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The president’s phone kept ringing. Someone kept calling on the other end of the line, but this was not the time. On 5 February, Félix Tshisekedi was attending one important meeting after another in Addis Ababa.
He was in the final minutes of his year at the helm of the African Union (AU) and had to hand over to Macky Sall. Kinshasa called him again and again. He finally picked up the phone and discovered that it was his wife on the other end of the line. Denise Nyakeru Tshisekedi told him that François Beya must be arrested immediately because she was certain that the master spy was working against them.
His wife’s conviction convinced the head of state. He gave the order to question his special adviser on security matters. Already at the heart of power under Mobutu and the Kabilas, this strategist was a crucial part of the presidential apparatus. The situation was so delicate that Tshisekedi abandoned his programme and trampled on the rules of conduct. He did not attend the AU summit’s closing ceremony scheduled for the following day. He got back on his plane and returned to Kinshasa.
“When Felix became president, no one paid much attention to the first lady, but month after month she gained influence and is now one of the most important people in power,” says a diplomat.
“Too little considered”
In 2019, who was interested in this discreet woman who, just a few months earlier, had been a nurse in Belgium? Orphaned at the age of 9 months when both her mother and father died in a traffic accident, this native of Bukavu, in the East, forged herself through the hazards of life. With her brothers and sisters, she was raised in Kinshasa by her maternal uncle, Abbé Sylvestre Ngami Mudahwa, a Catholic chaplain in the Zairian armed forces. However, he also died in a road accident in 1985. Denise was 18 years old at the time.
These ordeals, “far from weakening her, have made her stronger“, she says in her official biography – she did not respond to our requests for an interview. After her baccalaureate, her elders took over the task of helping her. She went to the UK and then to Belgium, where she began her professional life. In Brussels, she met Tshisekedi. They would end up having five children.
Her older brother, John, has worked in the Congolese presidency’s protocol department since Mobutu and is a palace regular. Her sister, Jeannette, worked at the DRC embassy in the UK, and their father represented the administration in Kivu during the colonial era. However, the Nyakerus are not one of the big Congolese political families.
She has a say in deciding which people surround the president
Denise Nyakeru was at first a very traditional first lady. She created a foundation dedicated to empowering women and increased her charity work. “In reality, is she interested in all this?” says a politician who regularly meets her at official ceremonies. “She never talks about it.” The diplomat quoted above says: “It’s always strange to say she helps poor women and sends baskets full of champagne and cognac for the New Year.”
In private, Nyakeru complained to her husband that she is not “considered enough” and that her family is “not well endowed enough”, says an official from the Union pour la Démocratie et le Progrès Social (UDPS), the presidential party. At the head of a new and vague “Office of the Head of State’s Spouse”, which was specially created for her under orders in 2020, she is working to surround herself with people she trusts.
Network of followers
In September 2021, while the president was attending the very serious UN General Assembly in New York, a video made headlines. In the footage, a certain Gisèle Mpela Yoka denounced the police raid at her home and accused Nyakeru Tshisekedi of being behind it. This woman is well known in Kinshasa, in fact, she is nicknamed the “second president”. She claims to have had children with Tshisekedi. A few days later, she left her flat and the country.
The first lady does not tolerate political rivals. She is said to be among those who, after Beya was ousted, accelerated Dieudonné Kaluba Dibwa’s removal from the head of the constitutional court, according to several sources. In view of the judicial process of which he was a key element and the 2023 elections, he was not considered loyal enough. The first lady has her fair share of rivalries among the upper echelons of power.
“She does not intervene in policy making,” says an observer. On the other hand, she has a say in deciding which people surround the president. It’s as if she can impose a quota on people loyal to her husband. The number of ministers from South Kivu, like this Mushie, was much commented on when Jean-Michel Sama Lukonde Kyenge’s government was announced in 2021.
This way of governing must be understood in the light of extreme distrust.
Nyakeru Tshisekedi has in any case made sure to reward some of her close friends. She sometimes refers to Gilbert Kabanda Rukemba, the defence minister, as one of her “adoptive fathers”. The retired military officer, who was not among the country’s most senior officers, took care of Denise and her siblings when they were children. John, the eldest, was first promoted to head of presidential protocol when Tshisekedi came to power and then became ambassador to Kenya.
Certainly, the first lady’s close ties to the cabinet members and government helped ensure that Didier Budimbu, the hydrocarbons minister, was heard by the Agence Nationale de Renseignements (ANR) in mid-April. “But perhaps this only allowed him to be questioned for 24 hours,” says the UDPS official mentioned above.
Denise Nyakeru’s influence is not unlike that of the other nurse in Tshisekedi’s life. Even more discreet, even less visible, but omnipresent, “Mama Marthe” has made 10th Street Limete, in Kinshasa, one of the parallel places of power.
“She is not one of the people to whom we have access, we never see her in public, but everyone knows that she holds a considerable place with her son,” says another diplomat. Behind the black gate, the family plot has long been the setting for UDPS meetings. In his small office next to the house, Étienne worked out his political line. All kinds of figures would come and go: party leaders, potential allies, human rights activists, diplomats… But the patriarch’s sons were rarely seen.
“Étienne was neither close to nor admired his sons,” says Albert Moleka, a loyal collaborator now at odds with the family. Nothing deviated from the norms of the time: Etienne had the career and Martha was responsible for educating the children. She looked after their five boys, Jean-Claude, Roger, Félix, Christian and Bobo, as Étienne preferred to work or frolic in the city. “Marthe was the children’s coach,” says a family member. “When you’re a mother, it’s normal to want your sons to succeed.”
“She has always wanted to take power within the UDPS,” say several of her husband’s former friends, who are also on the outs. An ambitious woman of character, she teamed up with Félix very early on. He is the only one of his siblings who is interested in politics. It is worth mentioning that Étienne never tried to pass on this passion to them.
The art of compromise
The influence of ‘Mama Martha’ grew during the mid-2010s. As her father’s health declined, she believed it was her son’s time. In 2014, she burst into a UDPS seminar in Brussels to impose Félix as the party’s leader, according to her detractors. Some time later, she interfered in a discussion between Etienne and Moleka on this subject, and chased away the latter, who did not return. “Etienne never advocated a dynastic succession,” says the former chief of staff. “But he did not exclude anyone. He respected ambitions.”
Martin Fayulu, who still claims that Tshisekedi and Joseph Kabila stole his victory in the 2018 presidential election, agrees. “After the 2016 St. Sylvester agreement, we had to agree on the name of a prime minister from the opposition. Felix was a candidate, but Etienne preferred Valentin Mubake. Felix himself came to tell me his father’s choice,” he says. The son never confirmed that this had happened. In the end, there would not be a cohabitation government. The Sphinx’s real preference remains a mystery.
The one thing that is certain however is that there is also a difference of opinion between these two strong heads, Stephen and Martha. The former was intransigent, while the latter compromised. “Perhaps he liked politics more, while she preferred power,” says one observer. Under Mobutu, she regretted that Etienne had given up the premiership to join the opposition, which encountered years of difficulties. Later, under Kabila, she pushed her oppositionist husband to open discreet discussions with the president. He did not want to, so she took charge. “This was done through Eugénie Tshika wa Mulumba, Etienne’s younger sister. With Kabila’s representatives, she exchanged political ideas… and money,” says a family member.
The final negotiation took place during the 2018 presidential elections. With his mother’s blessing, Félix made a pact with Kabila and achieved what his father had never managed to do. “Perhaps Joseph Kabila and Félix Tshisekedi were also able to reach an agreement because of the complicated relationship that each of them has with their father,” says an observer.
Since then, Marthe has been constantly consulted on party and national affairs. Like Denise, she has her own circle of followers, including Augustin Kabuya, the new head of the UDPS. She is also fully aware of the disgrace of Jean-Marc Kabund, who was violently ousted from the heart of power in early February.
Félix, his wife and his mother are surrounded by his four brothers, who live between Brussels and Kinshasa. They are not really interested in politics but rather in business, like Christian, the most prominent, who has beautiful cars. Today, they often play matchmaker between businessmen and the president. Félix has also surrounded himself with other members of the family, such as Augustin Kibassa-Maliba. The minister of posts, who is implicated in the RAM tax scandal, is the son of Frédéric Kibassa-Maliba, co-founder of the UDPS along with Etienne and brother of Isabelle Kibassa-Maliba, a former Belgian deputy who has become a consultant in Kinshasa and wife of Jean-Claude, Félix’s elder brother.
This system is not just about making money, it is also about ensuring that power is retained
“Félix has called distant cousins and nephews to him,” says a businessman who has been involved in power circles for 40 years. “They are people with little experience, who don’t have the necessary qualifications, but who are old friends from the time when Felix was in Brussels. They are sometimes postmen, sometimes apple deliverers, sometimes nightclub bouncers.”
“This way of governing must be understood in the light of extreme distrust. Félix was badly elected, and a total paranoia, a permanent fear of destabilisation, prevails within the government,” says an observer. “This system is not just about making money, it is also about ensuring that power is retained. Installing people who are nothing and owe you everything is the best way to ensure their loyalty.”
With less than a year and a half to go before the next presidential election, the head of state, who has made no secret of his desire to run for a second term, is concentrating his power around close friends, which risks creating disappointed and revengeful people. Who are his potential opponents in 2023? At the end of March, the photo capturing the meeting between Moleka and Kabund certainly made people talk. “They are bitter,” said a member of Tshisekedi’s cabinet. The fact remains that a number of former UDPS members are strengthening their ties and plan to meet in the coming weeks, but not at 10 Limete Street.
Marthe ended up making the family home her own. “This house, which belonged to Air Afrique, had been given to her alone by ‘Mama Mobutu’,” says a family friend. Etienne’s house was in the centre of Kinshasa.” Behind this modest house’s black gate, the radio that the Sphinx used to have on his desk was turned off a long time ago. The house was once cordoned off by the police, who wanted to control Etienne’s movements, but is now under the presidential guard’s protection. Inside, the large portrait of the oppositionist has become damaged over the years. The Tshisekedi are in power and times have changed.
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