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DRC: President Tshisekedi’s coalition shows its weaknesses

By Romain Gras
Posted on Tuesday, 29 June 2021 18:17

African Union President and President of Congo Democratic Republic Felix Tshisekedi reacts during a joint news conference at the end of the Summit on the Financing of African Economies in Paris, France 18 May 2021. Ludovic Marin/Pool via REUTERS

After suffering two recent setbacks in parliament, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) president’s coalition government is starting to come apart at the seams.

On 5 June, during a meeting at the government’s headquarters, President Félix Tshisekedi gave senators of his coalition – the Union Sacrée – clear instructions: to ensure that they do “not obstruct justice”.

With just a few days left until the close of the parliamentary session, which began in March, the senators were asked to decide whether or not to strip one of their colleagues of immunity. And not just any colleague, but former prime minister Augustin Matata Ponyo, who served in the post from 2012 to 2016.

A DRC court has sought to hear his testimony regarding the management of funds allocated to the Bukanga Lonzo agribusiness park project. According to a November 2020 report published by the country’s auditing authority, the Inspection Générale des Finances, more than $205m was embezzled through the project, that had been set up during Ponyo’s tenure as prime minister.

The scandal is one of the biggest to have come out of Joseph Kabila’s final presidential term. But despite Tshisekedi’s pleas, a deeply divided senate ultimately went against his wishes in a 49-46 vote (held on 15 June after many postponements), thus leaving intact the ex-prime minister’s immunity from prosecution.

For the presidential majority, it was one of two setbacks. That same day, members of parliament (MPs) had also voted against adding a draf law to the session’s agenda, even though it had passed in the senate a day earlier. The law was meant to give the government the power to make decisions on various issues when parliament is not in session, such as extending the state of emergency that is currently in effect in the country’s Nord Kivu and Ituri provinces.

Unpredictable majority

These two failed votes serve as a reminder to President Tshisekedi that the diverse coalition which he formed following consultations in late 2020 – and which has allowed him to regain control of government institutions – is an unpredictable majority. The interests of the political forces that make up the Union Sacrée do not always align and can, at times, impede government action.

The ongoing debate surrounding legislation proposed by 2018 presidential candidate Noël Tshiani, who wants to restrict the presidency to those having a Congolese mother and father, has had a chilling effect on some in the coalition.

Tshisekedi is well aware of this reality. Three days after the dual setback, he tasked one of the linchpins of his new majority, Christophe Mboso, who presides over the national assembly, with convening Union Sacrée-affiliated MPs in an attempt to defuse the situation.

One of the goals of the meeting was to persuade the representatives to vote later that day, in favour of waiving the immunity of two MPs also implicated in the Bukanga Lonzo scandal, so as to avoid a third setback within days of the first two.

“For us, it’s about upholding the honour of this institution that is the national assembly and asserting the majority’s existence. Now isn’t the time to question things,” Mboso said, addressing the representatives, in a recording. “Is it a coincidence that President Tshisekedi won a majority in parliament?”

And they seem to have gotten the message loud and clear, as both MPs, René Lumbu Kiala and Louise Munga Mesozi, were stripped of their immunity, thereby allowing the courts to issue summons. But the meeting, held at Fleuve Congo Hotel, nonetheless illustrates how onerous a task it can be to bridge differences in views within the new majority.

‘The President’s vision’

The Union Sacrée vehicle has broken down before. For instance, divisions arose out of the first round of talks that were held to determine the leadership of the two houses of parliament, with the different member parties of the alliance battling over who would get what position.

Hard bargaining over cabinet posts also produced its share of frustrations, as some parties, including Moïse Katumbi’s Ensemble pour la République, and former members of Kabila’s camp, felt they were not adequately rewarded for their part in overturning the old majority.

At one point, their disaffection jeopardised the confirmation of the new cabinet, although an overwhelming majority of national assembly members ultimately voted in favour of the appointees, but only after several days of negotiations and a meeting with Tshisekedi.

“We’ve always said that the Union Sacrée is a majority that various groups joined because they share the President’s vision. Things may not go smoothly all the time, but what matters is that we continue to forge ahead down this path,” said a source close to the President.

“From the beginning, it’s been all about which person could fill which post instead of about ideas,” said Jean-Pierre Bemba, a member of the party Mouvement de Libération du Congo.

Noël Tshiani’s proposed law

Despite the hiccups, the Union Sacrée has at times cobbled together some form of unity, such as during votes on the extension of the state of emergency and the reform of the Commission Electorale Nationale Indépendante (CENI).

The highly anticipated reform, which came in the wake of a series of widely criticised elections, handily passed, but there are still sentiments of unfinished business, including within the coalition’s ranks.

The group of MPs known as G13, which in 2020 addressed the issue of electoral reform, complained that “the ambitious plans to reform CENI were sacrificed in the name of the division of leadership posts on the commission, resulting in minor, limited reforms that stop short of transforming the election administration”.

One central criticism is that few changes were made to the commission’s leadership, with the parliamentary majority receiving four of seven seats. A segment of the political class has called for CENI’s de-politicisation, but plans for that have been scrapped.

Opposition leader Martin Fayulu and the DRC’s Conférence Episcopale Nationale du Congo have sounded the alarm, with the latter criticising the reform for “paving the way for election challenges and legitimacy crises down the road”. However, the movement has yet to gain any real traction.

These issues continue to be important considerations for coalition members, all the more so because President Tshisekedi has made no secret of his plans to stand for a second term.

The ongoing debate surrounding legislation proposed by 2018 presidential candidate Noël Tshiani, who wants to restrict the presidency to those having a Congolese mother and father, has had a chilling effect on some in the coalition, who fear that the proposed law could be used to limit the field of competitors in the 2023 presidential race.

Tshiani’s proposal has not amounted to any concrete action, however, since he does not serve in parliament. He reportedly approached a number of MPs about drafting the law, but his initiative has not gone any further at this time.

Katumbi, for his part, remains wary. Although members of Tshisekedi’s inner circle have asserted that the president is not concerned over the increasingly visible presidential ambitions of the former governor of Katanga, Katumbi’s wingmen are worried that the proposed law could be weaponised against him after the controversy around his nationality in 2018.

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