Felix Tshisekedi: The UK Must Freeze Dictators' Assets If It Wants to Help DR Congo

An opposition leader from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has called on the U.K. government to help countries like his achieve democracy by freezing "dictators' assets" to stop them from using stolen funds allegedly stashed in offshore accounts.

Tensions have been running high in the African nation due to incumbent President Joseph Kabila's attempt to cling on to power.

"The international community must help us get rid of Joseph Kabila, if we achieve this, we will resolve one of the biggest components of our crisis," Felix Tshisekedi, a leader of the Congolese opposition coalition told Newsweek. The 53-year-old politician, son of late opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi, made the comments after holding a talk at Soas University in London.

"The U.K. can help us fight against dictatorship. Dictators hide money in offshore accounts, including in the U.K. So the first thing that needs to be done is to freeze those accounts," Tshisekedi continued.

A 2014 report by Global Witness (GW) claimed that international mining companies bought major mining concessions in DRC, but "most of that money never reached the Congolese state coffers", resulting in DRC losing at least $1.36 billion in the process.

"The owner of the offshore companies and personal friend of Congolese President Joseph Kabila, Dan Gertler, profited immensely. The companies involved are mostly registered in the British Virgin Islands, where regulations allow their true owners to be kept secret," the report said.

"Global Witness investigated these transactions, concerned that this lack of transparency and Gertler's relationship with the President increased the potential for corrupt figures in the Congolese elite to personally benefit from the sales."

This year, the Congo Research Group (CRG) estimated that the Kabila family owns more than 80 companies and businesses inside and outside DR Congo, estimating that the family's assets "are easily worth many tens of millions of dollars."

CRG said that while the business holdings are not "necessarily illegal or corrupt," some may violate DRC's law or codes and "raise serious questions of conflicts of interest."

Tshisekedi also said the U.K. and the international community should put in place "severe sanctions" against leaders who he said "abuse populations."

Earlier this year, the EU extended its sanctions on nine more senior security officials in DRC, bringing the total number of people targeted to 16. Sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes, were imposed due to what the EU said was a deteriorating situation in DRC, exacerbated by deadly violence in the restive Kasai region.

In June, the US imposed targeted sanctions against Kabila's personal military chief of staff, Gen. François Olenga, "to send a strong message" that continued violence and abuses were unacceptable.

Felix Tshisekedi
Felix Tshisekedi (centre), the son of the late President of the Democratic Republic of Congo opposition party Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) Etienne Tshisekedi, is greeted by supporters as he arrives at St Pancras station on December 5, 2017 in London, England. He called on the international community to help monitor elections to ensure they are free and credible. Leon Neal/Getty Images

A U.K. government spokeswoman told Newsweek: "We continuously review our relationship with the DRC on the basis of events on the ground, and will continue to do so. With respect to human rights violations and deliberate efforts to undermine the democratic process, we have been clear in the past that individuals will bear responsibility for their actions."

The U.K. is one of DRC's largest European donors and has provided £168 million over the past five years. However, none of the funding goes directly to the government, but to "trusted partners" that deliver essential assistance to those in need of urgent help.

With 3.8 million people forced to flee their homes, DRC has the highest number of internally displaced people in Africa. In the first six months of 2017, it had the largest number of newly displaced people in the world.

This year, the U.K. announced a new allocation of £175 million for emergency humanitarian support over the next five years, until 2022.

Elections 'will be rigged'

Joseph Kabila
Democratic Republic of Congo President Joseph Kabila Kabange waits to address the 72nd Session of the United Nations General assembly at the UN headquarters in New York on September 23, 2017. Kabila has been accused of trying to cling on to power after he refused to stand down when his second term in office expired in December 2016. BRYAN R. SMITH/AFP/Getty Images

DRC has been marred by deadly conflicts and violent transfers of powers since it achieved independence from Belgium in 1960.

Kabila, 46, took power in 2001 after his father, then president, was assassinated. The leader is bound by the constitution to step down as he has served two consecutive terms in power. However, he refused to leave office when his term expired on 20 December 2016.

Amid deadly violence that killed dozens, the government and the opposition bloc agreed that Kabila would stay in power until December 2017, but the country's constitution would not be amended to allow the leader to further prolong his time in office.

Presidential elections have been delayed several times since, however. In November, the vote was further postponed to December 2018 by the electoral commission. The opposition condemned the announcement and urged Kabila to stand down by the end of this year, as previously agreed.

Tshisekedi alleged that the government is trying to introduce, "with the complicity of the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI)", electronic machines for next year's vote.

"They will be used to rig the elections as a consequence," he claimed. He then called on the U.K. and the United Nations to be more involved in the electoral process, to guarantee "credible and legitimate election."

The Congolese embassy in London has denied Tshisekedi's allegations. A spokesperson told Newsweek: "It is sad to note that a so-called opposition leader ignores that this issue is a thing of the past; it is no longer on the agenda of the Electoral Commission. Nobody talks about it anymore simply because Parliament has already rejected it."

The fragmented opposition bloc has not yet chosen a candidate that will run in next year's election. Some have cast doubts over Tshisekedi's political capabilities, given his inexperience, according to the BBC.

Tshisekedi was appointed as one of the opposition leaders after his father, a veteran opposition leader, died in Belgium earlier this year.

Tshisekedi, however, seems adamant that he and his party, the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UPDS), can offer a corruption-free, stable and peaceful future for DRC and create an environment where foreign investments will thrive.

"But first," he said, "we must get rid of dictatorship."

DRC Protests
Congolese protesters scatter as police open fire with rubber bullets whilst they protest outside the Democratic Republic of the Congo's Embassy in in Pretoria, South Africa, in defiance of their President, Joseph Kabila on December 20, 2016. The United Nations voiced alarm over a wave of arrests in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where tensions were running high after President Joseph Kabila's term in office expired. JOHN WESSELS/AFP/Getty Images

The embassy reaffirmed that "free, fair, peaceful and transparent elections" will take place on December 23, 2018. It then called for the U.K. and the international community to support "the irreversible walk of the Congolese people towards the holding of elections that will bring about a democratic change in the country."

"The Embassy understands that the said opposition leader wants people to protest for two days and on the third day Kabila's dictatorship will fall. Is that the democratic process they want to use to bring about change?," it continued.

The U.K. has long called for free and credible elections in DRC.

"The U.K. remains concerned by the political situation in the DRC and is alarmed at the increasing violence. We call upon all actors to work together to find an end to the conflict and hold credible, inclusive and peaceful elections as soon as possible," the government spokesperson said.