Congo’s president jails his rival

20160625_map503AT THE law courts in Lubumbashi, the second-biggest city in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the advocates wear smart black gowns with the stiff white collars and bands that mark their profession. The courthouse, built by the Belgians in the 1920s, is a grand affair, all white and Art Deco. Yet this outward appearance of a system of law masks the reality: in Congo, naked power is all that matters, and the law is subservient to it.

That is clear from the treatment of Moise Katumbi, the former governor of Katanga (of which Lubumbashi is the capital) and a contender for the Congolese presidency, which is meant to change hands in November at the end of Joseph Kabila’s second term. But Mr Kabila, it seems increasingly clear, intends to hold onto the presidency—defying a constitution that says fairly clearly that he should step down—and to crush any opposition that gets in the way.

On June 22nd Mr Katumbi was convicted, in absentia, of selling a house that was not his and sentenced to 36 months in jail. The case appeared suddenly, barely a month after the government had accused him of hiring American mercenaries and plotting a coup. It is a strategy the Congolese government has used before. Another Congolese politician, Jean-Claude Muyambo, is on Human Rights Watch’s list of political prisoners—he too was locked up for selling a building that did not belong to him. Curiously, the complainant was the same as in Mr Katumbi’s case.

Now, however, Mr Katumbi is looking like less of a threat. When he spoke recently to The Economist in Lubumbashi, at which point the accusation was that he had hired mercenaries, he said he would be martyred if necessary to push out Mr Kabila. But shortly afterwards he left the country for South Africa, claiming to need treatment for injuries sustained when the police broke up demonstrations in his support. The former governor is now in Europe, presumably drumming up support among the sizeable Congolese diaspora.

In his absence Mr Kabila has pressed on. In mid-May the Congolese constitutional court ruled that if there is no election in November (as there should be), he can stay in power. There will probably not be an election, mostly because Mr Kabila does not want one (he claims there is no money to organise it). Earlier this month an ally floated the possibility of a referendum on changing the constitution. “Glissement”, or slippage—Mr Kabila’s strategy since he lost a battle to change the constitution early last year—seems to be working.

If Mr Katumbi does return, he could provide a powerful counterweight. But if he does not, Congo’s opposition is unlikely to find somebody else influential enough to have a serious chance of forcing Mr Kabila out. And it is hardly clear that Mr Katumbi really is brave enough to risk being imprisoned the moment he lands.

All this sets up a dangerous end to this year. Mr Kabila has control of the state apparatus, but it is difficult to find many people who actually support him. In 2006 he was elected by piling up votes in Katanga—Mr Katumbi’s power base. The east of the country is still divided between around 70 armed groups. The capital, Kinshasa, is a city of 12m angry slum-dwellers, many of whom will see little to lose in looting and rioting if he stays on. The economy is slowing, prices are climbing and the franc is weakening against the dollar. If the security forces cannot be paid, then all bets are off.

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