ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Zaire’s President Mobutu Sese Seko shed a tear as he delivered a speech in April 1990 promising his people an end to one-party rule and a future without the man they knew as the Guide.
“Understand my emotion,” he said, his distinctive, deep voice cracking.
In the seven years that followed, the military dictator acted on few of his promises and Zaire sank into chaos, leading to his overthrow in 1997 and helping trigger a series of conflicts that would kill millions of people.
A quarter of a century after Mobutu’s speech, there is a sense of deja vu as the fate of democracy hangs in the balance and fears of civil war grow in Africa’s largest copper producer, now known as Democratic Republic of Congo.
President Joseph Kabila has failed to confirm he will step aside after serving two terms, the constitutional maximum. And the head of the election commission said on Saturday that he expects polls due next month will be delayed until December 2018 for logistical reasons.
“Congo is a great country with enormous economic and human potential, but it’s on the brink of civil war ... because there is a president who is there and wants to stay put,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said last Wednesday.
Protests against Kabila, 45, led to clashes with security forces last month in which the United Nations said at least 50 people were killed in the capital Kinshasa.
People are also restless over the state of the economy. Although it has big reserves of gold, cobalt, diamonds, tin and coltan, which is used in laptops and mobile phones, the vast country has been hit by the fall in global commodity prices.
Barnabe Kikaya, Kabila’s chief diplomatic adviser, told Reuters the president was committed to democracy.
Referring to the bloodshed that marred previous transfers of power, Kikaya said: “It has always been bloody ... We have to break the spell. Elections are the only peaceful way.”
But Kabila has continued to avoid making an explicit commitment not to run again and opponents accuse him of seeking to extend his rule beyond the end of his mandate in December.
Some compare his tactics to those of Mobutu, who used force and deft political manoeuvring to try to cling to power.
“Mobutu was shedding crocodile tears (when he delivered the 1990 speech). The reality for him was how to regain the upper hand and stay in power,” said Mbwebwe Kabamba, an opposition politician in Kinshasa.
“There are many similarities to what’s happening now,” he said.
Kabila took power in 2001 after the assassination of his father, Laurent Kabila, an ex-rebel who had forced out Mobutu. Joseph Kabila won elections in 2006 and 2011, but both were marred by violence.
Even as security forces battled protesters last month, Kabila’s allies were holding negotiations with representatives of civil society and some members of the opposition as part of a process known as the Inclusive National Dialogue.
Announcing the talks a year ago, Kabila said the goal was to relaunch the electoral process — his supporters have said the election timetable is no longer realistic.
But much of the opposition has boycotted the talks over concerns the real aim is to enable Kabila to stay in power by delaying elections or installing a power-sharing government.
Some draw comparisons with the Sovereign National Conference, a public forum involving a large number of political groups which Mobutu organised in the 1990s.
The conference was meant to elaborate a road map for Zaire’s transition to a multi-party system. But Mobutu manipulated the talks to delay elections and play his rivals off against each other with promises of government posts.
A draft agreement distributed among participants last month set no date for elections but included a provision maintaining Kabila in power while creating a government of national unity headed by an opposition prime minister — a signature Mobutu tactic.
“It is obvious that Kabila is creating a margin to manoeuvre,” said Pierre Lumbi, a former Kabila advisor turned opposition figure who participated in the conference under Mobutu but is boycotting the talks under way now.
“The president hasn’t yet said: ‘Listen, I’m not going to run’,” Lumbi said. “If he said it, that would solve the problem.”
In a setback to Kabila’s hopes of securing a deal, the country’s influential Catholic Church has suspended its participation in the dialogue since last month’s protests.
Any agreement would lack legitimacy anyway because the two main opposition blocs have stayed out of the negotiations.
Jason Stearns, author of “Dancing in the Glory of Monsters”, a chronicle of Congo’s post-Mobutu collapse, believes this may signal an end to a long tradition of deal cutting among the political elite.
“For now, I think the main drama is going to play out on the streets of Kinshasa,” he said. “Increasingly, members of the opposition are not interested in bargaining.”
Western governments supported Mobutu almost to the end, fearing the vacuum his departure would create. But it was his refusal to go that led Uganda and Rwanda to organise rebels to overthrow him, an act that set the stage for a conflict that would draw in half a dozen neighbouring countries.
The international community wants to avoid a repeat of history, and patience with Kabila is running out quickly.
On Wednesday, the United States imposed financial sanctions on two top figures in Kabila’s security apparatus - Generals John Numbi and Gabriel Amisi Kumba.
The economy in the former Belgian colony of more than 80 million people is also a growing concern for Kabila. The central bank raised the main interest rate last week from 2 to 7 percent to try to contain inflation.
The government cut its 2016 budget in June by 22 percent because of falling revenues from the mining and oil sectors, which account for about 95 percent of export earnings. It has also cut its growth estimate from 9 to 4.3 percent.
As an opposition politician, Kabamba has little faith that Kabila will go quietly.
But the surgeon who struggled through the difficult final years under Mobutu, including two devastating rounds of army looting and a civil war, remains hopeful.
“He still has time to say ‘I’m finished. Now someone else take over.’ He would go down in Congolese history as an emblematic figure,” Kabamba said.
Editing by Timothy Heritage