The opposition Social Democratic Front (SDF), destabilised by the mass exodus of its militants, most of whom have become the target of separatist militias, is divided over its participation in the local elections of 9 February.
DRC’s Samy Badibanga: ‘I’ve been called a traitor, but I was a pioneer’
Elected vice-president of the Senate despite his late candidacy, the former prime minister claims to be close to President Félix Tshisekedi's UDPS and wants to guarantee the balance of the parliamentary institution.
Congolese politics is full of surprises. A last-minute candidate for first vice-president of the Senate, Samy Badibanga won an unexpected victory on 27 July by defeating the favourite, Evariste Boshab of Joseph Kabila’s Front Commun pour le Congo (FCC). In the upper house, Badibanga is second to another of the former president’s top men, Alexis Thambwe Mwamba.
To those who wonder how he came to be elected as vice-president of an institution outrageously dominated by Camp Kabila (91 of the 108 senators belong to the FCC), Badibanga replies that he was “not surprised” and that it was the result of a carefully considered strategy: “I studied the composition of the Senate and I analysed the situation. In these cases, you always have to hope for the best and prepare for the worst,” he adds. “But I made sure luck was on my side.”
On paper his independent candidacy had little chance of succeeding, as the Thambwe Mwamba-Boshab ticket seemed solid. But this tough duo – comprising Kabila’s former justice minister and his former interior minister, currently under European sanctions – was causing much angst among members of the Cach (Cap pour le Changement), Tshisekedi’s coalition.
Did Badibanga sense this and turn it to his advantage? One thing is certain: even if he is no longer part of the Union pour la Démocratie et le Progrès Social (UDPS), his candidacy reassured the militants of the presidential party, who were concerned to see all the levers of power in the hands of the FCC. But the former president himself may have seen Badibanga’s election in a positive light, aware that a new monochrome institution could be damaging to his image.
He is a good compromise for both Joseph Kabila and Felix Tshisekedi”
“By 2016, Kabila had already managed to convince Badibanga to accept the post of prime minister,” says Congolese political scientist Bob Kabamba. “He doesn’t constitute a real threat. He is even a good compromise for both Joseph Kabila and Felix Tshisekedi.”
“What compromise?” is Badibanga’s response. “There was no arrangement. I acted alone, and declaring myself late was part of my strategy. Surprise has always been the best card to play!”
Swimming against the current
So here we are with Samy Badibanga in the limelight again, exactly where we didn’t expect him. But this 56-year-old former political adviser to the late Etienne Tshisekedi is used to swimming against the current.
- His main feat of arms dates back to 2011: defeated after a controversial election, Étienne Tshisekedi refused to acknowledge the results and called on his lieutenants to boycott the National Assembly. Badibanga chose to disobey, effectively excluding himself from the party.
- A leader of the institutional opposition through a parliamentary group called “UDPS and allies”, he attracted many enmities within Tshisekedi’s party.
- He reappeared in 2016, when he agreed to participate – alongside Vital Kamerhe – in the “national dialogue” which led, in November of the same year, to his appointment as prime minister, a post he held for less than six months. Once again, his former comrades accuse him of betraying them by acting to keep Kabila in power during the last months of his mandate.
Today, Badibanga is under the banner of the Progressistes but always emphasises his closeness to the UDPS, whose first steps as a government party he is observing with interest. “Felix Tshisekedi’s victory is the result of a process that began with the demonstrations in January 2015,” he says. “As for the UDPS, it is a party that has been in opposition for 37 years. It’s normal for the transition to have a stuttering start.”
Felix is a brother, a friend. We come from the same mould”
He defends his decisions in 2011 and 2016, claiming he was “against action”: “For me, the participation of the UDPS in parliament was essential,” he insists. “We had to get out of this strategy of rupture to become an opposition with ideas. I launched the Progressistes because we had to change our approach in order to come to power.”
And the animosity that some of his former allies still have against him? “When you’re right too soon, you are often misunderstood. I’ve been called a traitor, but I was a pioneer, and these people must understand that.”
Close to the Tshisekedi family
This will not convince the radical fringe of the opposition, for whom Badibanga lost his credibility when he became prime minister. As vice-president of the Senate, Badibanga now sees his role as ensuring a “balance” at the top of the institution. Despite the torments of recent years, he has remained close to the Tshisekedi family, even after Étienne’s death in early 2017. “Felix is a brother, a friend. We come from the same mould,” he says.
“Felix is more tolerant than his father on that subject,” admits a source close to the president. “He knows that Badibanga is not a dissident at heart and that he could even be an asset to the Cach in the upper house.”
So why then did he run as an independent, and not as part of the coalition that brought Felix Tshisekedi to power? “The Cach was conceived as an electoral platform. I feel more comfortable in a presidential movement. The head of state needs broader support than the Cach, and I remain deeply UDPS.”
This does not prevent Joseph Kabila from considering the Senate a central element in his system. Might he try to modify the constitution, since the FCC also holds a majority in the national assembly?
Badibanga says he would not be against some adjustments. “Not everything needs to be amended, but I am in favour, for example, of returning to a two-round presidential election. I am also in favour of the election of senators and governors by direct universal suffrage.”
Isn’t it also time to reconsider the rule against dual nationality? “There are brains that could serve the Republic, and it makes no sense to deny them this dual nationality,” he says testily, before adding that this is a “personal point of view”.
Nationality controversy “just an oversight”
Badibanga himself was at the centre of a controversy over citizenship: when he was appointed prime minister on 17 November 2016, he was still a Belgian citizen. He will regain Congolese nationality “after renouncing his Belgian nationality on personal grounds”, according to the terms of the government decree that formalises his decision.
The controversy raised its head again a year ago, a few months before the presidential election in which he was a candidate: according to an article from the Moniteur Belge, which was widely reported on social networks, it was only on 3 August 2018 that he once again became a Congolese. In other words, he was not Congolese at the time of his candidacy for the Supreme Court. Was this a violation of the law? “No,” replies Badibanga. “It was just an oversight, we were very busy.”
However, at the time, much was written about the validation of his candidacy and the rejection of that of his opponent Jean-Pierre Bemba (albeit for different reasons), as his detractors accused him of having benefited from an arbitrary decision by the Constitutional Court. “This criticism was justified,” admits the former prime minister. “There must be no two-tier justice. Others should have been treated as I was. […] The page is now turned,” he says, “but the question remains relevant. We must bring the issue to Parliament and debate it.”
As he meets his former minister of justice in the upper house, and with many doubting the Tshisekedi camp’s room for manoeuvre in Parliament, Badibanga asserts that “no one has an interest in making things go wrong. The DRC cannot afford to fail.”
This article first appeared in Jeune Afrique.