Democratic Republic of Congo President Felix Tshisekedi is increasingly asserting independence from predecessor Joseph Kabila, despite Kabila having allegedly facilitated his victory in the 30 December 2018 presidential elections.
And the US is evidently helping Tshisekedi’s bid to stop Kabila continuing to pull the strings of power.
While Tshisekedi was officially declared the winner of the presidential poll, despite widespread allegations of massive vote-rigging, Kabila’s Common Front for the Congo (FCC) officially won a clear majority of 337 of the 500 seats in the National Assembly elections on 30 December 2018. Tshisekedi’s Direction for Change coalition came a distant third with just 46 seats.
On that basis, Kabila’s FCC has been demanding the major say in the appointment of a Prime Minister, hoping thereby to retain a big hand in government. But Tshisekedi has been resisting.
Last week Tshisekedi blocked the inauguration of newly elected senators because he said they had been corruptly elected. He also postponed the elections for provincial governors, due on March 26, until further notice.
Tshisekedi’s Direction for Change won none of the 108 senate seats, which were indirectly elected on 14 March by the 715 members of the provincial assemblies, who were directly elected at the same time as the presidential elections on 30 December. Kabila’s FCC won a majority of the provincial assembly seats and thereby also won 91 senate seats. Kabila was automatically appointed as a senator-for-life, as stipulated by the country’s constitution.
Announcing that the senators would not be inaugurated, Tshisekedi ordered a probe “into ingrained corruption” among elected officials.
Tshisekedi’s accusations of vote rigging by Kabila’s party in the Senate polls were ironic, since most observers believe he himself really only came a distant second to Martin Fayulu in the presidential elections — by a margin of about 59% to 19% of the vote, some say — and that it was Kabila who overrode the will of the people to ensure Tshisekedi was declared the victor.
This was not a charitable gesture by Kabila, but rather a tactical manoeuvre to try to remain influential, as he believed he would be able to work with Tshisekedi much more easily than with Fayulu, whose Lamuku coalition also represented two political leaders who are Kabila’s bitter foes, Moise Katumbi and Jean-Pierre Bemba, who had been unable to run in the presidential elections.
Now Tshisekedi also seems to be turning against his benefactor, and the US appears to be helping him. After several statements querying the authenticity of the election results, the US State Department endorsed Tshisekedi’s victory on 23 January.
“The United States welcomes the Congolese Constitutional Court’s certification of Felix Tshisekedi as the next President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). We are committed to working with the new DRC government,” the State Department said.
Yet barely a month later, on 22 February, the State Department slapped sanctions on three of the Independent National Electoral Commission’s (CENI’s) top officials — its president, Corneille Yobeluo Nangaa, its vice-president Norbert Basengezi Katintima, and the adviser to the CENI president Marcellin Mukolo Basengezi.
It imposed the same sanctions — which forbid any of the officials or members of their immediate families from entering the US — on Aubin Minaku Ndjalandjoko, president of the DRC’s National Assembly; Benoit Lwamba Bindu, president of the DRC’s Constitutional Court as well as other unnamed election, military and government officials.
“These individuals enriched themselves through corruption, or directed or oversaw violence against people exercising their rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression. They operated with impunity at the expense of the Congolese people and showed a blatant disregard for democratic principles and human rights,” the State Department said.
And last week the US went further by also imposing financial sanctions on the CENI officials Nangaa, Katintima and Basengezi, freezing their assets in the US and prohibiting any US citizens from engaging in transactions with them.
“This action follows persistent corruption by senior officials within the DRC’s National Independent Electoral Commission and the former Kabila Government to obstruct and delay preparations for credible and inclusive elections,” said Sigal Mandelker, US Treasury Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence.
“We stand with the Congolese people who went to the polls on 30 December, but remain concerned about a flawed electoral process in which, following the presidential election, CENI continued to obstruct the democratic process and failed to ensure the vote reflected the will of the Congolese people.”
On the face of it these two sanctions measures, especially the Treasury restrictions, completely contradict the US government’s endorsement of Tshisekedi’s victory in the 30 December elections — since that victory was officially pronounced by the same CENI officials who have now been sanctioned.
But it seems this apparent contradiction can be explained both by a US State Department strategy to help Tshisekedi to curb Kabila as well as sharp differences among US officials and agencies on how to respond to the presidential election results.
The 23 January State Department decision to welcome Tshisekedi as the new president came after a heated debate within the US government. Many officials felt that Tshisekedi’s victory had clearly been rigged and that the US should openly say so and lead international and regional diplomatic efforts to reverse the results or at least to isolate Tshisekedi.
Other, more pragmatic officials believed that since the Congolese people themselves had not risen up against Tshisekedi’s official victory and because the African Union and Southern African Development Community (SADC) had — also after some hesitation — also accepted it, it had become a fait accompli. And so the US had to make the best of a bad situation and accept it.
The pragmatists and “realpolitik” prevailed.
But not all of the more idealistic officials were happy to go away quietly. One of the unhappy ones, apparently, was Sigal Mandelker, the Treasury undersecretary who announced the financial sanctions on the CENI officials last week.
According to a senior US official who requested anonymity, Mandelker was “grandstanding” in the quote she released with the Treasury sanctions announcement, which described the 30 December presidential electoral process as “flawed” and said CENI had “continued to obstruct the democratic process and failed to ensure the vote reflected the will of the Congolese people”.
“She was one of those who dissented from the policy adopted in January (to accept Tshisekedi’s victory) and is still re-litigating the decision as she can; so she took the opportunity to take a cheap shot at interagency counterparts,” the official said.
“The real (and legal) reason for the sanctions is in the descriptions under each of the three individuals — all having to do with their actions in 2016 and, to some extent, in 2017,” — and not in 2018 during the presidential elections, the official said.
The official added that if there was still any doubt about America’s position, it would be dispelled when Tshisekedi soon made his first official visit outside Africa — to Washington.
It is true that in detailing the alleged offences by Nangaa, Katintima and Basengezi, the Treasury Department statement mainly accuses them of embezzling CENI funds for their personal gain, though it also accuses Nangaa and Katintima of delivering bribes to Constitutional Court justices to uphold a decision by CENI to delay the DRC’s 2016 elections. However, the detailed citations do not refer to the 2018 elections.
The senior US official said that the sanctions against Nangaa, Katintima and Basengezi were, in part “to remove them from the space — as CENI’s mandate was up for renewal — as President Tshisekedi is confronting the “ancien régime” over the Senate and governor elections.”
The ancien régime referred to here is clearly the Kabila establishment and the US strategy described is evidently to replace the CENI officials loyal to him with others loyal to Tshisekedi instead.
The aim would presumably be to help him win governorships in the governor elections which he postponed last week. And perhaps also to win some Senate seats if the blocked Senate elections are held again.
In turn, the objective would be to weaken or undermine Kabila’s FCC, the dominance of which in the legislative elections he was clearly intending to use as leverage to retain real and perhaps dominant political power.
Former US assistant secretary of state for Africa Herman Cohen, the ultimate pragmatist, seems to interpret these events this way.
After the Senate elections, he tweeted that:
“Polls say former #DRC President Kabila’s political allies have won a majority in the Senate. But most FCC senators are likely to be disqualified due to documented corruption in several past Kabila governments. President Tshisekedi’s services will identify those criminals.”
Last week he tweeted that:
“#DRC President Tshisekedi is justified in blocking newly elected senators, virtually all of whom won their votes through monetary corruption.”
And finally Cohen tweeted:
“New US sanctions on Kabila associates is a warning: Do not try to exercise power from outside. Your time is over. #DRC.”
Washington’s thinking seems to be not only that Tshisekedi’s victory is a fait accompli, but also that he has so far been better than his predecessor, a reference mainly to his release of political prisoners.
The UN Secretary-General’s special representative in DRC, Leila Zerrougui, told the UN Security Council last week that while some Congolese disputed the election results, most were pleased with the transfer of power. She said Tshisekedi’s stated commitment to peace, the rule of law, democracy and human rights had been followed up with tangible acts, including the release of political prisoners and meetings with opposition figures. DM
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