The Trump administration is ready to impose further sanctions against the regime of Democratic Republic of Congo president Joseph Kabila to dissuade him from trying to hold on to power, according to several people briefed on the matter.
Mr Kabila is constitutionally obliged to step down in the vast mineral-rich African country after two terms in office, but he has not ruled out seeking re-election this year despite repeated appeals from the US, France and Britain. Speculation is rife that he will put his name on the ballot this week.
“The US is trying to convince Kabila to go between now and August 8,” said one of the people briefed, referring to the deadline for politicians to declare their candidacy for the presidency. “They’re trying to squeeze his family and his finances.”
A US government source said Washington was prepared to sanction other allies of Mr Kabila if he did not abide by his commitments. “Clearly that means having a process whereby Kabila is not a candidate,” said the person. “His name should not be on the ballot.”
Mr Kabila, 47, took over as president in 2001 after his father Laurent-Désiré Kabila was assassinated during a civil war. Despite its mineral riches, which include diamonds, copper and gold, the country ranks among Africa’s poorest.
In his confirmation hearings to the Senate this week, Michael Hammer, President Donald Trump’s pick for US ambassador to Congo, said many of its minerals, which also include uranium and the world’s largest reserves of cobalt, an essential input for mobile phones, “are critical to US industry”.
The Trump administration has cumulatively increased the severity and range of its sanctions against Mr Kabila. In June 2017 the US Treasury imposed sanctions on one of Mr Kabila’s most senior military officials. In December, the same department imposed sanctions on Dan Gertler, an Israeli businessman and close friend of the president.
In June, at least one family member of Mr Kabila was targeted by a state department visa ban, three people briefed on the matter told the Financial Times.
The people said at least three more family members were under consideration for stronger Treasury designated sanctions that would include asset freezes under the Global Magnitsky Act, which targets corruption and human rights abuses.
The focus on Mr Kabila’s family has infuriated the president, two of the people said, adding that the Congolese government officials regularly bring up US sanctions with Washington. But a senior administration official told the FT the Trump administration was prepared to apply sanctions to anyone “regardless of who they are”.
“[We] stand ready to apply sanctions to individuals or entities, regardless of who they are, who undermine the democratic process, or threaten the peace and security of the country,” said the senior administration official, adding the Trump administration was closely following Congo’s electoral preparations.
Peter Pham, Africa director at the Atlantic Council, said US interests in Congo went far beyond electoral and humanitarian concerns, arguing that access to its mineral deposits were “critical to the technologies which will power this century”. He said Washington would have wide support to take further action should it see “a worrisome trajectory” during the election candidacy process.
Most recently, Mr Kabila has refused to meet Nikki Haley, US ambassador to the UN, as well as UN secretary-general António Guterres and the head of the African Union. He has also refused international money and technical assistance for the polls.
Some analysts in Washington and Kinshasa suspect Mr Kabila may ask the country’s constitutional court to rule that, despite 17 years as president, he has legally served only one term and so would be eligible for another.
Sasha Lezhnev at Washington-based advocacy group, The Enough Project, said that the US needed to go further still. “The administration has taken some important initial steps but a lot more is needed frankly to really impact Kabila’s calculations,” he said.
Meanwhile, leading opposition leader Moise Katumbi has been blocked from entering the country to file his nomination for the presidential bid.
Katumbi has tried to return to Congo after two years in exile but both attempts by road or air have flopped.
First Katumbi was denied landing rights in Lubumbashi and was later blocked from using Kasumbalesa border post where he travelled by road through on Friday and Saturday.