DRC: Who is Tshisekedi working with to resolve M23 crisis?

By Jeune Afrique
Posted on Wednesday, 30 November 2022 09:53

Photo by JA

DRC’s President Félix Tshisekedi is maintaining a hard line against Rwanda, which he accuses of supporting the M23. To manage this highly sensitive issue, he has been consulting an entourage over the past few months that consists of people who advocate a firm position as well as those who favour a more open stance towards Kigali.


DRC’s President Félix Tshisekedi, who has been on the offensive on the diplomatic scene, has for months been facing the advance of the M23 rebels, whom he accuses of being supported by Rwanda. The speech he gave at the UN summit on 20 September was probably one of the best examples. Like in all his recent speeches, Tshisekedi denounced “Rwanda’s aggression” and called on the international community to “no longer rely on [Kigali’s] shameless denials”.

He has also engaged in two mediation processes in Luanda and Nairobi. Slowed down by Angola and Kenya’s presidential elections, these initiatives are looking for a second wind. A meeting between foreign ministers was held on 5 November in Angola and a new round of dialogue with the armed groups is scheduled to take place in Nairobi soon. The EAC regional force’s deployment is also expected to be accelerated.

To juggle these different imperatives, Tshisekedi relies on a handful of people within his government, cabinet and security services. Under pressure on the military front and in a deadlock on the diplomatic front, he also has to deal with the fact that his entourage is advocating different strategic lines, with some calling for a firm stance, while others would like to maintain an active channel of discussion with Kigali behind the scenes.

Since the beginning of the crisis, Patrick Muyaya (the communication minister and government spokesperson) has embodied the offensive line that the government has publicly defended. He is also in regular contact with the lobbying firms hired in the US at the beginning of the year.

The Scribes Strategies and Advisors firm, headed by Joseph Szlavik, regularly communicates with the entourage of President Joe Biden, the US State Department and Congress. Szlavik, who has been familiar with Congolese political and economic circles for many years, regularly briefs Patrick Muyaya on the evolution of Washington’s position.

Christophe Lutundula

As the deputy prime minister in charge of foreign affairs, Christophe Lutundula manages the diplomatic front. When he spoke on 25 May 2022 at the African Union (AU) meeting in Malabo, he was one of the first to directly question Rwanda’s involvement with the M23. The speech was cautious and evoked.

However, citing Muyaya, who had spoken about “suspicions that are crystallising around Rwanda”, the head of diplomacy accused the “M23, supported by Rwanda” of having attacked the Rumangabo camp. Since then, Lutundula has increased his media appearances and pleaded with the head of state to maintain an offensive line towards Kigali. He is notably hired to write some of Tshisekedi’s speeches.

Serge Tshibangu, Tshisekedi’s special representative – who is also the head of state’s ‘Mr United States’ – has steadily imposed himself at the heart of the latter’s diplomatic apparatus. As the linchpin of the Nairobi process, he played a central role in the strategic shift that led the DRC to decide to hold a round table with several armed groups, to the detriment of a bilateral dialogue with the M23. Claude Ibalanky, the head of the Addis Ababa Agreement’s National Follow-up Mechanism, defended this position. Ibalanky was a privileged spokesperson of the rebel movement, whose roadmap was signed in 2019 and had strong connections in Kigali and Kampala.

Tshibangu, who speaks both Swahili and English, regularly serves as an emissary to certain presidents, notably in Kenya, and also acts as a translator during certain bilateral meetings between Tshisekedi and some of his English-speaking counterparts. He now accompanies the Congolese head of state on most of his trips to the sub-region and also pleads for a firm line to be maintained.

Appreciated by the head of state as well as the First Lady Denise Nyakeru Tshisekedi, Roland Kashwantale Chihoza is today one of the most prominent securocrats in Kinshasa. His name has been circulating for several months in succession talks linked to Tshisekedi’s former security adviser François Beya, who was arrested last February and tried for “plotting” against the president.

Kashwantale knows Beya well as he served for a long time as his deputy at the Direction Générale de Migration (DGM) before taking over this institution in February 2019, after Tshisekedi came to power.

Always in the shadows, the presidential clan trusts him completely. He distinguished himself at the beginning of 2020 when, following Tshisekedi and Joseph Kabila’s rupture, several figures close to the former president had difficulties travelling. The arrest of Beya, a traditional spokesperson for some of the Rwandan securocrats, pushed Kashwantale to occupy a more important place in the East, even though he had only very limited access to the sub-region.

The DGM’s head was one of the discrete mediators of the Rwandan spymasters, both for the intelligence services (NISS) led by Joseph Nzabamwita and military intelligence, headed by Vincent Nyakarundi. Tshisekedi also called on him to settle certain disputes between advisers on this issue, such as the one between Serge Tshibangu and Claude Ibalanky.

Jean-Hervé Mbelu Biosha

The head of the Agence Nationale de Renseignement (ANR), who has faced pushback over the ‘Beya affair’ – his services led to the arrest of Tshisekedi’s former ‘Mr Security’ – is nevertheless a member of the president’s crisis management system. Although some neighbours who are frustrated by the sidelining of ‘Fantomas’ don’t trust him, Mbelu continues to be discussed by intelligence services.

In mid-September, he went to Paris for a meeting organised by the Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure (DGSE) with Rwandan and Ugandan intelligence officials. He is also following the Luanda process discussions, namely the mediation efforts led by Angola’s President João Lourenço. A meeting between the Congolese and Rwandan foreign ministers was held on 5 November in the Angolan capital. Mbelu was part of the delegation led by Minister Christophe Lutundula.

Appointed on 3 October, Christian Tshiwewe Songhesha, the new chief of staff of the Forces Armées de la RD Congo (FARDC), has succeeded Celestin Mbala. The man who headed the Republican Guard until his appointment is now one of the soldiers in whom Tshisekedi places his trust within an army that he has long distrusted because it is reputed to be, to some extent, too close to former President Kabila. Tshiwewe now has the heavy burden of taking over the command of a military that is struggling to fight against the M23.

While his promotion is in line with Tshisekedi’s takeover of the army, there are concerns about his lack of experience on the front line. He will have to work with General Marcel Mbangu, the new head of the third defence zone (North Kivu, South Kivu, Ituri, Maniema and Tshopo), who is replacing Philémon Yav. This other general, who is reputedly close to Kabila, was arrested in troubling circumstances last September.

The head of state regularly relies on another member of the Republican Guard, who was also promoted in the last army reshuffle: General Jérôme Chico Tshitambwe, the FARDC’s new deputy chief of staff, who is currently deployed in Goma.

Franck Ntumba

Although he is not directly in charge of the M23 dossier, the military house’s boss exerts a lot of influence over Tshisekedi. Appointed in July 2020, after a first reshuffle, several sources say General Franck Ntumba is one of the masterminds behind the military command overhaul carried out in October.

Within the head of state’s entourage, most are aware that the relationship between this former military intelligence officer and Chief of Staff Mbala is not good. Ntumba’s influence on the management of operations and the state of siege also irritates some of the army members, who accuse him of overstepping his prerogatives.

A private adviser to the head of state, Fortunat Biselele, a close friend of Tshisekedi, was a member of the intelligence services of the Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie (RCD-Goma), a rebellion that Rwanda supported in the early 2000s. Fortunat Biselele is now one of the cabinet members who argue for a less offensive line than the one currently adopted.

When, at the beginning of his term in office, the president pushed for closer ties with Paul Kagame, ‘Bifort’ played the role of a shadow emissary. At the time, he was in regular contact with James Kabarebe, Kagame’s security advisor. He has long maintained links with Kigali, as have some of those close to him who have passed through the RCD, such as businessman Eddy Ngarambe, who is also known to have connections with Tshisekedi.

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