Africa

OP-ED

Political marriage of convenience bodes ill for prosperity in DRC

President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo Felix Tshisekedi, left, and former DRC president Joseph Kabila. (Photos: EPA-EFE / Hayoung Jeon | Jock Fistick / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

On Tuesday 30 June, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) celebrates the country’s independence from Belgium in 1960. The DRC, which has changed its national flag three times since independence in search of a new start, remains a very unstable and poor country, despite its abundant mineral resources.

In 2020, the DRC’s independence celebration will be the second since Felix Antoine Tshilombo Tshisekedi ascended to the presidency. He is the fifth president in office since independence, and the son of the most celebrated opposition leader in the DRC, Etienne Tshisekedi. His father died a few months before the elections that brought Felix Tshisekedi to power, after 38 years of opposition politics. 

President Felix Tshisekedi was elected in a controversial election, full of irregularities. He is accused of having entered a deal with the former president, Joseph Kabila Kabange. 

Rumours are that, among the three leading contenders in those fiercely contested 2018 elections, Felix Tshisekedi came third. If this is true, it means that Tshisekedi owes his presidency to Joseph Kabila, and that Kabila (who controlled the National Independent Electoral Commission) elevated an opposition leader to power against the wishes of the Congolese people. Many people, including the influential Catholic Church, believe that this is what happened. 

Kabila ceded power under pressure from the Congolese and the international community, but he made sure that he remained in full control of state institutions and the country. Despite the disputed elections, the Congolese people decided to look forward and put their hope in Felix Tshisekedi’s ability to turn around the country’s misfortune.

The election results gave Kabila’s coalition platform control of the National Assembly, the Senate, and 25 of the country’s 26 provinces. With the majority in the National Assembly, Kabila controls the executive. Kabila also continues to control the army and the judiciary. What this means is that the new president cannot take any decision without consulting Kabila. Many Congolese observers think this was the cardinal mistake made by Tshisekedi, to have agreed to enter a deal that took away his ability to govern. 

Since coming to power, Tshisekedi has been unable to impose his authority on the nation-state. Kabila’s control over key state institutions allows him to decide when things must be done and how they must be done, putting serious limitations on Tshisekedi’s ability to implement any plans. From time to time Kabila gives Tshisekedi opportunities to make superficial changes to the army or the judiciary, to give the impression that the president is in charge and to calm Tshisekedi’s supporters who have been outspoken against this marriage of convenience. 

Kabila’s plan has worked perfectly – give symbolic presidential power to an opposition leader but deny him control of all key instruments of state power. In his deal with Tshisekedi, Kabila achieved three things. 

Laurent Kabila was replaced by his son Joseph in a mysterious arrangement that has never been clearly explained. The son remains an enigma. Sensing the danger that he might end up being killed like his father (and other previous Congolese leaders), Joseph Kabila organised bogus elections, which brought Felix Tshisekedi to power. 

First, he disarmed any accusation against him of trying to hold on to power from the international community; second, he paralysed and weakened the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS), the major opposition party in the country, by co-opting its presidential candidate; and third, he continues to rule the DRC through his coalition with Tshisekedi. 

Kabila’s plan was not only to co-opt the leader of the main opposition party, but also to weaken and destroy the UDPS. The plan seems to be working. UDPS is dying a slow death with internal divisions caused by power and money. The death of UDPS will leave a big void in Congolese politics, but it will also reduce (if not eliminate) Tshisekedi’s chance of being re-elected in 2023. 

In the DRC, anything is possible. Perhaps Kabila could still help Tshisekedi win the 2023 elections and continue with the current arrangement where he continues to rule through Tshisekedi. Kabila’s manoeuvring goes far beyond Putin-Medvedev “tandemocracy”, where power was shared between the two levels of government. This was acceptable since Medvedev was Putin’s protégé, but in this case Kabila and Tshisekedi were fierce opponents. 

The history of the DRC seems to repeat itself each time a profound change is about to happen in favour of the Congolese people. 

Three months after independence, the elected prime minister, Patrice Emery Lumumba, was killed by Western powers, plunging the country into a spiral of violence which culminated in Mobutu Sese Seko’s coup détat in 1965. After 32 years of being used and misused, Mobutu was finally chased out by the same Western powers, using African armies. The same Western powers agreed to let Laurent Desire Kabila ascend to power after Mobutu was overthrown. A few years later, Laurent Kabila was killed after he refused to allow the Western powers to continue pillaging the country’s resources. 

Laurent Kabila was replaced by his son Joseph in a mysterious arrangement that has never been clearly explained. The son remains an enigma. Sensing the danger that he might end up being killed like his father (and other previous Congolese leaders), Joseph Kabila organised bogus elections, which brought Felix Tshisekedi to power. 

The 60th anniversary of independence finds the Congolese poorer than they were in 1960, with eastern parts of the country under occupation by a multitude of militia groups, killing and raping.   

For Kabila, the deal with Tshisekedi is supposed to be a short-term arrangement. Kabila needs full control of power again, not because he necessarily wants power, but because he needs to protect himself and his vast investments. Kabila has been accused of many human right violations and mismanagement of the country during his tenure. His opponents, ironically led by the party of his current ally Felix Tshisekedi, look forward to the day when he will have to answer to all these accusations. 

Kabila is pragmatic. He knows that he must be very careful with Felix Tshisekedi. Felix remains the son of Etienne Tshisekedi, who during his time had nothing good to say about Joseph Kabila – his plan was to arrest him once he ascended to the presidency. Maybe the son has not abandoned his father’s dream. Kabila knows this, and he knows his deal with Felix Tshisekedi does not give him, his family and his allies, full guarantee. What the deal has done is give him time to plan for an acceptable comeback. For Kabila, a real guarantee for his security is only assured when he himself or one of his closest and trusted allies assumes political power in Kinshasa. 

While the world celebrated a peaceful democratic transition of power, the country was plunged into another impasse by the deal between Kabila and Tshisekedi, and no one (including Kabila and Tshisekedi) knows how the deal will end. 

What we know for sure is that the Kabila-Tshisekedi marriage will end one day, but how and what will be the consequences for the country, no one knows. The United States, among the fiercest critics of Joseph Kabila’s regime, has adopted Tshisekedi in the hope that he will break up with Kabila. The US has not pardoned Kabila for opening the country’s natural resources (especially strategic minerals such as copper, cobalt and columbite titanium) to China. Through Tshisekedi, the US wants to reclaim total control of what they consider as their chasse gardéethe DRC. So far, there are no signs that Tshisekedi is prepared to abandon Kabila. 

Tshisekedi and Kabila have the future of the country in their hands. If they want their children and grandchildren to be proud of them and to live in a prosperous nation, this is the time to rise above the mediocrity and selfishness that has characterised Congolese leadership. 

The election of Tshisekedi has not changed the structure of power in the DRC. The kleptocratic nature of the Congolese state remains intact under Felix Tshisekedi. The Congolese people have been trying since independence to own and control their country and use its abundant minerals to develop the DRC for themselves and future generations. With the Tshisekedi-Kabila marriage, they are at their wits’ end. The deal between the two clearly shows that the problem in the DRC is not just caused by outsiders who are destabilising the country, but also with Congolese themselves. 

The 60th anniversary of independence finds the Congolese poorer than they were in 1960, with eastern parts of the country under occupation by a multitude of militia groups, killing and raping.   

Two years into power, Felix Tshisekedi is struggling to govern the country. He has not delivered on most of his promises. His campaign slogan, “People First”, is quickly fading away. When Lumumba took the podium on Independence Day in 1960 to speak for a prosperous Congo and was subsequently killed, it might have been the beginning and the end of that dream. 

From Mobutu to Tshisekedi, all the Congolese leaders have failed to turn the misfortunes of the DRC around. How can a people so talented and creative fail to understand that with the enormous resources their country has, there is enough for every Congolese to live a decent life, and that installing a state based on fairness, transparency, accountability and rule of law is essential? 

Tshisekedi and Kabila have the future of the country in their hands. If they want their children and grandchildren to be proud of them and to live in a prosperous nation, this is the time to rise above the mediocrity and selfishness that has characterised Congolese leadership. 

Independence Day should be a forceful reminder of the democratic rights enshrined in the Constitution. These include the right to free speech and to protest, and respect for socioeconomic rights (including the right to food, healthcare, shelter, water, and education). 

But there is a huge gap between setting norms and implementing them in the DRC. In the DRC, as things change, they also remain the same. The hope that Felix Antoine Tshilombo Tshisekedi will bring change is quickly fading away. DM

Dr Claude Kabemba ( [email protected]) is the executive director of the Southern Africa Resource Watch. He writes in his own capacity.

Gallery

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted