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DRC: One year in and Félix Tshisekedi is yet to make his mark

By Romain Gras, Stanis Bujakera Tshiamala

Posted on January 27, 2020 15:29

To those who doubt his power, Tshisekedi gives only one answer: “Congo has only one boss, and that’s me.”

With a bulging torso, furrowed brow, shorts and T-shirt damp with sweat, Félix Tshisekedi looks like a boxer ready to get back into the ring. Taking advantage of a few days off, the Congolese president at the beginning of the year was walking on the beach of Muanda. Was he thinking back to his inauguration on 24 January 2019?

Just over a year ago, Tshisekedi was sitting next to a Joseph Kabila. He was without his khaki fatigues and goatee and although a bit tense, seemed to savour the moment. Did he anticipate the difficulties that would arise from this unlikely alliance with his predecessor?

His detractors at the time described him as a man who could be influenced, making a point of underlining that Joseph Kabila had been a fine strategist. The task promised to be monumental.

“We weren’t naïve, we knew that everything wasn’t going to be presented to us on a platter, we were prepared,” argued one of Tshisekedi’s close collaborators.

Time is short

A year later, to those who still doubt the basis of his power, Tshisekedi gives only one answer: “Congo has only one boss, and that’s me.” He promised 2020 would be the year of action, during his speech on the state of the nation, as if responding to those who, like the opponent Olivier Kamitatu, accuse him of being an “automatic distributor of promises”.

The Head of State knows it, the workload is immense, and time is already running out. As soon as he was elected, he must have been thinking about the next election.

“2023 is tomorrow,” confirmed one councillor.

“In the corridors of the presidency, one hears whispers that the next four years may not be enough, and changing the system takes time,” summed up a member of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS), the presidential party. “Five years is not enough.”

Tshisekedi, who does not control any of the country’s major institutions, has spent almost a year trying to make his mark and testing the limits set by his new ally. This was necessary, but if he is aiming for re-election in 2023, he will have to deal with fundamental problems: cleaning up the army, giving guarantees in the fight against corruption, bringing peace back to the East. In other words, he will have to do much more than just make homeopathic adjustments.

No news, good news

With Joseph Kabila, it’s always complicated. For the moment, according to their entourage, the agreement between the head of state and his predecessor is cordial.

“They are aware that it is in their interest to ensure that this cohabitation succeeds,” explained an official of the Front Commun pour le Congo (FCC), the former president’s coalition.

“They have one thing in common: they don’t talk much,” said Vital Kamerhe, the influential chief of staff of the head of state. “They don’t like to phone each other, except when there is an emergency. They are among those who say, ‘No news, good news’.”

A few moments later, however, he makes a point of qualifying his comment, “Trust between the two exists, but it is not total. Everyone is on their guard.”

Until now, Tshisekedi and Kabila have left the management of their coalition to a committee composed of 12 personalities, the same people who negotiated the government agreement a few months ago.

“The problem with this committee is that everyone wants to pull the cover to themselves,” said Kamerhe.

But they are careful to intervene only as a last resort or when the tension is too high.

This was the case in early November 2019, when Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, the secretary general of the People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy (PPRD), made numerous statements announcing Kabila’s return to the front of the stage. (They then met in the residence owned by the head of state in N’sele.)

Or when, on 31 December, the case of Albert Yuma, the head of Gécamines, involved in a financial dispute, had to be dealt with.

The real heart of power is to be found in the presidency. There, between the City of the African Union, where he has taken up residence, and the Palace of the Nation, where his chief of staff has taken up residence, Tshisekedi can count on a square of loyal followers. It was on them that he relied for eight months before a government was formed.

  • There’s Fortunat Biselele, a Kasaian who holds the position of privy councillor. Consulted on almost all subjects, this former intelligence officer with the Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD-Goma), has had the confidence of the Tshisekedi clan for nearly 20 years. Influential in the internal affairs of the presidency, in permanent contact with the Directorate General of Migration (DGM) and the National Intelligence Agency (ANR), he is a valuable asset.
  • The same goes for François Beya. Nicknamed “Fantomas”, this other man in the shadows also has direct access to the President, to whom he reports. A former boss of the DGM, he has his own cabinet and managed both the rapprochement with Kabila and the Moïse Katumbi case.
  • Tshisekedi can also count on his representative, Kitenge Yesu, to whom he delegates some of the issues relating to his party, and, of course, on the unavoidable Kamerhe.

But the omnipresence of the latter annoys some of the head of state’s close associates.

“He is an ally, but not a friend,” one of them insisted.

One thing is sure, Tshisekedi is doing everything to assert his power. He has an over-stuffed cabinet with more than 110 advisors entrusted with portfolios similar to those of ministers, reflecting the image of a bottleneck presidency.

He has increased the number of trips, each time accompanied by several dozen people (51 for nine days in Belgium in September, 117 for two days in Uganda at the beginning of November).

He created a myriad of agencies, directly attached to the presidency (to fight corruption, encourage investment, improve the business climate) and which are suspected of acting as a parallel government.

He is also working to ensure a favourable outcome for 2023. In March 2019, he launched a 100-day emergency programme and promised, a few months later, free education. These two measures are popular, but because their budgets have been poorly evaluated, the Ministry of Finance, controlled by the FCC, is unable to release the necessary funds.

Tshisekedi is an opportunist and can claim some victories, such as the release of political prisoners and the return of certain opponents, starting with Moïse Katumbi. He also managed to keep out of his government personalities considered too divisive, such as Evariste Boshab or Albert Yuma. He also succeeded in a spectacular diplomatic comeback, reinvesting an international scene largely neglected by his predecessor.

Since then, he has benefited from the benevolence of Western chancelleries, but this confidence remains conditional on the pursuit of reforms. It is only at this price that Tshisekedi will be able to convince the IMF and donors to support his $10 billion budget for the year 2020.

“The big problem is that Felix Tshisekedi’s promise is not yet operational,” according to an American diplomatic source. The first year of his mandate was thus marred by several very embarrassing cases even though he promised to fight against corruption: that of the alleged embezzlement of $15 million, in which Vital Kamerhe was cited, that of the audits suspended at the request of the presidency, the contracts awarded by mutual agreement, and the financial dispute between Gécamines and the Israeli businessman Dan Gertler.

“It is important that the president gives reassuring signs on the fight against corruption and parallel taxation, for the partners but above all for the citizens who elected him,” said economist Al Kitenge. Sanctions would not help him.

The problem is that every time Tshisekedi tried to break free, in one register or another, the backlash is immediate.

When he announced the suspension of the Senate in March, on the grounds that the election had been rigged, the FCC tightened its grip and forced him to back down ten days later. When, in June, the orders for appointments in the state-owned companies Société nationale des chemins de fer du Congo (SNCC) and Gécamines were made without consulting the Kabila camp, the National Assembly reared up, and the minister in charge of the file refused to apply them.

A reversal of the Tshisekedi camp is not impossible. “It is a question of credibility. The fact that ministers can afford to disobey without being punished is unhealthy,” said Kin-Kiey Mulumba, an executive from Cape Town’s Cape for Change (Cach).

“Tshisekedi is learning to draw the red line with Kabila,” said a connoisseur of Congolese politics. “As for Kabila, he knows how to make the difference. He knows that he can let Tshisekedi do his own thing on certain issues, but he also knows what he has to stick to. There are subjects on which he cannot afford to give in.”

That’s why Tshisekedi only made marginal adjustments in the security environment. The Republican Guard is still in the hands of Ilunga Kampete, and the army is still led by certain generals under sanctions, such as John Numbi, Delphin Kahimbi or Gabriel Amisi. All of them are pro-Kabila, and sometimes accused of maintaining a form of collusion with the armed groups that are rampant in the East, which Tshisekedi has promised to pacify.

It is only within the ANR that Tshisekedi has slightly reorganized. The replacement of Kalev Mutond by his number two, Inzun Kakiak, and the appointment of a Kasaian, Jean-Hervé Mbelu Biosha, to the post of deputy to the latter, have enabled the head of state to regain partial control of this agency, which was much decried under Kabila.

A gamble

“His room for manoeuvre on this issue is even more limited than elsewhere, which does not help it, because civil society is expecting a lot,” acknowledged Jean-Jacques Wondo, a Congolese analyst specialising in security issues. The same goes for the Constitutional Court, accused of being subservient to Kabila: Tshisekedi has a power of appointment, which he has not yet used.

“The idea is not to launch a witch hunt, but to dismantle a system that does not date back to Joseph Kabila. We can’t say today that we are going to remove so-and-so and replace it with so-and-so,” said Kamerhe cautiously.

Two options are on the able to force the change. The amendment of the Constitution, a principle on which all actors seem to agree, but the Cach and the FCC do not share the same objectives. And, as a last resort, the ultimate gamble: the dissolution of the National Assembly. Evoked at the beginning of Tshisekedi’s term of office, this option is no longer being considered, even though the Congolese president waved this threat in front of the diaspora in London on 19 January.

“Too risky,” a UDPS official said. “Especially since the constitutional framework does not guarantee that we will win the new majority.”

But with the FCC no longer hiding its intentions for the next election and seriously considering its transformation into a single formation, with Moïse Katumbi also reorganizing his platform Ensemble pour la République into a political party, and with Bemba discreetly remobilizing the ranks of his Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), the race for 2023 is already going on behind the scenes.

“Tshisekedi is betting on time, he hopes that time will play in his favour,” a diplomatic source said. “This is his best asset, but it could also backfire if the lines don’t move.”

Coalition conundrum

Tshisekedi has asked his high representative, Kitenge Yesu, to put forward proposals for a possible transformation of the Cach coalition into a real political platform. But, between its two components, the UDPS and the UNC, the negotiations could be slow: several executives of the presidential party fear offering a springboard to Vital Kamerhe for 2023.

“Some people think that if this is done on the terms dictated by the UNC, we risk being eaten,” explained Peter Kazadi, a UDPS executive and presidential adviser.

However, according to those close to him, Kamerhe would be willing to let Tshisekedi run for a second term in office, subject to a new responsibility-sharing agreement.

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