Congo is on the verge of another brutal civil war. That's bad news. Its last civil war, which had two phases and lasted seven years, killed between two and three million people. Some responsible sources say the death toll was five million. In comparison, Syria's civil war (an acknowledged tragedy) has lasted five and a half years and killed 400,000.
Congo's current peril is one of those rare circumstances where one person bears responsibility for the explosive political tension: Congo's president, Joseph Kabila.
Kabila has decided his grip on executive power is more important than Congo's constitution, so he has violated constitutional mandates that limit him to two terms.
His second term ends this coming December. But Kabila has slickly postponed the presidential election to choose his successor. The election was scheduled for November 27. In early 2015 Kabila began scheming to disrupt the election timetable. "Slippage" his opponents called it. Slippage employed the classic tactics of a crooked politics: delaying logistical preparation, corrupting the courts and bamboozling an incompetent bureaucracy. Kabila also employed the murderous tactics of an outright dictator: using police power to brutalize and kill his political opponents.
Limiting the president to two terms was a key component of the peace agreement that ended Congo's civil war. The limitation was incorporated in the constitution. This means, at the moral bottom line, Kabila decided that his grip on power is more important than peace. To remain president, he is willing to risk a bloody war that will result in another million dead.
For the moment, Kabila has cowed and fragmented his domestic political opposition.
However, he has a problem. Though he controls the best-equipped and best-trained Congolese police and military forces, he does not command the military force in the Congo, and authorities controlling that force are extremely upset that his selfishness and callousness could reignite the civil war.
The best military outfit in Congo belongs to the UN. It's MONUSCO acronym for the awkwardly named United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
At the moment, the MONUSCO peacekeeping operation has around 18,000 troops and armed police (slightly below its peak strength of 20,000). Some UN soldiers are of questionable quality, some are cracked (South African and Tanzanian, for example), but even questionable UN units are superior to units the Congolese Army can field. The possible exception is Kabila's Presidential Guard.
The UN Security Council has invested heavily in bringing peace to the Congo. Since 1999, the UN has had a monitoring mission or peacekeeping force of some type in the country. Estimates on how much the mission has cost vary, but the estimation is around 10 to 12 billion dollars.
Initial troop commitments were small, but the Congo effort became the UN's largest and most complex peacekeeping operation. Rogue militias in eastern Congo tested peacekeepers to the point that UN prestige was on the line. The Security Council responded by doing something highly controversial: it created a brigade with a mandate to wage offensive war, the Intervention Brigade (also called the Force Intervention Brigade).
The UN and donor nations (European and North American nations) also invested hundreds of millions of dollars in training Congolese police and administrators. In order to stabilize, Congo had to modernize.
Kabila's decision puts the entire UN and international aid and development effort at risk.
UN administrators argue that upholding the constitution and conducting an on-time election are essential to keeping the peace. So MONUSCO is directly challenging Kabila, politically and economically. The European Union is mulling political and economic sanctions tailored to penalize Kabila and his inner circle. MONUSCO has offered to provide logistical support to insure the elections are held this month.
MONUSCO's military edge is a capability that creates a possibility. If civil war erupts, would MONUSCO peacekeepers confront an unconstitutional Congolese government if that audacious act helps restore peace?
An unlikely scenario? Yes, but one Joseph Kabila cannot dismiss.