The Democratic Republic of the Congo is in the midst of another Rumble in the Jungle. It’s an election year and opposition candidate Moïse Katumbi is challenging incumbent president Joseph Kabila in an epic showdown. This year’s election is Congo’s highest-rated match since Muhammad Ali and George Foreman tussled here in 1974.
Katumbi has all the makings of a champion. He is the former superstar governor of Katanga province, a restive copper-producing region in the DRC’s southeast where Belgian mercenaries supported a secessionist movement in the 1960s. As governor from 2007 to 2015, the New York Times reports, Katumbi “is widely recognized as having helped raise revenue, collect more taxes, curtail bureaucratic harassment, prosecute corrupt officials and punish predatory soldiers.” But Katumbi’s appeal extends beyond Katanga; he’s president of a wildly successful soccer team, TP Mazembe, whose recent victories are a rare source of national pride. With a lucrative career in business—Katumbi’s net worth is estimated to be in the hundreds of millions—and a solid record in regional governance under his belt, he is better positioned than any Congolese politician in a generation to compete for the country’s greatest title: the presidency.
Earlier this year, it seemed that Kabila had his prime fighting days behind him and after two full terms in office he’d be ready to throw in the towel. Fifteen years in the ring—the same ring he jumped in after his father, Laurent, was quite literally KO’d in 2001—might have left him wary of another hard slog. But with every boxer in his league—among them Sassou-Nguesso in the Republic of Congo, Nkurunziza in Burundi, Kagame in Rwanda, and Museveni in Uganda—punching through paper constitutions to win a third term or more, Kabila’s been spoiling for another fight. Besides, Kabila’s fighting senses are far from dull; with the dexterity and dirty tricks of a street fighter, he has scrappily dispatched electoral foes in 2006 and 2011. His signature move is a lightning-fast uppercut designed to knock out pesky rivals before they can pose an existential threat. That’s why, when Katumbi emerged as the prime challenger for his presidential title, Kabila decided to throw the first punch.
First Kabila knocked Katumbi off his perch: last year Kabila dissolved Katanga province into four miniature provinces, making Katumbi’s governorship obsolete. Then, when it became clear earlier this year that Katumbi would throw his hat into the ring, Kabila accused Katumbi of conspiring with American mercenaries and plotting crimes against the state. In May, Katumbi’s palatial residence in Lubumbashi, DRC’s second-largest city after the capital Kinshasa, was surrounded by state security forces. Facing a warrant for his arrest, Katanga’s ex-governor managed to slip away to South Africa, where he alleges he was receiving medical treatment for—you guessed it—poisoning.
Katumbi’s been huddling in the corner with his doctor for some time now and the referee is counting down the seconds until he is eliminated. But suddenly, he staggers, and starts to pick himself up. After almost two months of silence, Katumbi’s Twitter account is active again.
— Moise Katumbi (@moise_katumbi) July 7, 2016
And now the man’s in France to give interviews. Guess he’s feeling better! RFI reports:
Moise Katumbi, one of the leading opposition figures in the Democratic Republic of Congo has broken his silence and told RFI that he is firmly determined to return to his home country to ensure President Joseph Kabila does not cling on to power.
The pledge comes despite his sentencing by a Congolese court to a three year jail sentence for alleged property fraud on June 22, while he was abroad for medical treatment. […]
Katumbi denied he had gone into exile or that the prison term handed down by a judge will stop him from campaigning to pressure Kabila to step down at the end of his mandate on December 19.
Katumbi added that he was hoping to be in Kinshasa by July 31, the day scheduled for a get-together of the opposition, who recently agreed a unity accord, headed by UDPS veteran leader Etienne Tshisekedi.
For now, the momentum is with Katumbi. Tom Perriello, the U.S. Envoy to the Great Lakes, is urging Kabila to respect his constitutional limits. The DRC’s Catholic bishops are also calling for the president of 15 years to step down on schedule. Most important of all, the country’s typically fractured opposition has united decisively under a single banner, which will presumably fly for Katumbi’s candidacy, whether he returns by the end of July or not.
This fight could end in so many ways. Katumbi could fly back to the DRC only to be gunned down on the tarmac à la Benigno Aquino, which would likely spark a secessionist fire in Katanga, which in turn could rage throughout a country already doused in the fuel of civil war. He could continue the struggle in exile, rallying the global elite to his cause (not that Western adoration of an exiled leader has a strong record of helping out; liberals in the West have fawned over the Dalai Lama for decades without achieving much of anything for Tibet). In the best case scenario, November’s presidential election will proceed as planned, Kabila won’t contest it, and a Katumbi win will mark the DRC’s first peaceful transfer of power. But that’s not likely. For now, the two fighters will continue to bob and weave, and the best we can do is keep up.