With the Covid-19 pandemic hurting the economy, continued instability in the east and a political tug-of-war at the heart of government, the young administration of Félix Tshisekedi is trying to impose its will, seeking allies at home and abroad.
As the face of Fatshi Béton beamed out of television screens in tens of thousands of bars and cafés across Africa’s biggest country, it was not the 60th birthday he would have wished for. Instead of the grand commemoration with international celebrities and Congo’s superb musicians playing the soundtrack, it was a pandemic-era affair.
Fatshi Béton, as President Félix Tshisekedi is known by his supporters, scaled down his plans to showcase the “New Congo”. A decade ago, his predecessor Joseph Kabila, who casts a long shadow over national politics, hosted a glittering festival of independence on the banks of the River Congo.
This year, to mark the country’s 60 years of freedom from Belgian colonial rule on 30 June, Tshisekedi hosted a modest gathering of ministers and political acolytes to broadcast a sombre message to the nation. “From independence to the present day, the main effect of our political policy has been to dilute efficiency, to dilute responsibility and, ultimately, to do disservice,” said the President.
Tensions in government Tshisekedi was speaking after weeks of escalating tensions with loyalists to former president Kabila, against whom Tshisekedi and his party faithful have been trying to assert themselves in the government, the national assembly and the sprawling state administration. The more excitable commentators and activists confidently predict that the clashes will come to a head and bring the shaky coalition between Kabila’s still-dominant Front Commun pour le Congo (FCC) alliance and Tshisekedi’s Cach grouping to come crashing down.
Such was the political temperature in the country on independence day that a “statement of regret” from Belgium’s King Philippe barely registered – except to irritate activists with its weasel words. Philippe had written to Tshisekedi using legalistic phraseology designed to fend off the growing calls for reparations for Belgium’s hyper-exploitation of Congo under King Leopold II’s ‘Free State’ from 1895 to 1908.
It seems it was the power of the Black Lives Matter campaign, some of whose adherents in Belgium want the removal of Leopold’s statues, that prompted Philippe’s minimalist statement to Tshisekedi: ‘I want to express my deepest regret for these wounds of the past whose pain is reawakened today by the discrimination still present in our societies.’ Tshisekedi’s diplomatic adviser, Dominique Migisha, accepted the monarch’s message with good grace, tweeting that ‘times have well and truly changed’.
Tshisekedi spent much of his early life in Europe while his father, radical oppositionist Etienne Tshisekedi, was being harassed and tortured by Mobutu Sese Seko’s regime. Whatever Tshisekedi may think of Belgium’s colonial record today, he is searching for allies to shore up his position in his ongoing power struggle with Kabila.
In efforts to access lines of finance free from the constraints of Kabila loyalists in parliament and the cabinet, Tshisekedi and his ambassadors have courted international agencies and regional groupings such as the European Union. Strengthening his diplomatic credibility took the president much of last year but opened him up to claims of absenteeism.
To survive in power, Tshisekedi is trying to outmanoeuvre rather than confront the Kabilists. That means spending less time in political fights and more time establishing a policy programme of his own, as well as a patronage system that can reward supporters of his Union pour la Démocratie et le Progrès Social (UDPS).
Sometimes the fights are unavoidable, such as the set-piece battle about tightening control over the nominally independent judges under justice minister Célestin Tunda Ya Kasende, a close Kabila ally. Under new measures, the minister would get a veto on attempts to launch prosecutions for human rights abuses and grand corruption – there are many cases in both categories waiting in the wings. Tunda was arrested in late June, escalating the dispute. He stepped down in mid-July.
Protests over electoral head Another, still fiercer clash was over the Commission Electorale Nationale Indépendante (CENI) to which Kabila’s allies in parliament appointed his ally Ronsard Malonda as chairman on 2 July. Mass demonstrations over this are due to continue, with opposition parties implacably opposed to Malonda, whom they accuse of complicity in fraud in every election since 2006.
So heated had the clashes over these issues become that the two sides organised a tête-a-tête between Kabila and Tshisekedi on 2 July. That quietened the national mood, allowing for delays on both issues. It also showed that both sides can blink when the country teeters towards to the edge.
Even before the pandemic, Tshisekedi had minimal control over the country’s main sources of revenue, as the main state enterprises that manage the mines and the agriculture sector have remained in the hands of the Kabilists. Following the tortuous negotiations between Tshisekedi and Kabila after the problematic December 2018 national elections, an awkward coalition emerged in August 2019 that continually seems on the brink of dissolution. Usually the clashes are over mining revenue and the security forces. Tshisekedi is far from controlling either.
Fayulu and Katumbi Tshisekedi also has to triangulate between the Kabilists and the erstwhile opposition allies with whom he broke in the run-up to the presidential election. In a loose alliance known as Lamuka – which includes Martin Fayulu, widely seen as the legitimate winner of the election, and former Katanga governor Moïse Katumbi, who is planning a new party – will neither work with Tshisekedi nor accord him any credit for opening up the political climate.
This three-way split suits Kabila because it divides his natural opponents. That is amplified by the parliamentary arithmetic, based again on disputed results in the 2018 elections. Tshisekedi’s UDPS won about 10% of the 500 seats in the national assembly, according to the CENI. Kabila’s FCC controls 340 seats. That leaves another 100 seats in the hands of the broad opposition, which might agree with Tshisekedi on some issues but cannot form a bloc to outvote the Kabilists.
Néhémie Mwilanya Wilondja, the FCC’s coordinator, is sceptical about the government’s ability to push through policies that matter to the Congolese people, telling Jeune Afrique: “There is a lot more to be done. Politicians have to get serious. They can still confront challenges that are present, to focus on the Congolese, whose purchasing power has dropped and who are facing serious socio-economic difficulties, instead of working on their small political calculations.”
Political scientist JeanClaude Mputu explained the Tshisekedi-Kabila dynamic on German radio: “After the election, people had great hopes for improvement, and equally great disappointments.” Whatever Tshisekedi’s intentions, the logjam in parliament has blocked him from pushing through a single important reform due to “his original sin of having entered into this unholy alliance with Joseph Kabila.”
Parliament’s blocking of Tshisekedi’s attempts to appoint new boards to state-owned enterprises triggered a new desperation as his officials tried to push through reforms in the mining industry and get a better handle on revenue. In January, the impasse in the assembly had become so frustrating for Tshisekedi that during his trip to an investment summit in London he told a private meeting that he would be forced to use his constitutional prerogative to dissolve parliament and order fresh elections.
That riled the Kabilists. National Assembly president Jeanine Mabunda and Senate president Alexis Thambwe Mwamba snapped back that any such move would require Tshisekedi to consult with them first.
That option seems to have receded for now. Firstly, because there is not enough money to hold fresh elections. And secondly, because Tshisekedi and his party might fare no better with the CENI under the control of the Kabilists.
Opaque agreement Kabila and his business partners have their own worries about the direction of travel. In February, he complained to British diplomats that Tshisekedi was no longer meeting directly with him but preferred to send an envoy, such as his spokesman Jean-Marc Kabund. Kabila insists that Tshisekedi has to respect the terms of their postelection agreement, which have never been made public. It is likely that any moves by Tshisekedi to commission an independent audit of the state mining entities would be regarded as such a breach.
Tshisekedi is stretched between the political realities in Kinshasa and external pressures to rein in illicit financial flows. The International Monetary Fund, which has agreed to a $368m credit line, wants a thoroughgoing reform of revenue management that will cut across many of the state commercial structures that Tshisekedi’s team inherited. And, in July, the World Bank announced a $1bn credit to part-fund the government’s free public education programme and improved primary healthcare.
Tshisekedi won a conditional endorsement from the US on his visit to Washington in April 2019. When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met him, the message was that the US would do more financially and diplomatically if the new government were able to undercut Kabila’s power over the mines and the military. Since then, Washington has stepped up sanctions on some of Kabila’s inner circle.
But the government’s stabs at anti-corruption have been erratic, at best. The most high-profile defendant has been Vital Kamerhe, Tshisekedi’s former chief of staff, who was sentenced to 20 years in jail on 20 June for corrupt diversion of sums from the government’s investment programme. Kamerhe’s supporters say it suits both Tshisekedi and Kabila to get him out of the way in case he ran for the presidency in 2023.
Against expectation, Tshisekedi has made some progress in bringing in his own security officers, such as Major General Christian Tshiwewe Songesha as commander of the Garde Républicaine. But that has not been reflected in a wider influence over security affairs, nor any serious efforts to control the militias fighting over gold and other minerals in eastern provinces such as Ituri and Kivu-Nord.
The clear message to people there, and elsewhere in the DRC, is that Kabila retains control of much of the money and many of the guns in the country. Even if Tshisekedi has been able to chip away at that power, he is far from having achieved a political transition.