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The 31 December deal between opposition parties and Joseph Kabila Kabange, brokered by the Roman Catholic Bishops Conference and supported by the international community, should lead to elections by year-end and the president’s eventual departure. This would do much to clarify Democratic Republic of Congo’s future direction, from developing the Inga dam to establishing a path of improved governance and economic recovery (AE 325/22, 320/1).

Even some Chinese investors have grown tired of DRC’s poor governance as Kabila and a small group of cronies have sought to dominate mining and other key sectors. The extent of graft was highlighted when Och-Ziff Capital Management Group was prosecuted in the United States for paying over $100m in bribes to top officials through a local partner who shares the profile of Kabila’s close ally Dan Gertler. Gertler denied he was involved, but has built a multi-billion dollar business empire on his relationship with Kabila. It may be an important sign that times are changing that the Israeli billionaire is selling his two biggest mining interests in DRC to Glencore in a $960m deal (AE 340/18).

Gertler promised to reinvest some of this windfall, but analysts believe his years of comfortable domination of DRC business may be nearing an end. Meanwhile, Kabila is working to maintain control for as long as possible, by exploiting his hold on the levers of power and his many opponents’ weaknesses. His life is complicated by a dizzying array of challenges, including militia violence in Kasai and other regions, but Kabila has proved a survivor. His longevity seems further enhanced by the complex political situation following the death in Brussels on 1 February of opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi. Other opposition leaders have the potential to cause Kabila problems – notably former Katanga governor Moïse Katumbi Chapwe, who remains in exile – but none have Tshisekedi’s credentials, nor his support base in Kinshasa’s poorer neighbourhoods, where security forces killed dozens of protesters last year. The veteran leader had been appointed president of the Conseil National de Suivi de l’Accord to oversee the December deal.

With no elections since 2011, the National Assembly no longer has a mandate; neither has the Senate been renewed. The prime minister appointed by Kabila to lead a transition government, Samy Badibanga Ntita, is a mining sector professional, chairman since 2005 of the Fédération des Explorateurs et Extracteurs du Congo and a former adviser to giant multinational BHP Billiton. Drawn from the opposition, Badibanga had serious differences with Tshisekedi; his grip on power is weak and he is likely to be replaced very soon.

Kabila will continue to pull the strings, pending a major reversal in the balance of forces. The presidency is looking to draw in cash wherever it can – one reason why the Agence pour le Développement et la Promotion de Grand Inga, which answers to Kabila not the PM, has sought to accelerate work on the Inga 3 project, for which two consortia are left in the bidding: China’s Groupement Chine d’Inga and the multinational Groupement ProInga led by Spain’s Actividades de Construcción y Servicios-Cobra (AE 328/1). The decision to invite bids before World Bank-financed studies were complete is just one issue causing considerable discomfort. An opposition win would further complicate the situation; before then, Kabila will want a financially attractive outcome.

As ever in DRC, there is all to play for, with plenty of twists that could enrich a tiny minority while disappointing the impoverished majority. There is little sign that Kabila has a masterplan to stay in office or extricate himself without heavy loss; nor that the opposition can chart a path to power. A political vacuum persists – and in that environment Kabila has shown himself a formidable player.