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AFRICA UNSCRAMBLED OP-ED

The most underrated man in African politics could soon be re-elected in the DRC

The most underrated man in African politics could soon be re-elected in the DRC
Democratic Republic of the Congo President Félix Tshisekedi. (Photo: Michele Tantussi / Getty Images)

DRC President Félix Tshisekedi, the underdog who is now the top dog, has surprised time and again by triumphing over his rivals. But now he is coming up against his most formidable opponent — himself.

People called him a buffoon and doubted that his presidency of the Democratic Republic of the Congo would amount to much as it was illegitimate and left the country in the clutches of the Kabila clan.

Félix Tshisekedi was so overwhelmed by the surprising turn of events that propelled him to the country’s highest office that he fainted at his inauguration on 24 January 2019.

But the political neophyte managed to marginalise or co-opt many political leaders who thought they were smarter than him — and is now poised to win a second term as president on 20 December, according to most analysts.

“Fatshi”, as he is affectionately known to many Congolese, owes his political life to his late father, Étienne Tshisekedi, the courageous long-time opponent of the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.

Tshisekedi Snr spent long periods in jail and several shorter spells as prime minister before his death in 2017. Félix Tshisekedi spent most of his formative years in Belgium, “a son of Matonge”, the African district of Brussels, before returning to the DRC.

Tshisekedi Snr left for his son an organised political base in the form of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS), a party that was popular in Kinshasa and among the Baluba people in Kasai — Tshisekedi Snr had been their champion against Mobutu.

The people who voted for the younger Tshisekedi in 2018 did so because he was his father’s son.

The Catholic Church mobilised 40,000 poll observers and on their count the businessman Martin Fayulu won the election in a landslide, with Tshisekedi and Kabila’s surrogate Emmanuel Shadary coming in a distant second and third.

The political fix

It is remarkable that after his father probably won the heavily rigged 2011 election against President Joseph Kabila, but was denied, Félix Tshisekedi was handed the presidency on a plate after the 2018 elections, with the connivance of the same Kabila.

A political fix was endorsed by African nations and the US. Kabila was removed from the presidency in favour of Tshisekedi while remaining in control of the government through his People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy’s supermajority in the national assembly.

But Tshisekedi gradually built up his own political base and expanded his coalition. In July 2020 he struck, pulling most of the MPs into a new “sacred heart” coalition. At last he got to pick his own prime minister and Cabinet.

“Kabila thought Fatshi was an idiot, but it is he, Kabila, who was manipulated by the man he thought he was manipulating,” was the verdict of one veteran Congo watcher.

Tshisekedi, who had seemed too trusting of the many opportunists in his inner circle, now politically disposed, one by one, of those who had grown too big for their boots.

Vital Kamerhe, his Cabinet director who helped engineer Tshisekedi’s rise to the presidency, was fired, arrested for embezzlement, sentenced to 20 years in prison, then retried and acquitted before returning as deputy prime minister of the economy.

Few would contest that Tshisekedi has fared far better and survived longer than was believed possible five years ago.

“Overall, given what he has had to contend with, he’s done extremely well,” J Peter Pham, the former US special envoy to the Great Lakes, told Daily Maverick. “DRC today is much better off than under Kabila. Things are better than they were in 2018.”

Navigating geopolitics

Tshisekedi has adroitly navigated the geopolitics that come with running the country that is the world’s top battery-grade cobalt producer and has globally significant reserves of copper, gold, lithium and much else.

He took on China, whose resource for infrastructure agreement with Kabila was trumpeted as the deal of the century when it was signed 15 years ago. A careful audit revealed that less than a third of the promised investment in infrastructure had materialised.

Jules Alingete Key, the head of the Congolese General Inspectorate of Finances, described the accord as “unacceptable economic colonisation”.

drc election tshisekedi

Democratic Republic of the Congo’s President Félix Tshisekedi and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a welcoming ceremony at the Great Hall of the People on 26 May 2023 in Beijing, China. (Photo: Thomas Peter / Pool / Getty Images)

Tshisekedi travelled to China in May, meeting President Xi Jinping to reset relations and settle a dispute over unpaid billions of dollars by China Molybdenum, China’s largest cobalt producer in the DRC.

The DRC says that in future it will be taking its share of production from its joint venture partners such as Glencore and the Chinese companies in raw materials. This will enable the country to be directly involved in trading and supplying critical minerals to world markets.

The DRC, meanwhile, became the lynchpin of the US’s most ambitious infrastructure project in Africa, the Lobito Corridor, which is designed to transport critical minerals from the DRC and Zambia to the world via Angola.

In July, Sakima, the DRC state-owned company for tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold, signed a $1.9-billion deal with the United Arab Emirates to develop four industrial mines in the east of the country.

No one’s patsy

In foreign affairs, as in domestic ones, Tshisekedi has been out to prove he is no one’s patsy.

He famously scolded Emmanuel Macron for lecturing him at a press conference in March this year. Wagging his finger at the French president, Tshisekedi said that France and the West should abandon their imperious attitude towards Africa.

“Look at us differently by respecting us, by considering us as true partners and not always with a paternalistic look with the idea of always knowing what is necessary for us.”

He has invited in about 1,000 mercenaries from a group known as Association Ralf run by the Romanian former French Foreign Legion member Horatiu Potra.

They are based in the North Kivu city of Goma. The fact that the men speak Russian has prompted suspicions that they are linked with Wagner or Russian military intelligence.

Sadly, Tshisekedi has been unable to end the conflict in North Kivu and the southern edge of Province Orientale, which has displaced about a million people.

About 100 armed groups are operating in eastern DRC, mostly engaged in looting and raping. These include the Allied Democratic Forces, a Uganda-based “Islamist” guerrilla organisation which regularly crosses the border to pillage, loot and kill people in Congolese villages, leading Tshisekedi to declare a State of Siege in the region.

After the M23 guerrilla movement was revived and relaunched in 2021 Tshisekedi broke with his lean and hungry neighbour Paul Kagame, claiming that Kagame had stabbed him in the back.

At present there appears to be a slight lull in the fighting in the east.

Favoured to win

Days before the election there are still doubts whether the Independent National Electoral Commission will be able to pull it off logistically, which means it could yet be postponed for a few weeks.

As the incumbent, Tshisekedi is favoured to win, but this is also thanks to the two powerful veterans on his team — the political fixer Vital Kamerhe and Jean-Pierre Bemba, who is now minister of defence.

Bemba, who spent 10 years in jail in The Hague on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity before they were thrown out on appeal, enjoys wide support in the north and among former Mobutoists.

Tshisekedi’s advantage is widened by the failure of the opposition to unite around a single candidate. 

The DRC has a “first past the post” system, under which the president could win with as little as 40% of the vote.

Fayulu is running again but is short of money. Denis Mukwege, the gynaecologist, and winner of the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize for his campaign against sexual violence in the DRC, is a big name in international media, but a no-hoper in the election.

The one challenger who could produce a surprise upset is Moïse Katumbi, the former governor of Katanga and favourite of the business elite, who has large financial means at his disposal and a strong political base in the country’s industrial heartland.

Katumbi is the son of a Jewish Greek father who fled the Italian fascists in 1938 and a Bembe mother whose nationality has been the target of a smear campaign implying that Katumbi is Zambian by birth.

Underdog to top dog

Félix Tshisekedi, the underdog who is now the top dog, has surprised time and again by triumphing over his rivals. But now he is coming up against his most formidable opponent — himself.

There are fears that the psychological wounds of illegitimacy from the last election mean that he will not be content with a mundane first-past-the-post win, and that he might seek to conjure up a more emphatic victory by stuffing the ballot boxes.

Given how brittle the DRC remains, this is the kind of action that could trigger conflict. Kagame, for one, now a sworn enemy of Tshisekedi, will be watching to see if the elections end in chaos before making his next move.

Assuming Tshisekedi comes through unscathed, what will his second term look like without the same intensity of struggle, intrigue and political wrestling that marked his first five years?

The DRC is still 179th out of 189 countries on the UN Human Development Index and 166th out of 180 countries in the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index.

Will his administration focus on fighting corruption and development in the DRC, giving life on the ground to social reforms such as free education and maternity care that exist on paper but have yet to be realised?

Or will he be the man who, as Africa Report has noted, has begun using authoritarian rhetoric, with someone describing him as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”?

The DRC — and the rest of the world — will soon find out. DM

Phillip van Niekerk is the author of Africa Unscrambled, a newsletter covering the continent in a way you won’t read anywhere else. Get unscrambled by signing up here. He is also the editorial director of Scrolla.Africa.

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