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DRC: President Félix Tshisekedi takes charge

By Patrick Smith, Stanis Bujakera Tshiamala
Posted on Tuesday, 6 July 2021 19:03, updated on Wednesday, 7 July 2021 10:29

President Emmanuel Macron gives a press conference after the plenary session of the summit on financing African economies on may 182021 Felix Tshisekedi //04SIPA_09300041/2105190942

When DRC's Félix Tshisekedi took control of the cabinet and parliament in April this year, two years of wrangling with his predecessor, Joseph Kabila, his government announced 343 new initiatives.

Formidable as it looks, Tshisekedi’s gargantuan to-do list, which his allies say includes urgent economic and social reforms that were held-up by Kabila, may benefit from an economic rebound in 2021.

Helped by rising commodity prices and its promises of reform, Tshisekedi’s new government has been able to win more backing from multilateral and bilateral financiers. For now, the biggest problems are more political than economic and technical.

Unity rewarded

Tshisekedi’s success in wresting full power from his predecessor started with the sacking of Kabila’s chosen prime minister, Sylvestre Ilunga Ilunkamba in January. It took another three hard months for him to consolidate the grip of his Union Sacrée coalition in the national assembly and appoint an expansive cabinet under the new prime minister, Sama Lukonde Kyenge, on 12 April.

Communications minister Patrick Muyaya says the 57 ministers are “necessary to ensure that all 26 provinces were represented” and points out that “the size of the government was still reduced by 15%.”

Some critics argue that the compromises made in putting together the government will hamper it as officials try to parcel out resources to their constituencies.

Muyaya dismisses this: “For us, creating the Union Sacrée was a struggle. […] Beyond the will to conquer power, the initial ambition is to succeed in implementing policies and managing the country. […] When you have formed a coalition, you are not going to reproach its members for saying that they think they can be useful to the country.”

Some of the compromises have involved Tshisekedi’s rivals, such as Moïse Katumbi [former governor of mineral-rich Katanga] and Jean-Pierre Bemba.

Muyaya emphasises the positive: “We saw something unprecedented: 410 deputies out of 412 present supported the government’s formation. And this is not a blank cheque!”

Bemba and Katumbi, both of whom harbour presidential ambitions for 2023, have joined Tshisekedi’s plan for their own reasons. They will stay relevant under the new structure, which includes four deputy prime ministers. They have each nominated one: Bemba’s choice is environment minister Eve Bazaiba Masudi and foreign minister Christophe Lutundula is Katumbi’s.

Vital Kamerhe, Tshisekedi’s jailed former chief of staff, has five ministers in the government. And new Senate president Modeste Lukwebo has four members of his party, including Adèle Kahinda Mayina, the minister for state-owned enterprises.

Money, money, money

Conducting that vast orchestra will test Tshisekedi’s political skills and deal-making to the limit. An immediate problem is the lack of funding for the reform agenda. No one has a clear plan on how to finance the government’s target budget of $36bn for the next three years.

Says Muyaya: “The $36bn must be understood as an ambition. The main thing is that we have the will to mobilise all the additional resources, to put them at the service of the country’s development.”

Prime Minister Kyenge is targeting $12bn a year, of which $7bn was recently allocated. “We mobilise each year around $3.5bn-$4bn of our resources,” sighs an elected member of the Union Sacrée. “It would be an illusion to think we could find the necessary [money] to fill the budget in such proportions.”

And the shopping list is getting longer. The government has promised to pay retired civil servants the pensions they have been owed dating back decades. It also has to find cash – as much as $500m – to pay for the 2023 elections.

Tshisekedi has inherited a complex and costly system of 26 provincial governments with 260 provincial ministers. They are meant to receive 40% of national tax revenue but have had almost nothing for several years. This has triggered a fiscal crisis in many provinces.

Some help may be on the way from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), with which Tshisekedi’s new finance minister, Nicolas Kazadi, negotiated a $1.5bn credit in late May. The loan is to assist Congo’s recovery from the ravages of the coronavirus pandemic.

It is conditional on the Tshisekedi government launching still more initiatives, such as wholesale reform of the internal revenue system. It also requires much more accountable reporting of the billions of dollars generated in export earnings from gold, copper, cobalt, diamond and coltan.

Prices of cobalt and copper

Kabila loyalists on the board

The IMF deal, premised on far greater accountability, could lead to another $3bn in funds from the World Bank over the next three years. Much of that would be earmarked for the restructuring of state companies and reforms to the state treasury’s management systems. That involves the Banque Centrale du Congo (BCC), whose restructuring is reform number 125 on Tshisekedi’s list.

It will mean political battles. Senior staffers and the board of the BCC are mostly Kabila loyalists and will resist reform that could cut into their lucrative sinecures and side businesses. The bank’s board includes Albert Yuma, the powerful chairman of Gécamines, the state-run mining company.

Contribution of sectors to real GDP growth

In mid-May, Kazadi and the World Bank agreed a package of $500m of loans and grants to improve infrastructure in Kinshasa, which is home to about 14 million people. Outside the capital, the Bank is looking at projects to boost water management, power generation and farm production. Expansion of free primary education, Tshisekedi’s signature programme, has been stalled since the World Bank suspended payments in February on learning that officials were expecting parents to pay the teachers.

In a country of 100 million people, most of whom are struggling to escape poverty, the pandemic has wrought a tough economic toll. After growth fell to 1.7% last year, the IMF forecasts it will rise by 4.9% this year, buoyed by booming prices for copper and cobalt. On this basis Tshisekedi and his team hope to deliver on their uber-ambitious agenda.

Stalling them will be a divided, but tactically acute, opposition. On one wing there is Kabila and the remaining members of his Parti du Peuple pour la Reconstruction et la Démocratie (PPRD). Its goal is to regain power in 2023, but it is yet to announce who its candidate would be. Kabila himself has been playing a cautious game. Some say he fears arrest, now that Tshisekedi controls the security agencies.

A determined opponent of both Kabila and Tshisekedi, Martin Fayulu presides over another wing of opposition, making speeches that sound like a campaign for the presidency in 2023. Fayulu was upheld by many independent organisations as the legitimate winner of the 2018 elections.

As Tshisekedi tries to manage the leviathan that is the DRC’s new government, Fayulu is using the country’s current political openness to bolster his coalition. Whether Fayulu can keep that support base together will depend critically on how successful Tshisekedi is achieving his 343-item agenda.

This article was first published in The Africa Report’s print magazine. 

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