DRC: Mr ‘Vice-President’ Vital Kamerhe
A master communicator and political heavyweight, Felix Tshisekedi's coalition partner Vital Kamerhe has earned himself an enviable position in the new administration as the President's chief of staff
On 16 February, the festive atmosphere in the gardens of the plush Kempinski Hotel in Kinshasa had all the markings of a royal wedding.
The groom was Vital Kamerhe, a veteran politician who President Félix Tshisekedi had appointed his chief of staff just three weeks prior.
Kamerhe had therefore a double celebration: his union to Hamida Shatur, ex-wife of Congolese pop star JB Mpiana and his major comeback to Congolese nobility. The mwami (king) of Ngweshe Pierre Ndatabaye, the new first lady Denise Nyakeru Tshisekedi and Bahati Lukwebo, a strong ally of former president Joseph Kabila as well as an important number of political leaders in South Kivu, Kamerhe’s hometown province, were among the well wishers.
But all eyes were on Norbert Basengezi Katintima, a close Kabila ally and the powerful vice-president of the electoral commission that proclaimed Tshisekedi’s victory at the end of the controversial presidential election. Basengezi played a key role at the ceremony, paying the symbolic bride price to the bride’s family.
“We must not question the presence of one person or the another,” says Amato Bayubasire, a leading member of the Union for the Congolese Nation (UNC), Kamerhe’s party. Basengezi is an important figure in Walungu, a territory of South Kivu. “In our tradition, community transcends political differences. That is the only reason why he was present,” Bayubasire adds.
Despite having no constitutional basis, his position as chief of staff has conferred upon him an unparalleled level of power. Within the exercise of his function, Kamerhe uses — abuses, according to his critics — his own bodyguards, even when he travels with the president.
He presides over the inauguration of official buildings, meets with foreign heads of state and even took the liberty of giving instructions to the Prime Minister Bruno Tshibala, via ordinary mail. None of his predecessors had this much public presence, and in Kinshasa his ubiquitous influence has already earned him the nickname ‘vice-president’.
And it’s no doubt that the situation has tilted the scale in his favour.
A coalition ally on the campaign trail, the 60-year old Kamerhe does not consider himself Tshisekedi’s subordinate. In addition to this, the new head of state spends a lot of time abroad, seeking outside support to strengthen his position and to attract investments, thus leaving the field in the Congolese capital relatively free for Kamerhe to manoeuvre.
Indeed, the UNC leader has a valuable skill the presidential coalition needs, which is his in-depth knowledge of government institutions, in particular the Kabila-controlled parliament, which Tshisekedi must work with.
A polyglot and master communicator, Kamerhe was once a key member of Kabila’s inner circle, successfully leading his 2006 election campaign.
He then presided over the National Assembly until 2009 and showed a certain level of open mindedness. He openly criticised two of Kabila’s key decisions; the signing of opaque contracts with China and the then president authorising the Rwandan army to invade the DRC to hunt down his opponents.
This didn’t go down well with Kabila and eventually Kamerhe found himself in the opposition camp when he was forced to resign.
Nonetheless, several of Tshisekedi’s supporters still doubt the veracity of his break-up with Kabila. And the 2016 ‘national dialogue’ session during which Kamerhe participated in the discussions which would have allowed Kabila to extend his final term without elections have only reinforced their suspicions.
For Kamerhe, the goal was simple: secure the position of prime minister in exchange for his good will. But he was overlooked at the last minute when a Tshisekedi loyalist Samy Badibanga was picked instead. Kamerhe conceded, preparing for his revenge, which took place during the electoral campaign for the December 2018 presidential polls.
While in Geneva, Tshisekedi withdrew his support of Martin Fayulu‘s candidacy and Kamerhe jumped on the opportunity to draw closer to him. Together, they formed the Cap for Change (CACH) coalition aimed at catapulting Tshisekedi to the top.
Once again as campaign head, Kamerhe demonstrated his stellar public speaking skills and on the night of the announcement of the provisional results, on 10 January, he was the one by Tshisekedi’s side, reassuring the worried presidential candidate as an overwhelming majority of provincial assembly seats went to Kabila’s FCC coalition.
For a moment, he even considered a new political coup where he would poach enough Kabila loyalists to form a majority in his favour. But Kabila felt the blow coming and this strategy was short-lived.
Shadowy and tactical
He might not have won the table, but Kamerhe certainly achieved his goal. With his current position, he has once again reinvented himself for a comeback. He is more discreet and has stopped speaking publicly. Yet still he remains too much of a looming figure according to some of the president’s closest advisers, who accuse him of overshadowing Tshisekedi.
If they could, they would assign him to a less strategic position as part of the new institutions being set up, but those close to Kamerhe know he won’t be content with running a ‘simple’ ministry. He is even more discreet than before. “During their recent tour of the country, he was careful not to greet the rows of officials who came to welcome the president,” says Bayubasire. “He keeps telling us that there is no small role in the Republic”.
Has Kamerhe become modest? He has probably understood that Tshisekedi could, better than him, embody change. And for now, their partnership is working well. Tshisekedi has the spotlight and is in contact with the people while Kamerhe stays in the shadows tactfully. The question that remains is how long this coalition can be sustained.
This article was first published in Jeune Afrique