DRC: Sylvestre Ilunga Ilunkamba, the new Prime Minister

By Pierre Boisselet
Posted on Tuesday, 28 May 2019 14:53

Sylvestre Ilunga Ilunkamba is the DRC's new prime minister. © DRC Presidency.

The new president, Felix Tshisekedi, and his predecessor, Joseph Kabila, whose party retains a majority in parliament, took nearly four months to agree on the name of the new head of government: Sylvestre Ilunga Ilunkamba, the new prime minister.

A renowned economist little known to the general public, Sylvestre Ilunga Ilunkamba has just been entrusted, after four months of negotiations, with the heavy responsibility of Prime Minister of the DRC.

Who would have predicted that Sylvestre Ilunga Ilunkamba would write a new page in his autobiography, perhaps the most exciting, at the venerable age of 72?

  • This university professor and senior civil servant had succeeded to stay out of the spotlight.
  • Now his every move is projected onto a changing Congolese political backdrop.

After five hard-working years at the head of the Société nationale des chemins de fer du Congo (SNCC), he will have only a few weeks to prepare to lead a coalition government caught between the two ‘heads’ of the new government: President Felix Tshisekedi, and his predecessor, Joseph Kabila, who has retained a very large majority in Parliament.

It took the two men nearly four months to reach an agreement; the choice was confirmed during a discreet meeting on May 13.

All the other prominent figures – the head of Gécamines, Albert Yuma, the Minister of Finance, Henri Yav, or the former presidential security adviser, Jean Mbuyu – were excluded because they were too closely associated with the former government or too likely to acquire their own political weight.

  • However, Kabila did manage to get the position filled by a man from his ethnic group: the Lubas of Katanga (Lubakats).
  • Prominent members of this community were consulted. Two of them are said to have suggested his name: Norbert Nkulu, former adviser whom Kabila had appointed as a judge to the Constitutional Court, and Jean Nyembo Shabani, former Governor of the Central Bank of Zaire.

Working under Mobutu

Shabani has known the new Prime Minister since the 1970s: under Mobutu Sese Seko, Ilunga was already a prominent senior official. A disciple of the Franco-Egyptian economist Samir Amin, he obtained a doctorate in economics in 1979 from the University of Kinshasa, where he became a professor.

  • From cabinet to secretariat of state (Economy, Plan, Portfolio…), he rose through the ranks of Mobutu’s government until he was entrusted with Finance in 1991.

But the old dictator was already losing it. His army began to loot companies and businesses. Ilunga quickly left this mess and, soon, the country. He was then accused by the Commission on ill-gotten assets of the Sovereign National Conference, which asked him to repatriate assets.

  • “This commission was partisan and made arbitrary decisions, to such an extent that it was finally dissolved,” says his entourage today.

In 1993, he began a new career in a South Africa that had just freed itself from apartheid: he co-founded Refinex, a metal import and export company in Cape Town. He would not return to Congo until a decade later.

Kabila, then a young president, was trying to recover his country in cooperation with the international community. The IMF and the World Bank were demanding the reform of failed public companies.

  • The Steering Committee for the Reform of State Portfolio Enterprises (Copirep) was created, and Ilunga became its first boss.

In this position, he oversaw privatisations and the sale of government assets, including some of Gécamines’ assets. He is lead this policy with Jeanine Mabunda, his overseeing minister between 2007 and 2012. She has now just been elected head of the National Assembly.

  • This duo is therefore about to return to duty. It will no doubt complete the reform of state-owned enterprises.

Can Ilunga be entrusted with the task? His record at the helm of the SNCC, where he was appointed in 2014, is mixed.

  • As soon as Tshisekedi came to power in January, its employees, full of hope, went on strike to demand their salary arrears.
  • Ilunga’s entourage recognizes an average of 17 months of delay. “But you have to compare it with the situation he found when he arrived: there were 167 months of arrears!”, pleads one of his relatives.

In any case, Ilunga will have managed to get through this period in sensitive positions without being involved in corruption cases. Even the citizen movement Lucha, which calls his appointment “the lesser evil”, concedes it. For the Tshisekedi camp, this was a decisive criteria.

  • Known as discreet and consensual, a member of the People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy (PPRD, Joseph Kabila’s party) without being a hawk: Ilunga will have to demonstrate these qualities to succeed in his delicate mission.

Bottom-line: The task will be all the more difficult as he will not have control over the formation of his own government. This is the subject of new negotiations between the two sides.

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