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DRC: Félix Tshisekedi’s difficult balancing act

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: The balance of power in the new DRC

By in Kinshasa
Posted on Monday, 23 September 2019 18:30, updated on Tuesday, 24 September 2019 14:27

Felix Tshisekedi, President of the Democratic Republic of Congo, reviews troops during a welcoming ceremony at the Egmont Palace in Brussels, Belgium September 17, 2019. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir - RC1B3D881480

Eight months after his inauguration, President Félix Tshisekedi is encircled by his predecessor, trying to battle internal feuds while using his personal popularity to break Kabila's grip.

The white smoke was slow to rise in Kinshasa.

But the government, appointed on 26 August, seven months after Felix Tshisekedi’s inauguration, and “endorsed” by the National Assembly on 6 September, is now operational.

As he reviewed these long months of negotiations, an adviser to the Head of State refers, with some surprise, to the “very cordial relations” between the new President and his predecessor. Might their many meetings in front of the cameras and off-site since January be testament to this relationship? “Joseph Kabila understood that if Felix Tshisekedi failed, it would also cost him,” confides this close friend of the Head of State who prefers anonymity.

Perhaps. There were protracted strong behind the scenes to form a compromise government, whose ability to deliver will be closely scrutinized. For seven months, Joseph Kabila and Felix Tshisekedi, through their respective teams, patiently tried to resolve the differences.

  • “Everyone has put up their guardrails,” says a member of the Common Front for Congo (FCC), the coalition formed around Joseph Kabila’s People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy (PPRD).

The rejection of Gécamines’ boss Albert Yuma’s candidacy for prime minister, the orders issued on Gécamines and the Société nationale des chemins de fer du Congo (SNCC) without consulting the Kabila clan (which has since blocked their application), as well as the remarks of Félix Tshisekedi who, on a visit to Washington in early April, stressed that he was “there to unblock the dictatorial system that was in place”, were seen as ways to affirm the new president’s authority.

Which inevitably led to blockages, proof that the FCC and the Cape for Change (Cach, Félix Tshisekedi’s coalition) continue to test their power.

Ubiquitous Kamerhe

While waiting for the composition of the government, and to fill the void, Félix Tshisekedi focused on structuring a large cabinet: 110 members, including 80 advisors, in 16 groups, five per sector. Among the most central figures of this vast presidency is François Beya, special adviser on security issues.

He is omnipresent behind the scenes, one of the key figures of the Tshisekedi system, along with the powerful and equally omnipresent cabinet director, Vital Kamerhe, who has four deputies. To his closest friends he has always maintained that he is “in the right place” in this position.

An entry into government has never really been an issue for the former President of the National Assembly.

And if the post of Prime Minister was attributed, on May 20, to Sylvestre Ilunga Ilunga Ilunkamba, Félix Tshisekedi’s right-hand man “knows he is more powerful in his position than in the government”, explains an official of the Union for the Congolese Nation (UNC, de Vital Kamerhe).

There, in his offices at the Palais de la Nation, the official residence of the President of the Republic, which Félix Tshisekedi has abandoned in favour of the Cité de l’Union africaine, Kamerhe has carved out a role for himself in line with his political influence.

Outgoing president Joseph Kabila sits during the inauguration ceremony for Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Thursday Jan. 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

At 60, as part of the partnership he forms with the new head of state, he has experience in “public affairs” and a mastery of the workings of the Kabila system, of which he was for a long time one of the key elements, notably at the head of the victorious 2006 campaign.

“Felix Tshisekedi is still learning. Kamerhe was useful to him in understanding a character that his party had long fought. He is the key man, both for the president and for Kabila,” assures a Cach executive close to Vital Kamerhe. Except that this gearbox is now threatening to jam. Indeed, the presidency – where Felix Tshisekedi had promised to break with the excesses of previous administrations – has been in turmoil for several weeks.

The cause was an arm wrestle with the General Inspectorate of Finance (IGF), which threatens the entourage of the president. Kamerhe was accused along with three others in the IGF report on suspected embezzlement of $15m in connection with the handling of compensation for oil companies following the 2017 pump price freeze. Kamehe also requested that the audit of departmental finances and controls on several private companies be suspended.

Pressed by civil society to shed light on this case, Tshisekedi, who promised to end corruption, said he was letting “judicial institutions do their job”. His recent interventions suggest that the time for arbitration has not yet come. His video message broadcast on September 8 or his intervention at the Makutano forum carefully avoided the subject, favouring promises and insisting on the urgency of a “change in mentalities”.

This silence that annoys civil society associations. It is justified among the president’s entourage by a desire not to “expose divisions”. On Twitter, Kasongo Mwema Yamba Y’amba, the Presidency spokesman, said that this silence was more in line with “respect for a democratic principle”.

Because if everything suggests that the two headliners of Cach get along well, the influence of Kamerhe, to which the Head of State submits many of his advisers, is annoying in the ranks of the presidency, where we would like to see “the dircab” take a step back. “He’s an ally, but he’s not a friend,” says a member of the president’s entourage. We don’t know how long he will be satisfied with such a position, so we move one hand in front of a hand behind.”

What future for the Nairobi Agreement?

From rumours about public spending and correspondence leaking on social networks, the annual budget already exceeded since June… Many saw in the difficulties that marked the first six months of the five-year period a lack of preparation of the coalition.

In Kamerhe’s entourage, some people complain of being attacked, given how frequently the name of chief of staff comes up in the so-called “$15m” case.

Suspicion has fallen on the presidency. Some, in the circle of the “dircab”, do not hesitate to openly suspect relatives of the president of being at work behind the IGF scandal to regain influence with the head of state. Others point out that these IGF inspectors were appointed by Tshisekedi’s predecessor and that the “dircab” did not “have only friends at the FCC”.

In these circumstances, it is worth considering the future of the Nairobi Agreement. It has already suffered from negotiations on the formation of the government, which highlighted the differences between UDPS and UNC, with ministries torn at the last minute from one side to the other and a mistrust of each other’s appetite.

Above all, the clause in the agreement that Tshisekedi will support Kamerhe in 2023 seems more hypothetical than ever in these turbulent times.

  • For a relative of the Congolese President’s family, there is no doubt that the two men will meet “face to face and no longer side by side” in 2023.
  • And some, in the presidency, are pushing for a clarification of the position of the Head of State in favour of investigations, even if it means threatening Vital Kamerhe’s position.

Popularity vs power

Blurry, sometimes cacophonic, this organization nevertheless allowed the president to occupy the field in moments of uncertainty during the negotiations. “With the support of international partners, Félix Tshisekedi had no reason to rush into forming a government in which he knew he would be a minority,” says a Western diplomat. He took the opportunity to build a presidency with advisors in charge of portfolios similar to those of ministers to launch several projects so that the future government would follow in his footsteps. It’s a way to rebalance things.”

Félix Tshisekedi has thus been able to undertake several visible infrastructure projects (such as the road works launched as part of his “100-day programme” in Kinshasa and the provinces), for some $304m (€267.4m), and to increase travel, especially to his eastern neighbours, to discuss security issues.

To Joseph Kabila’s political power — control of the National Assembly, the Senate and 22 of the country’s 26 provinces — which give him undeniable weight, the new president thus wishes to oppose his popularity.

However, propelled to the head of state two months after the creation of the Cach in Nairobi, Tshisekedi and Kamerhe did not have time to structure their coalition. “This will come, the negotiations around the government had taken up most of the time until now,” says Aime Boji, Deputy Secretary General of the UNC.

Not everything was easy during the negotiations.

Discussions on the sharing of the 23 posts allocated to the Cach (out of 65 ministerial posts) were based on the Nairobi Agreement, the birth certificate of this coalition, which provided that if Tshisekedi won the presidential election, the primacy and other strategic portfolios would revert to the UNC.

After the appointment in May of a Prime Minister, Sylvestre Ilunga, from Joseph Kabila’s FCC, Kamerhe claimed half of the 23 portfolios allocated to the Cach. Finally, eight positions were allocated to the NCU.

After heated exchanges, the vice-primature in charge of the Budget, in particular, fell to Vital Kamerhe’s party, which also received no senior ministry, to the surprise of many in Kinshasa.

Containment strategy

With the Senate, the National Assembly and the provincial assemblies in the hands of the FCC, the encirclement strategy for which Joseph Kabila seems to have opted appears to be well in place. It remains to be seen how the Tshisekedi presidency will succeed in imposing its brand, now that the government is appointed and operational.

“It’s a mistrust-confidence marriage,” summarizes one FCC executive. Gradually, trust will take precedence over mistrust.” The head of state will therefore have to fight on two fronts: with his FCC ally and within the presidency, threatened by score settling.



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