Unrest in the army and changes to electoral law are potential sources of instability.
The events of an attempted ‘coup’ on February 27 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) are still shrouded in mystery. What is known is that a group of men armed with light weapons – rocket-propelled grenades and machetes – attacked the Kinshasa residence of President Kabila before being repelled by the Presidential Guard.
They then attacked an army base close by before order was eventually restored. Official reports have suggested that there were about 60 people involved in the attack, while a UN source has been quoted by the AFP agency as suggesting that the number was closer to 100. After this the details become a lot more uncertain. In particular, the motives behind the attack are still unknown.
The Information Minister, Lambert Mende, gave an interview shortly after the attack claiming that some of the attackers appeared to have had military training, before quickly denying that the attack came from members of the Presidential Guard unhappy with living conditions.
Even if concern over living conditions is not the cause, there are several other possible explanations. The involvement of foreign powers appears credible at first as all the major developments in the ongoing regional conflict have involved one or more of the DRC’s neighbours. However, since the agreement in November 2008 (the details of which remain secret) between Kabila and his enemy during the war, Paul Kagame, the likelihood of external powers tampering with Kinshasa has somewhat diminished.
The elections scheduled for November provides another possible explanation for the attack. The last election in 2006 prompted an upsurge in violence in Kinshasa which required a European Union peacekeeping force to quell it. Kinshasa was also an opposition stronghold, with Kabila’s rival Jean-Pierre Bemba receiving a greater share of the Presidential first round vote than Kabila did.
If the election was a factor in the coup, Bemba’s direct involvement can then probably be ruled out – he is currently in The Hague being tried for two counts of crimes against humanity and three counts of war crimes for which he is pleading not guilty.
A particular election-related grievance occured just over a month before the attempted coup, when a change in the constitution saw the scrapping of the run-off for the Presidential election if no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote. Opposition parties have been outraged by the move. Given the seemingly poor organisation of this coup, the hand of a united opposition in guiding it seems unlikely; however, the possibility that opposition elements were involved cannot be ruled out.
Despite this possibility the most likely cause rests in the army. Even with the training of units by foreign forces and the United Nations peacekeeping mission in the country, MONUSCO, the national army (FARDC) remains ill-disciplined and has been accused of human rights violationsand exploiting mineral resources for personnel gain.
The army has also received members of former rebel groups – such as the National Congress for the Defence of the People – responsible for a rebellion led by Laurent Nkunda in 2008. With soldiers and rebels now in the same army the risk of ill-discipline has grown. Either former rebels harbouring a grudge against the government or soldiers unhappy with the new favouritism shown to the CNDP could well be behind the attempted coup. The suggested military training of some of the men involved is a real indicator that former-rebels or disgruntled soldiers were part of the group that attempted the coup.
Whatever the reason, the government is keeping likely motivations a secret for now. Its response of over 100 arrests suggests that the government is keen to stop any threat in their tracks, particularly as tension in the country increases with the elections drawing nearer. It may have succeeded in quelling this mysterious coup attempt but time will tell if it can handle the ill-discipline of the FARDC and the opposition of political rivals in Kinshasa.