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Why Tshisekedi’s right-hand man Vital Kamerhe sits in jail

By Romain Gras, Stanis Bujakera Tshiamala
Posted on Friday, 17 April 2020 13:50

Vital Kamerhe
Vital Kamerhe in Paris in 2013. © Vincent Fournier/J.A.

Transferred to Makala Prison after a five-hour hearing, Vital Kamerhe, President Félix Tshisekedi’s chief of staff, has found himself at the heart of a controversy over the 100-day programme in recent weeks.

“It’s a big blow, if not a fatal one, for the Cap pour le Changement (CACH) coalition,” said a member of parliament representing the Union pour la Nation Congolaise,  (UNC – the party of the Congolese president’s chief of staff) who was already predicting the end of CACH, just a few hours after Vital Kamerhe took up residence in the eighth block of the Makala Central Prison.

Is the coalition between Tshisekedi and Kamerhe over?

Since 8 April, the question has come back in full force. Dressed in a blue suit and matching tie, Kamerhe replied this time around to the “invitation” of the attorney general of the Kinshasa-Matete public prosecutor’s office who wanted to hear his testimony as part of an investigation into the funds allocated to Tshisekedi’s 100-day emergency programme.

READ MORE: DRC: Vital Kamerhe insists Tshisekedi-Kabila alliance not in jeopardy — yet

He did not reply to the first summons sent two days earlier. At that time, the head of the UNC refused to go before the judges and did not have his lawyers represent him either. This time around, after a five-hour hearing, he was taken into custody under a provisional arrest warrant and transferred early that same evening to Makala Prison.

Why is Kamerhe the target of the investigation?

The case that has led to the incarceration of the Congolese president’s chief of staff began back on 2 March 2019, when Tshisekedi, in office for barely more than a month, announced with great fanfare his 100-day emergency programme.

Through the programme, Tshisekedi planned to gain ground in the absence of a government – the likes of which was still under negotiation with his allies from Joseph Kabila’s coalition, the Front Commun pour le Congo (FCC). The multi-faceted programme provided access to electricity and drinking water and, above all, a number of infrastructure construction projects.

Its initial budget was set at $304m.

In no time, the programme became the centre of a controversy combining political accusations and corruption allegations. The Congolese media have been having a field day with the case, typified by the notorious flyover bridge construction work, which has led to massive traffic congestion at intersections in Kinshasa.

With construction stalled, several members of Tshisekedi’s party, the Union pour la Démocratie et le Progrès Social (UDPS), and the FCC are speaking out to denounce the sums of money devoted to the project. Members of civil society, for their part, see signs of misappropriation of funds. According to the NGO Government Spending Watch, more than 80% of the contracts awarded under the programme were done so without a call for tenders.

Discontent has been rising especially given that the cost of the flyovers, initially set at $25m, has virtually doubled, almost reaching $46m. With this news, Kamerhe’s name quickly became mixed up in the case.

READ MORE: DRC: Mr ‘Vice-President’ Vital Kamerhe

As the president’s chief of staff, the UNC leader has the right to sign off on contracts and, in this capacity, he approved the release of programme-related funds on several occasions up until the government was appointed at the end of August 2019.

What is the status of the investigation?

On 8 February, the matter was ultimately referred to the Congolese courts. Tensions reached an all-time high with the UDPS’s president, Jean-Marc Kabund-a-Kabund, and secretary-general, Augustin Kabuya, opening an enquiry into the construction projects, just as Tshisekedi announced an audit of the flyover bridge construction.

READ MORE: Felix Tshisekedi audits his emergency program, troubles partners

One day later, the Kinshasa-Matete Court of Appeal initiated its own investigation. That was when Attorney General Kisula Betika Yeye Adler requested that a series of documents, including copies of the disbursement slips for construction contractors regarding the various contracts entered into be turned over.

The investigators quickly targeted several figures.

On 21 and 24 February, two businessmen were arrested: US citizen David Blattner, the head of public works company Safricas, testified in light of his suspected involvement in misappropriating funds allocated for the construction of flyover bridges, and Lebanese national Samih Jammal, the boss of Samibo Congo construction group, was questioned about an alleged misappropriation of $55m, originally intended for the construction of social housing.

Thierry Taeymans, the Belgian CEO of Rawbank, was also arrested and questioned before being released on 20 March.

A five-hour hearing

At the end of a hearing that lasted more than five hours and during which four of Kamerhe’s lawyers were present, he was in turn detained under a provisional arrest warrant on Wednesday 8 April. According to one of his lawyers, the decision was taken in order to “organise a confrontation with those involved in the 100-day programme,” including those previously questioned as part of the investigation.

His lawyers argued that the decision was unfounded given that Kamerhe is “still serving as chief of staff and does not pose a flight risk since he has a well-known address.”

Although the defence team of the former president of the National Assembly has not hesitated to refer to the case as “more of a political than a legal matter,” they refuse to provide further details for now. His lawyers said they “will submit a letter requesting his temporary release.”

However, the president of the Court of Cassation, Dominique Ntambwe wa Kaniki, issued a decision on 8 April to postpone all court cases until the end of the state of emergency period enacted on account of the coronavirus pandemic.

The potential for political consequences

Kamerhe’s arrest could have far-reaching political repercussions. After the first invitation sent to Kamerhe at the beginning of the week, UNC officials had already come out against what they described as a “demonisation campaign led by certain poorly placed outsiders.”

After the arrest of the Congolese president’s chief of staff, certain UNC representatives denounced the move as a way to “humiliate” Tshisekedi’s right-hand man and did not refrain from pointing the blame at their UDPS counterparts, without providing tangible evidence in support of their accusations.

For several weeks tension has been rising between the top ranks of the two parties, against a backdrop of rivalry ahead of the 2023 presidential election, with Kamerhe, according to the agreement established in Nairobi, initially expected to run under the banner of the CACH coalition.

While the hearing was taking place, Tshisekedi received a UNC delegation led by the party’s secretary-general, Aime Boji. The head of state said, according to the president’s office, that he “didn’t get involved in court-related issues given the independence of the judiciary.” Another meeting was set to take place between Tshisekedi and Boji on the following day at the president’s residence in N’sele.

READ MORE: DRC: Félix Tshisekedi and Joseph Kabila meet for direct talks

With Kamerhe still in provisional custody, Tshisekedi has found himself, for the time being, deprived of his coalition partner. It remains to be seen what kind of impact the case could end up having on the balance of power with Joseph Kabila if CACH were to implode.

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