DRC’s President Félix Tshisekedi is a man in a hurry. Six months after he formally announced the end of his alliance with former president Joseph Kabila, the head of state now has a freer hand. He currently has a government made up of 57 members, which make up an overwhelming majority in parliament (410 out of a total of 412 seats), and controls the national assembly as well as the senate.
The untenable team formed by Tshisekedi’s Cap pour le Changement (Cach) and Kabila’s Front Commun pour le Congo (FCC), has been replaced by the Union Sacrée mega-coalition. The latter is an unlikely mix composed of Tshisekedi’s own party, the Union pour la Démocratie et le Progrès Social (UDPS); allies such as Vital Kamerhe’s Union pour la Nation Congolaise (UNC); defectors from the FCC and two opposition heavyweights: Moïse Katumbi’s Ensemble pour la République and Jean-Pierre Bemba’s Mouvement de Libération du Congo (MLC).
A few months ago, this turnaround would have been considered unimaginable, as most observers argued that Tshisekedi was lucky to have even been elected and had been condemned to settle for an honorary role, like that of the Queen of England or Kabila’s puppet. “Fatshi”, as his supporters call him, has in fact been patiently and discreetly weaving his web by placing his men within the army and intelligence services, ensuring he never confronted his erstwhile partner head-on and letting his opponents underestimate him. They say it’s the quiet ones you have to watch out for…
However, now that the head of state is on the front line, and has two and a half years to go before the end of his term, he take responsibility for his successes and failures. In addition to the challenge of controlling such a heterogeneous and volatile majority, he also has many pitfalls to overcome. The first is to gather funds for the ambitious programme that Sama Lukonde Kyenge, his prime minister, presented to government ministers during his general policy speech. The cost of this programme is estimated at $12bn per year, which means $36bn will have to be mobilised by 2023.
Another main challenge is the security situation, particularly in eastern DRC, which he undertook to resolve during his tour of Nord Kivu and Ituri, two provinces where he declared a state of siege in early May. Most importantly, he will try to fulfil the immense expectations of 80 million Congolese people, many of whom are tired of empty promises.
Tshisekedi, who just turned 58, talked on the morning of 20 June at his residence in Goma, on the shores of Lake Kivu. The interview lasted just over an hour. He officially declared that he would be running in the 2023 presidential election and set the record straight on a number of issues, including Kamerhe and Kabila. As to be expected, Fatshi did not waste any time.
On 6 December, when the political consultations that you had launched were completed, you announced the end of the FCC-Cach coalition, which linked your predecessor – Kabila – to you. What are the real reasons for this break-up?
Félix Tshisekedi: There was simply too great a difference of opinion between us. We did not agree on several issues that I consider fundamental, such as the independence of the judiciary and transparency – indispensable in my opinion – in the management of state affairs. We fought for these ideals in the past and it was inconceivable that we would give them up.
Once I realised that my efforts to reform the judiciary, one of the pillars of the rule of law, were subject to every possible machination and that some people were trying to stop us at every turn, it dawned on me that we had nothing in common. Everything that we had said at the beginning, in defence of the same programme and vision, was, in the end, nothing but smoke and mirrors.
Have you maintained ties with Kabila?
Of course. We even called each other recently to wish one another happy birthday, as we were both born in June: him on the 4th and me on the 13th. Kabila is not my enemy. But, just like in a romantic relationship, when you no longer hold the same principles that were the basis for the union, you have to separate, that’s all.
You are now at the head of another coalition, the Union Sacrée. What is the strategy of this vast majority which looks like a heterogeneous team, to say the least?
The Union Sacrée is not a new political formation or platform. It is a union of good intentions, which may explain the heterogeneity of its members. I invited the political class to join me in this union on the basis of principles that are important to me: ensuring people’s security, especially in the east; improving the Congolese people’s daily life; fighting corruption, etc.
The Union Sacrée was created so that we could implement the expected reforms until the end of my term in office. For the rest, we will decide closer to the elections [scheduled for 2023]. Only then will we discuss possible coalitions, as well as each party’s programmes and ambitions. Now is the time for action, not for political calculations.
Within the Union Sacrée, there will inevitably be people who run against one another in the next elections, such as Katumbi and Bemba…
Of course, but where is the harm in that? This is democracy, and I have no problem with it, as long as the rules are respected and we dedicate ourselves to our mission. One of the reasons why we broke with the FCC was precisely because their objective was to make me fail, so that they could present one of their own candidates in 2023. This way of thinking, which is based on defending the interests of a small group of people to the detriment of the greater population, must end. I will not allow the DRC to be taken hostage once again by its politicians.
Your first ally and former cabinet director, Vital Kamerhe, has been in prison since April 2020. On appeal, he was sentenced to 13 years of ‘forced labour’ for corruption and embezzlement. But his party, the UNC, denounced what it referred to as a political trial and threatened to leave the coalition. Are you afraid of this?
I will be very clear, because everything and anything has been said about this affair: there is not a shadow of discord between Vital and me. I did not make any calculations or manipulate anyone to get him to where he is today. If anyone can testify to my sincerity, it is him. The only reproach that I deserve from some of his supporters, is that I did not intervene to prevent justice from doing its job. But this goes against my principles, since I am in favour of a free and independent justice system.
I heard that some people said that he had become my political adversary, but this is totally untrue as he and I had discussed the possibility of me running for a second term on several occasions. He had told me to do so and said that he was ready to step aside. In fact, I was the one who said “Listen, Vital, politically it’s too early to make a decision. You’ll do it, but not now, there’s no point.”
Vital, our relatives and I formed a tight bond. I deplore the fact that a few irresponsible people in his party are playing with fire, but I know that he will not let this situation get out of hand and that he will call them to order, so that our coalition will survive his conviction.
What is the real impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the Congolese economy?
It is very bad. Countries like ours need peace of mind, concentration and confidence to carry out their reforms, address problems, mobilise more revenue and meet the population’s expectations.
Unfortunately, this pandemic has disoriented us: it has forced us urgently to review our resource allocations and priorities. Fortunately – and I thank the international financial institutions and France’s President Emmanuel Macron, who brought us together in Paris in May – we were granted funds. This was a real breath of fresh air that enabled us to cope.
In terms of health, even if we have not experienced the same explosion as other continents, there is now reason to be concerned, given the virulence of the third wave. We have not even vaccinated 10% of our population and we need more doses. We are asking that our partners make more of an effort to provide us with these vaccines but also, that they allow us to produce them on African soil.
You have made fighting corruption one of your main priorities. Two and a half years after you came to power, have any of your efforts borne fruit?
We have made progress, but there is still a long way to go. Corruption in our country has been almost a way of life or second nature for decades. Putting an end to such a deeply rooted scourge cannot be done in two and a half years or even in one term.
The first task is to eradicate it from our institutions so that they are credible and exemplary. We have seen – with the senate’s refusal to lift the immunity of former prime minister Augustin Matata Ponyo, who is accused of embezzlement – that there is still a lot of work to do. This is indecent and suggests that there are several categories of citizens: those who have to answer to justice and those who can escape it. Kamerhe, for his part, faced the music.
The Commission Electorale Nationale Indépendante (CENI) and its composition is still the subject of strong criticism, not to mention questions about its budget and resources. Can you guarantee the Congolese people that the 2023 general elections will be held on time?
Who can guarantee that? But let’s be clear: the delay in appointing members of the CENI has nothing to do with me. Remember that this was one of the reasons why the FCC and us were in crisis last year. I was the one who asked the different actors, including the church, for some ideas on how to reform the CENI. I am still waiting for them! The FCC was trying to unlawfully impose its candidate Ronsard Malonda as its head and this had provoked major demonstrations throughout the country. I tried to intervene to stop these despicable manoeuvres.
For more than 30 years, my party – the UDPS – has been fighting to establish the rule of law and free and transparent elections. This is not to spit on the memory of all those who have fought for this, sometimes at the cost of their lives! What I can guarantee is that I want the elections to be as transparent as possible and that we will solve the CENI’s problems. But it is up to its members to tell us whether the deadlines can be met or not. If they are respected, so much the better. If they are not, everyone will then decide on what to do next.
Will you be running in this next presidential election?
I have the right to serve two terms, so why wouldn’t I run? I have a vision for this country that I would like to fulfil. If the people grant me a second term, I will continue my mission. And then, I will hand over power.
Are you in favour of restoring a two-round presidential election?
Absolutely. Presidents who are elected with 30% or 40% of the vote have no guarantee of legitimacy. The only problem is the budget, which needs to be more or less doubled. That said, it is not up to me to decide but the national assembly.
You are on a long tour of the east, where the provinces of Nord Kivu and Ituri have been under a state of siege since early May. Insecurity and armed groups have reigned there for a long time. What did you learn from your visits to Goma, Bukavu, Beni and Bunia?
An opaque mafia is spreading terror so that it can continue to make its own laws and enrich itself from small- and large-scale trafficking. There are several categories of people who profit from this chaos, including public officials. I have declared a state of siege and appointed military administrators, who will be my eyes and ears so that we can bring an end to this tragedy. We will go up against the mafia using the full force of the state and eradicate it. That is why we are strengthening the capacities of our security forces and intelligence services. And we will succeed, it’s only a matter of months!
Do you think that there should be a retrial of the alleged killers of human rights defender Floribert Chebeya and his driver Fidèle Bazana?
Of course, especially if the affected parties do not feel that the verdicts that were handed down [in 2011 and 2015] were fair. From what I know, because there have been arrests and recent developments, many would like a retrial. But that’s for the justice system to decide, not me.
Do you know where General John Numbi, who Chebeya was due to meet when he was killed, is today?
No. Otherwise, he would be in custody.
You made a highly symbolic decision in January to pardon Eddy Kapend and others who were convicted of former president Laurent-Désiré Kabila’s assassination. This was a particularly sensitive issue for Joseph Kabila. Did you consult him before taking this step?
Yes, we had discussed it for a long time. I told him that I intended to pardon them and, contrary to what some people may think, he agreed.
Has there been any progress made regarding the repatriation of [former dictator] Mobutu [Sese Seko]’s remains?
I have too much respect for the families to impose anything on them. As in the case of [former prime minister] Patrice Lumumba, which we are dealing with at the request of his family, it is up to his relatives to decide whether they would like to repatriate his remains. The day the Mobutu family expresses this wish, I will do my best to help them and ensure that the ceremony is grandiose. He deserves the homage of the nation.
You have been president of the African Union since February. What are the main projects that you would like to see implemented?
There are many. First, those relating to this year’s theme: African heritage, art and culture. To reconnect with our identity as well as rediscover our heritage and culture so that we can put into words what it means to be African. Today, we are dominated by the whole world because we no longer have a foundation on which to build and define ourselves.
Then there is the youth. Africa has this strength that no other continent has, the youth who, for me, open us up to incredible opportunities. Instead of wasting their lives, instead of letting them risk their lives in the Mediterranean or in other countries, we must invest in them and guarantee them a future.
Another challenge is the fight for women’s empowerment. Wherever women have been able to emancipate themselves and be equal to men, societies have progressed. Women play a leading role but it is not recognised, let alone supported.
Last but not least, the issue of integration. Africa must trade with Africa, create and share its own wealth within Africa. This is the only way to escape the yoke that has been placed on us by those more powerful than us. All the projects that lead towards this, that connect us with one another, are fundamental. I recently attended an inauguration ceremony in Zambia for a bridge that now links it to Botswana. We have similar projects in Uganda and the Republic of Congo. The times are changing…
How are your relationship with Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame developing? Ties seemed to be good at the beginning of your term in office, then there was some tension, due to a very strong reaction from your Rwandan counterpart to the famous UN ‘Mapping Report’ and the campaign led by doctor Denis Mukwege, that is in favour of creating an international tribunal to deal with crimes committed in the DRC.
They are excellent. I don’t think that President Kagame will commit such a blunder again. We have both talked about it, the subject is closed. I can understand his irritation, but the ‘Mapping Report’ was written by experts. The best way to defend oneself would have been to contradict it in a lucid and substantiated manner, not to cry conspiracy.
What matters to me, in any case, is our future relationship. I would like to be at peace with my neighbours so that we can work on projects that benefit our populations and increase interactions between them. The rest is of little interest to me, as I am not a confrontational person.
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam issue is a serious source of tension between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan. You are attempting a high-risk mediation. Are you confident that it will succeed?
I am to chair a conference at the African Union’s chairperson’s office, to which these three countries are invited. The discussions are progressing well. A few weeks ago, I visited Addis Ababa, Cairo and Khartoum and the feedback was really encouraging. We are on the right track, and I have no reason to doubt that this sensitive issue will be resolved.
The UN mission in the DRC, MONUSCO, is facing a lot of criticism from the population. Is this mistrust justified?
I don’t think so. MONUSCO is not here to harm us. Of course, just like everywhere, there may have been some bad apples and, undoubtedly, communication errors. We need to bring all our problems to the table and come together. Only by working together will we restore confidence. MONUSCO is welcome in the DRC.
In a few words, what would you say you have achieved so far, halfway through your term?
I have raised hopes, despite the circumstances and people trying to stop us. Now we must score some goals.
Have you changed since you came to power? Being an oppositionist is one thing, running a country like the DRC is quite another. Has being confronted with reality changed your initial perception?
Basically, I have not changed. However, my determination to fight against problems such as corruption, lies, greed and theft has increased tenfold. Frankly, I did not know that evil ran so deep. It will take time, a lot of time, to change this.
How, given the scale of the task, do you objectively see the DRC’s future, let’s say in 10 years’ time?
I think that within 10 years or so people will speak differently about the DRC if we manage to continue what has been started and, above all, agree to take concrete action. For instance, by carrying out the infrastructure work that will enable us to connect all the corners of the DRC, capitalising on our minerals and talking to investors within this sector to make them understand that we want a win-win partnership. We also need to put more effort in supporting our young people, to give them a foundation and provide them with prospects. In other words, as a country, we need to exploit our immense potential for the benefit of the greater population.
Understand Africa's tomorrow... today
We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.View subscription options