For most Congolese, it was the beginning of the consolidation of Congolese democracy and the reconstruction of state and society relations. Despite the irregularities which accompanied the elections that pushed Felix Tshisekedi into power, the Congolese people were hopeful of positive changes in their material conditions under his leadership.
After four years in power and with a new round of elections looming in 2023, what has really been the impact of what Congolese commonly see as a civilised handover of power from Kabila Jr to Tshisekedi Jr?
A broken system
What has happened to the DRC and its people since then is that socio-economic conditions have gotten worse for the ordinary population in the busy urban centres of the country. The material conditions are worse for rural populations, where even a semblance of state presence does not exist. In the current circumstances, even if President Tshisekedi and his government were to be given hundred years to govern, they would not fix the DRC’s problems simply because they have chosen a wrong approach to change, which is focused on quick wins rather than on behavioural change. Fixing the DRC in its current configuration is not about building hard infrastructure as we saw with saut des moutons; it is about rebuilding the moral fabric of the society.
Put differently, the problem in the DRC is not poverty or dilapidated infrastructure; these are simply manifestations of a system of governance that is not working. The fundamental problem that needs to be fixed first, before any other developmental projects can succeed, is the state and how the state carries out its role. The main cause of the DRC’s socio-economic and political problems is the crisis of the state.
Therefore, the reconstruction of the state becomes a sine qua non-condition for changing the material conditions of Congolese. The reconstruction of the state means doing away with past negative habits of corruption, mismanagement, nepotism, ethnicity, and semi-secretive, technocratic, authoritarian modes of public policy-making and a free-for-all environment where no one is held to account. It involves the transition towards transparency, public accountability, impartiality, public and accountable policy-making, and the increasing interdependence between state and society.
The level of collapse and disintegration of the Congolese state does not permit any government’s project or decision to be implemented effectively. This is not just a Congolese problem; it is an African problem. The most significant aspect of contemporary politics in Africa is the withering of the state. In the DRC, the weakness of the state is very pronounced and manifests itself in the total collapse of key state institutions at both national and provincial levels. It is therefore not surprising that most of the projects identified and implemented by President Tshisekedi’s government have failed in the past three years.
One of his flagship projects (the one hundred days infrastructure project, which was launched with pomp) failed dismally and ended up in massive corruption. The little infrastructure that came out of the ground has been of very inferior quality, visibly pointing to a state that lacks the capacity to even monitor the implementation of small projects.
Corruption for all
President Tshisekedi, when he took power, did not choose his priorities correctly. The excitement of being in power did not allow him and his team to measure the formidable challenges they faced not only in establishing a new democratic form of governance but also in fundamentally transforming society. They prioritised populist actions over effectiveness. What the president did not apprehend was that addressing the political and socio-economic conditions of the life of the Congolese people has to be preceded by the reconstruction of the state.
President Tshisekedi has not made significant efforts to create the conditions for the emergence of a capable and developmental state. His fight against corruption through “the Inspection Générale de Finance” has been selective, ineffective and without clear direction. The state is so weak and disorganised that it cannot carry out its responsibility effectively, let alone protect itself from corrupt behaviour.
The state lacks the ability to enforce laws and policies, and it is only poorly present and visible around the country’s major urban centres. The state lacks what Michael Mann calls “infrastructure power”, which is the dimension of the state that refers to the actual penetration of societies by state bureaucracies and state-sponsored programmes (such as public education, health, transport, water, and electricity provision).
President Tshisekedi made a mistake in believing that goodwill alone was enough to turn things around. In the absence of a capable state whatever his government does cannot be sustainable. The central government exists only in name, state institutions have not been reformed in such a manner that they are able to perform their responsibilities, and the political elite is as corrupt as ever.
While the collapse of the Congolese state has its roots in the colonial regime, reinforced by subsequent regimes, Thsisekedi’s regime has shown its inability and unwillingness to engage in a sustained process of state-building, even under the conditions of popular support which followed the peaceful handover of power.
Threats to change
Like Joseph Conrad in his book The Heart of Darkness, I feel considerable doubt about the future of the DRC under President Tshisekedi. There are two key reasons for this doubt. Firstly, the predisposition of Congolese leadership at all levels of society to act outside the rules (the law) or to revert to undemocratic acts (corruption, reimbursement of funds, nepotism, disregard for the rule of law) remains the biggest threat to change and state reconstruction.
Secondly, the Congolese leadership’s inability to conceptualise a progressive developmental agenda capable of responding effectively to the country’s socio-economic and political challenges. These two weaknesses undermine state reconstruction. They have been present since independence and are being reinforced under President Tshisekedi.
After three years in power, President Tshisekedi has still not figured out what he should do to fix the state. It will be even more difficult now as we approach 2023, as his actions are directed towards securing re-election for a second term. There is nothing he can do to change the material conditions of people in the few months remaining before the 2023 elections. If the president wants to salvage his tenure in the remaining months before the elections, he will need to take exceedingly difficult and unpopular decisions.
He will need to change from being a politician to being a leader. All is not lost for President Tshisekedi. He can still revive his chances for the 2023 elections, but he needs to do certain basic things. He must change his management style and refocus his priority on transforming the state machinery, which should include the reform of the civil service, the security apparatus (army, police, and the intelligence), and public policy-making. These actions could help the President to draw the Congolese people to him in what will certainly be a heavily contested election.
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