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Will Félix Tshisekedi’s record as the head of the African Union (AU) have a sense of unfinished business next February when he hands over to Macky Sall, his Senegalese peer? On 8 February 2021, in front of a plenary assembly deprived of its usual array of heads of state due to the health crisis, the Congolese president will officially take over as head of the pan-African institution.
This mandate that Tshisekedi’s teams presented as the ‘symbol of the return of the DRC to the diplomatic scene’ and which was laced under the auspices of African heritage, art and culture, came with great expectations. One of these, declared by the Congolese president, was to ‘take the AU out of meeting rooms’.
The Great Dam at an impasse
Between the Covid-19 pandemic handicapping economies that have just joined the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), the difficulties in gaining equitable access to vaccines, the climate challenge and the security risk, the task seemed immense. According to Tshisekedi, in addition to Eastern DRC, these difficulties have also affected the Sahel, the Central African Republic and Tigray in Ethiopia. One year later, the results are mixed, to say the least.
The situation in Tigray and the coup d’état in Sudan have somewhat disrupted the timetable
One of the first issues that Tshisekedi tackled was the conflict over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which pits Ethiopia against Sudan and Egypt. It is a major sovereignty issue for Addis Ababa and of concern to Khartoum and Cairo, which are highly dependent on their access to the Nile. The project that has stalled for more than 10 years has been the subject of regular efforts by Congolese diplomacy. On 5 April 2021, a first ministerial-level mediation, convened in Kinshasa, ended without compromise or a closing ceremony.
Professor Ntumba Luaba, former executive secretary of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (IC/GLR) and coordinator of the panel of experts that Tshisekedi appointed to support his work as head of the AU, has been following the GERD issue closely. He made several visits to the countries concerned but did not achieve any real progress. In June 2021, a promised summit failed and a second attempt to revive the issue in November was unsuccessful. “The organisation of the elections [in Ethiopia], the situation in Tigray, and then the coup in Sudan, with the suspension of the country from the AU, have somewhat disrupted the timetable,” he says.
Tshisekedi also wanted to push forward the Grand Inga mega-dam project, which was supposed to accelerate the electrification of part of the continent, but it is coveted by many countries and is the subject of a fierce battle between investors. During the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), he presented the DRC as a ‘solution country’ to climate change, counting on this major event to promote the Grand Inga project. A COP26 meeting about the project was scheduled to take place in Glasgow but was eventually cancelled. The Congolese president nevertheless took advantage of the event and his mandate at the AU to sign a 10-year commitment with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, to protect the DRC’s forest.
Kabila-Tshisekedi, a difficult transition
Tshisekedi has also faced three coups on the continent in one year: in Mali, Guinea and Sudan. Still, beyond the usual condemnations, the African Union has struggled to make its voice heard.
When there are multiple decision-makers, files get lost.
Beyond the complexity of the issues, the Congolese president has often had to grapple with his own domestic difficulties. His tenure at the AU began when the coalition he formed with Joseph Kabila imploded. The reshuffle, which took place two months after he took office, resulted in the sometimes delicate transfer of files between ministers. Christophe Lutundula, who succeeded Marie Tumba Nzeza as head of diplomacy, criticised the inefficiency of the system put in place by his predecessor.
On a day-to-day basis, the management of issues was split between several poles, sometimes blurring the message. The panel mandated to deal with AU affairs was, for example, responsible for monitoring the Renaissance Dam dossier, while the conflict in Tigray was managed by the ministry of foreign affairs. The same applies to the Grand Inga project, where involvement is divided between the presidency, the government and the panel.
“Generally speaking, most files have to be approved by the ministry of foreign affairs, which also manages many other files,” says Ntumba Luaba. “When there are multiple decision-makers, files get lost. This is what happened during this mandate,” says one of Tshisekedi’s seasoned diplomats.
Gabon, Israel, South Africa… diplomatic blunders
His tenure was also marked by a few hiccups. For example, the DRC applied for the seat of a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, yet Gabon’s application had already been approved by the AU. A source close to Moussa Faki Mahamat, the chairperson of the AU Commission, then blamed the ‘disorganisation’ of the Congolese administration. “It is difficult for us to say that we did not know because our minister had chaired the meeting during which this decision had been ratified,” says a Congolese diplomatic source.
Beyond image and prestige, what will we have achieved during our mandate?
Israel’s accession to observer status at the AU, supported by Tshisekedi – who has moved closer to Tel Aviv – has also been criticised by several countries, led by South Africa.
Despite this turbulence, the Congolese president continued to increase his diplomatic initiatives. On 25 November, five heads of state, including Macky Sall, took part in his summit on positive masculinity and violence against women. This was an opportunity for Tshisekedi to prepare his Senegalese counterpart for the handover of power at the head of the AU.
“We have to see where we [started] from. In 2019, our country was [ungovernable],” says an adviser to Tshisekedi.
“This mandate marked the return of the DRC to the diplomatic scene,” says a Congolese diplomat. However, beyond the image and prestige, it will be necessary to assess what the country will have gained from it in concrete terms.
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