DRC: Can Joseph Kabila and the PPRD regain power?

By Romain Gras
Posted on Friday, 19 August 2022 15:34, updated on Monday, 12 September 2022 14:46

Joseph Kabila displays ink on his hand after casting his vote at a polling station in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, December 30, 2018. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

Power struggles, uncertainty about the attitude to adopt for the 2023 presidential election and a possible candidacy for the country’s top office... Joseph Kabila's political family is seeking a second wind.

A generous layer of cream, a slightly runny chocolate layer with impeccably distributed blue, yellow and red icing… Everything on the birthday cake that Joseph Kabila was about to cut seemed to awaken the appetites of the guests surrounding him.

On 31 March, the former president was celebrating the 20th anniversary of his People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy (PPRD). All the party’s bigwigs were present for the occasion. The permanent secretary general, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, former National Assembly presidents Aubin Minaku and Jeanine Mabunda…Whether with arms crossed or plates already in hand, each of them was no doubt hoping for his or her share.

As the PPRD was celebrating this symbolic anniversary, the party found itself in the midst of a complete overhaul. After having dominated the political scene for more than eighteen years, Joseph Kabila’s party is now trying to bounce back after the loss of its majority in late 2020 and the departure of many of its leaders to President Tshisekedi’s camp.

The political meeting held on 31 March under Kabila’s aegis was therefore a new beginning, with the organisation of a congress in sight. “The challenge for us is clear: to regain power,” says PPRD member Adam Chalwe.

Ramazani out?

Even though a commission has since been set up especially to prepare for this great event, it has still not been scheduled. The party must, however, decide on pressing issues, starting with the appointment of new leaders. Since the 2018 presidential elections, the PPRD has been plagued by major power struggles. The nomination of Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary as a candidate for the highest office, followed by his defeat, caused tremors that are still being felt today.

Ramazani is still the party’s permanent secretary despite his failure at the ballot box, but he is facing an internal rebellion. Even though those close to him have said it is only “the expression of democracy within the PPRD”, a real uncertainty hangs over his future as head of the party.

“He is explosive and under sanctions – is this really the face we want to show to relaunch ourselves?” asks a former provincial governor and PPRD member.

Ramazani’s supporters continue to assert that he has Joseph Kabila’s confidence, but the mid-May postponement – at the end of another political bureau meeting – of the appointments he had made to the party ranks a few days earlier seemed like a real disavowal. The fact remains that if his status within the PPRD remains precarious, isolating him completely carries risks.

“We want to avoid a ‘Kabund effect’,” says a party member, referring to the former Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) boss, who was removed from his position before joining the opposition.

Tough choice

If Kabila’s presumed successor ends up being removed from his position as permanent secretary, who could replace him? Several names are circulating these days as candidates for important positions within the party: Jeanine Mabunda, former president of the National Assembly, Aubin Minaku, who has also held the post, Kabila’s former chief of staff Nehemiah Mwilanya, and Henri Mova Sakanyi, who has held several ministries.

This is a difficult choice for a party that is still traumatised by the numerous poaching operations it has experienced along with the loss of its majority.

“If we had not waited long enough, we would not have unmasked Mende and his consort,” says Adam Chalwe, former PPRD national secretary. “Nowadays we don’t have any more jobs to give away in the institutions. So we can see who’s ready to live through the ‘hard times’. In the end, Félix Tshisekedi has helped us to ‘fine-tune’ our entourage!”

For Chalwe, caution remains the order of the day. “There are several opportunities for poaching, which we are monitoring, to see who is really with us,” he says. “There was the formation of the Sacred Union followed by the electoral commission. There are still appointments in public companies. If we rush, we’ll go to the scaffold”.

Reconciliation with Katumbi

However, time is running out. A year and a half before general elections, ambitions are beginning to emerge. Tshisekedi is already a candidate for a second presidential term. Augustin Matata Ponyo, the former prime minister who turned his back on his former PPRD comrades to start his own party, has announced that he will be at the starting gates. Other candidates are being considered, such as Moïse Katumbi, Martin Fayulu and Jean-Marc Kabund. In this context, the question of possible alliances must be put on the table.

Should they engage in discussion with some ‘old hands’ like Matata Ponyo, who has retained support in the party? Should the party continue to explore the opportunities offered by the patriotic bloc formed with Martin Fayulu to challenge the electoral reforms on the streets? Or should they, on the contrary, go all the way towards rebuilding the party and present their own candidate?

“Up until now, it has been a question of seeing where our strengths and weaknesses are,”  says a member of the PPRD political bureau.

One event has nevertheless been added to the equation. From 17 to 19 May, Katangese leaders met in Lubumbashi for a major reconciliation forum. Organised under the aegis of Archbishop Fulgence Muteba, this meeting, officially without political connotations, was above all the occasion for a highly symbolic handshake between Joseph Kabila and his former ally Moïse Katumbi, who had left eight years earlier after opposing a third term for Kabila.

Beyond the image, this media patch-up raised a real question: is a political alliance between Katumbi and Kabila really possible? If according to PPRD officials and members of the former Katanga governor’s direct entourage, it is still too early to put the problem in these terms, the idea cannot be excluded. Each camp recognises that discussions exist, but no one is prepared to bet on who will agree to go along with the other. Moïse Katumbi, whose party is still a member of the majority but who has distanced himself from Tshisekedi, must also organise his own congress by the end of the year.

Kabila 2023?

For his part, despite his apparent withdrawal from the day-to-day management of his party’s affairs, Kabila remains a key figure in the PPRD and few dare to raise the prospect of an alternative candidacy before he has clarified his intentions. His loyal lieutenants regularly remind him of this.

“He is the only one who can decide who will represent us at the next elections. As for his role in the future, I’d just like to point out that Joseph Kabila is only 50 years old,” said his former chief of staff, Nehemiah Mwilanya, in an interview with Jeune Afrique in December 2021.

In the meantime, everyone is watching for the sign of a possible return to business. “Everywhere I go these days, everyone is asking for you,” former First Lady Olive Lembe Kabila said during Independence Day celebrations on 30 June. Never one to be verbose, Kabila, for the moment, is content to make sporadic appearances.

So to try to unravel the mystery, some are relying on more subjective criteria. “He completely shaved his beard the day he handed over power. As if to say he was free of a burden,” says a PPRD official. “Since then, he has let his rebel beard grow back. This is a sign that he is ready to get involved again. Only he knows at what level.”

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options