The DRC’s uncomfortable cohabitation
President Felix Tshisekedi and former president Joseph Kabila's balance of power has endured its first 100 days, and it's hard to tell who is the real boss.
Their relationship resembles more of a backroom tug-of-war than outright conflict. The disputed December 2018 election that observers claimed were fraudulent brought oppositionist Tshisekedi to power and gave Kabila’s party a majority in parliament, creating what could be a difficult cohabitation. Critics argued that Tshisekedi and Kabila agreed to a pact: Tshisekedi would take power even though he did not have the votes and he would not go after the influence and fortune of the Kabila clan. Kabila and Tshisekedi’s cooperation has worked out for Tshisekedi’s first 100 days as president, but tensions linger over the future of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Vidiye Tshimanga, the president’s special adviser on strategic issues, says that Kabila and Tshisekedi “meet whenever necessary in order not to enter into counterproductive conflicts”.
Here are some of the bones of contention:
- They have struggled to reach a consensus on the appointment of a prime minister. Sources say they have finally agreed on a name, but they have not announced it yet. Kabila wants someone from the south-east, his home region. Tshisekedi rejected Kabila’s first choice, Gécamines boss Albert Yuma.
- The dispute extends to the wider government, as Tshisekedi has the power to appoint the cabinet but ministers must come from Kabila’s party because it controls a majority in parliament. Kabila’s previous appointees are largely still in place to keep things running until the new team is established.
- Tshisekedi wants to show the world that he is his own man. So, on 5 April, he told his hosts in Washington DC: “I am here to get rid of the dictatorial system that was in place.” This riled Kabila’s Front Commun pour le Congo (FCC), which denounced Tshisekedi’s comments as “gratuitous attacks and unfounded accusations”. But there are no signs yet that Kabila saw this as a declaration of war.
The head of state quickly filled the government void by setting up a kind of temporary and parallel team within his cabinet. It includes influential personalities such as François Beya (security), Patrick Luabeya and Bestine Kazadi (diplomacy) or Michel Eboma (mines) and Jean-Claude Kabongo (foreign investors), under the authority of his indispensable chief of staff, Vital Kamerhe.
In the absence of a formal government, the new team cannot have access to the state budget, which has already been approved. It draws on “special funds”, such as the Fonds de Promotion de l’Industrie and the Fonds National d’Entretien Routier. It has also obtained advances on future income taxes from certain large companies, particularly in the mining and petroleum sector.
Tshisekedi got help on that from outgoing finance minister Henri Yav Mulang. The two got along so well that the President wanted Mulang to be his prime minister, but Kabila opposed the move.
Those financial tricks have allowed the government to fund its 100-day emergency programme, with an estimated cost of $300m. The programme is mostly focused on infrastructure projects, including bridges and roads.
Special adviser Tshimanga explains the importance of delivering results quickly: “By 2015, we were already preparing for these elections. […] With the delays, everything was blocked for four years. Our people could no longer wait. We had to get to work right away.”
Tshisekedi’s strategy is not sustainable, and he will eventually have to deal with Kabila loyalists in his government. The country’s economy is adding to the pressure on the new president. The price of cobalt, the mining of which was the top source of state revenue in 2018, has fallen by 50% since the December 2018 election.
A source at the presidency says: “That is bad news, but we intend to capitalise on other sectors such as hydroelectricity, gold or chromium and nickel.” But will it be possible to for Tshisekedi’s government to convince investors to put money into those sectors without being able to show that it controls all the levers of power and can offer them guarantees?
Delicate balance of power
Kabila has loosened his grip somewhat but remains a major force. Tshisekedi has pushed for Kabila enemy Moise Katumbi to return to the DRC. Katumbi has his passport and plans on returning to the country on 20 May, now that Tshisekedi has got rid of several legal cases against the former Katanga governor.
A series of relaxation measures, such as the release of political prisoners, the closure of illegal detention centres or the authorisation of demonstrations, have also helped to reduce political tension. As a result, within a few weeks the pressure from the street and the international community against Kabila started to evaporate.
- Large parts of the Kabila system remained in place. Twenty-two of the twenty-six provinces are led by his coalition. Most of Kabila’s appointees in the security services are still in power. The FCC also has a majority big enough to pass a constitutional revision.
- Kabila’s parliamentary majority does not offer him total protection, however. The president can dissolve the national assembly after a year in office in the case of a “persistent crisis” with the government.
- But Kabila has constitutional tools of his own to use against Tshisekedi. Parliament can impeach the president if he fails to respect his duties or is convicted for committing a crime. Politically, it would be tough for Kabila to go after Tshisekedi because he represents change and has the backing of the international community.
What to watch out for
President Tshisekedi is due to name a government and appoint a prime minister soon. But he also announced a major anti-corruption drive at the launch of his 100-day emergency programme in March. He has promised not to embark on a witch hunt, so he may instead focus on present and future corruption cases. He suspended land minister Lumeya Dhu Malegi for abusing his powers. But will the government in any way go after cases linked to Kabila and his allies? That will be a key indicator of how the relationship will play out.
This article first appeared in Jeune Afrique.