also establishing a permanent presence in the region, yet ADF fighters have continued to attack civilians, killing an estimated 1,000 people in four months after the start of the operation.

Of the numerous armed groups operating in this region of the DRC, the ADF has remained one of the most elusive and least understood players in the region. Though initially formed to remove Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni from power and largely led by Ugandans, the ADF has spent most of its existence in the DRC, embedding itself in local power structures to encourage recruitment. Propaganda from the group suggests it is trying to establish ties with international jihadist groups such as Islamic State with the intent of creating a local caliphate.

 

 

Vital Kamerhe
Vital Kamerhe (center) and Félix Tshisekedi (right) at a news conference in 2018.

 

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, President Félix Tshisekedi’s former chief of staff, Vital Kamerhe, appeared briefly in court on Monday on the charge of embezzlement before the trial was adjourned until May 25.

Kamerhe and others are accused of embezzling at least US$50 million worth of funds that were set aside for the president’s 100-days program, a public-works initiative that has funded infrastructure-construction projects as well as access to electricity and clean water. Kamerhe denies the charge.

 

Speculation abounds as to whether the CACH coalition will hold.

 

The trial has gripped the nation since Kamerhe’s arrest in early April, which was the end product of months of inquiries and investigations initiated by NGOs, high-ranking members of the ruling Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) party, and the Kinshasa/Matete Court of Appeal. Besides his role in Tshisekedi’s cabinet, Kamerhe also served as the political glue holding the Heading for Change (CACH) minority coalition together in his role as leader of the Union for the Congolese Nation (UNC) party, which is one of the parties in the coalition, along with Tshisekedi’s Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) party.

With Kamerhe’s arrest, speculation abounds as to whether the CACH coalition will hold, seeing as tensions between Tshisekedi’s UDPS and ex-president Joseph Kabila’s Common Front for Congo (FCC) coalition have arisen in the past.

 

 

This picture taken on February 13, 2014 shows lorries blocked in Kasumbalesa, a Congolese town at the border between the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Zambia. After border incidents on February 6, the traffic has been heavily disrupted for more than a week in this town which is the main exit gate for minerals extracted in the South-Eastern part of the DRC
Lorries blocked in Kasumbalesa, a Congolese town at the border between the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Zambia. 

 

Christian Mwando, a representative from the province of Tanganyika, a territory of the Democratic Republic of the Congo located on the shores of Lake Tanganyika and bordering Zambia, has called on the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the African Union (AU) to resolve a dispute regarding the occupation of southern Tanganyika by Zambian troops.

Zambian forces have been present in the area since late March, the result of an altercation that began with an attempted arrest of Congolese fishermen who were using prohibited gill netting. Congolese police from Moliro, a town right across the Zambian border, attempted to apprehend the fishermen, who managed to escape into Zambian waters. Zambian forces then moved to chase out the Congolese from their territorial waters and continued across the border, seizing a flag of the DRC, according to Mwando.

 

This region of the DRC also faces one of the world’s largest refugee crises.

 

In response, Congolese forces fired on the Zambian troops, killing one. Mwando was quoted by La Libre Belgique as saying he does not desire any “war with our sister republic of Zambia”, but fears Zambia’s presence is an attempt to seize a portion of the territory, which has the world’s largest deposit of hard rock lithium, used in batteries for electric vehicles.

This region of the DRC also faces one of the world’s largest refugee crises, impacting Twa and Bantu ethnic groups in particular. Persistent violence and insecurity in the region has stretched thin the DRC’s capacity to manage the conflict, let alone address the presence of foreign troops, which is why Mwando insists that President Félix Tshisekedi’s administration appeal to international bodies like the AU and SADC.

 

 

Cobalt
A conveyor belt carries chunks of raw cobalt after a first transformation at a plant in Lubumbashi on February 16, 2018, before being exported, mainly to China, to be refined.

Cobalt is in rising demand thanks to its use as a metal in everything from aircraft engines to batteries for electric vehicles, and in its radioactive form as a cancer treatment. It has been mislabeled as a conflict mineral, despite the fact that it is mostly mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s southern Haut-Katanga and Lualaba provinces, more than 1,600 kilometers from the conflict zones in the east.

“Conflict minerals” and their derivative metals, such as gold, wolfram, and coltan, are integral to the electronics and technology industries, so foreign companies’ supply chains could be indirectly funding rebel groups and bandits, contributing to the destabilization of the DRC and its neighbors. Responding to international concern, the United States included Section 1502 in the Dodd-Frank Act, which requires companies to verify if they source metals from the DRC or its neighbors, and that they do so ethically.

 

The DRC holds half of the world’s cobalt reserves.

 

Because of cobalt’s negative yet inaccurate label, some multinational firms have withdrawn from the DRC altogether to avoid potentially violating Section 1502 or similar legislation in Canada, the European Union, or elsewhere. Given that the DRC holds half of the world’s cobalt reserves and its export is expected to balloon in the next decade, international cooperation is more important than ever to ensure that the extraction of this strategic resource benefits not just the global supply chain but also the DRC and its citizens.

Recent collaboration between cobalt producers, commodity traders, and NGOs to formalize artisanal mining proves that this type of cooperation is a net win for every sector of the DRC’s mining industry.

 

 

CAR-DRC BORDER
The DRC–CAR border area has been rife with conflict as many armed groups compete for the riches of the region.

 

Last week, dramatic arrests were made at Gbadolite Airport in the Nord-Ubangi province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, close to the border with the Central African Republic (CAR). A plane had touched down carrying explosives and ammunition for AK-47 rifles, cargo that the Congolese authorities seized after arresting several people.

Though the investigation into the arms shipment is still under way, preliminary findings suggest the intercepted delivery is part of an arms smuggling network extending from the capital Kinshasa into CAR, using Gbadolite as a way station, according to Nord-Ubangi governor Izato Nzege Koloke. Congolese intelligence believes the weapons and ammunition were to be delivered to armed groups in CAR and to local bandits.

 

Recent clashes in the Central African Republic point to a breakdown of the peace agreement.

 

The Central African Republic is one of several conflict theaters that the African Union is seeking to address with its Silencing the Guns initiative, part of which is concerned with halting the flow of illegal small arms into warzones. Analysts have lamented the slow progress of the African Union’s continent-wide initiative as recently as the annual summit held in early February 2020.

The situation in CAR may be less volatile than the conflicts in Libya, the Lake Chad region, and Somalia, but recent clashes point to a breakdown of the peace agreement signed between rebel groups and the government in Bangui in February 2019.

 

President Félix Tshisekedi of the Democratic Republic of the Congo has named Major General Christian Tshiwewe Songesha as the new commander of the 10,000-strong Republic Guard, a branch of the Congolese armed forces tasked with ensuring the safety of the head of state and his family, a week after sacking the former commander, General Gaston Hugues Ilunga Kampete.

Placed under sanction by the European Union and United States for the Republican Guard’s involvement in the suppression of anti-Kabila protests that resulted in over a dozen dead, Kampete was dismissed by Tshisekedi on April 22 in an effort to bolster Congolese relations with the United States.

 

Joseph Kabila continues to wield political influence behind the scenes.

 

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo poses for photos with Democratic Republic of Congo President Felix Tshisekedi ahead of a bilateral meeting at the State Department in Washington, DC on March 3, 2020. MANDEL NGAN / AFP
President Félix Tshisekedi and US secretary of state Mike Pompeo pose for photos ahead of a bilateral meeting in Washington, D.C., on March 3, 2020.

 

Washington has insisted that improving ties is predicated on the president removing military officers currently sanctioned by either the United States or its European allies, a requirement that threatens to drive a wedge between Tshisekedi and former president Joseph Kabila, who appointed most of these officers and has continued to wield political influence behind the scenes. This new replacement for the Republic Guard follows a pattern of Tshisekedi reforming the DRC’s armed forces to solidify both his legitimacy and control.

 

On April 24, seventeen people were killed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Virunga National Park, thirteen of them park rangers and employees. Three other rangers were seriously injured. In a statement, the park said it could confirm the perpetrators of the attack were rebels of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR).

 

FDLR rebels have been active in this part of the DRC since the end of the Rwandan genocide.

 

The attack is one of the worst suffered in the park, which spans 7 769 square kilometers in the east of the country, along the borders of Rwanda and Uganda. Virunga has seen much conflict, and there has always been competition for the park’s rich natural resources. FDLR rebels have been active in this part of the DRC since the end of the Rwandan genocide in 1994, attacking ethnic Tutsis in the DRC and sometimes launching cross-border raids into Rwanda.

 

A picture taken on July 17, 2016 shows trucks carrying people and being part of the Congolese army convoy which drives through the national park of Virunga. The convoy, established by the Congolese Army on early 2016, aims to insure security in face of a wave of civilian kidnappings between the villages of Kiwanja and Kanyabayonga, in the southeastern part of the province of North Kivu. Eduardo Soteras / AFP
An army convoy traveling through Virunga National Park. (Eduardo Soteras / AFP)

 

Long-Standing Tensions

Lingering resentment over Rwanda’s involvement in the Second Congo War (1998–2003) has spoiled relations between the two nations, but diplomatic overtures between DRC president Félix Tshisekedi and Rwandan president Paul Kagame have sought to set political divisions aside and boost regional integration and private investments. However, the recent arrest of Tshisekedi’s chief of staff Vital Kamerhe, who helped to initiate the rapprochement between the two leaders, could potentially jeopardize these efforts. 

 

DRC
DRC president Félix Tshisekedi (centre), photographed arriving for the ACP Summit of Heads of State and Government in Nairobi, Kenya,&nbsp;on December 9, 2019.<br /> TONY KARUMBA / AFP

 

President Félix Tshisekedi of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) this week met with Joseph Kabila, the former president and current leader of the FCC political coalition, at the presidential residence N’Sele. Officially, the meeting was held to discuss the COVID-19 pandemic, but Jeune Afrique quotes sources who say the two politicians also talked about delicate political matters during the four-hour meeting.   

 

Tshisekedi and Kabila are said to have also discussed plans for a cabinet reshuffle.

 

The discussion is alleged to have begun with the fate of Vital Kamerhe, Thisekedi’s chief of staff and leader of the UNC opposition party, who was arrested on April 8 for misappropriation of funds. Kamerhe’s arrest risks rupturing the already tenuous FCC–CACH alliance.

Tshisekedi and Kabila are said to have also discussed plans for a cabinet reshuffle, a move that had been delayed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Other discussion points included unrest in the Upper Katanga province, where several towns had been attacked by the Bakata Katanga militia, adding to existing strife in the country’s eastern North and South Kivu provinces.

 

In this photograph taken on March 13, 2020, Moroccan soldiers from the UN mission in DRC (Monusco) ride in a vehicle as they patrol in the violence-torn Djugu territory, Ituri province, eastern DRCongo. Fresh violences have been registered against civilians in this territory where more than 700 hundreds have been slaughtered since December 2017, leading the UN to denounce a possible crime against humanity. SAMIR TOUNSI / AFP
Moroccan soldiers with the United Nations peacekeeping force MONUSCO in the DRC patrol the violence-torn Djugu territory in Ituri province. (Samir Tounsi / AFP)

 

A Bold Step

Perhaps one of the biggest developments explored during this encounter was the news that Tshisekedi had dismissed the head of the 10,000-strong Republic Guard, General Ilunga Kampete, who had been under sanctions by the European Union and United States for violent suppression of public demonstrations in December 2018. General Kampete has been a close ally of Joseph Kabila, who appointed him in 2014, indicating that Tshisekedi may be stepping into a bolder direction and could begin chipping away at the inordinate influence Kabila maintains in Congolese politics through his FCC coalition.

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