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DRC: Are Tshisekedi and Kabila ready to divorce?

By Romain Gras
Posted on Monday, 26 October 2020 17:43

APTOPIX Congo Elections
Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi receives the presidential sash from outgoing president Joseph Kabila after being sworn in in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Thursday Jan. 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

The head of state and his predecessor appear to be in constant disagreement over the internal negotiations of their respective coalitions. Is this the end of their alliance? Or do they have an interest in extending it a little longer?

At rush hour, on Kinshasa’s crowded roads, motorists venturing out onto Boulevard Triomphal have plenty of time to observe the intimidating building that houses the People’s Palace and the imposing flag overlooking its courtyard. A few months earlier, it was on this busy road and several other hot spots throughout the Congolese capital that demonstrations were multiplying.

Sometimes against the judicial reform undertaken by the Common Front for Congo (FCC, the coalition formed around Joseph Kabila), sometimes against the appointment of Ronsard Malonda at the head of the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI), and sometimes in favour of the “Defence of the Institutions of the Republic” advocated by the FCC, these various demonstrations gave the disturbing spectacle of a political scene on edge.

Fragile marriage

However, at the beginning of October, almost a month after the opening of the parliamentary term, the corridors of the National Assembly had regained a little serenity, far from the hustle and bustle of July. “We have a feeling that this is the calm before the storm,” says one deputy.

While many decisions, including the vote on the budget for 2021, will be decided during this term (which runs until 15 December), several divisive issues are being discussed in parallel between the FCC and the Cape for Change (CACH) the Tshisekedi coalition.

READ MORE DRC Constitutional Court fight reveals Kabila-Tshisekedi struggle

On 21 October, the inauguration of the new Constitutional Court judges brought uncertainty to the ruling coalition. Yet, to those who fear an implosion, both sides have always hammered home the fact that the time for a divorce has not yet come. “We’re not going to break up the coalition,” reassured Tshisekedi in Brazzaville, in July. But in this marriage of circumstance, trust seems to be increasingly fragile.

The Malonda case

This lack of trust was showcased on the evening of 2 July. In the presidential residence of the N’Sele, Félix Tshisekedi and Joseph Kabila emerged after three hours of talks; a meeting that took several days to organise. The two men were joined by their teams of negotiators.

READ MORE DRC: ‘To survive, Tshisekedi is trying to outmanoeuvre, not confront the Kabilists’

The atmosphere was “pretty relaxed,” according to one participant. But the evening was about to get worse. Just before the beginning of the meal, news came: The Assembly had just validated the choice of Ronsard Malonda to preside over the CENI.

For several days, the name of this former executive secretary of CENI, appointed by religious heads after a controversial vote, had been at the heart of a lively controversy. Additionally the Malonda case was one of the subjects discussed that evening by the two men.

“We had found a comprise to resolving this problem, but everything was called into question as soon as we left the room,” said one of the president’s negotiators. The case of Ronsard Malonda was thus sent back to the drawing-board for the respective negotiators of Tshisekedi and Kabila to rexamine.

Crisis at the Constitutional Court

To resolve these differences and advance the dialogue, the head of State and his predecessor attempted a final step by inaugurating a new commission, reducing the number of members on each side from six to four. “There were times where we couldn’t hear each other in these meetings. They had no choice, they had to sort it out,” said one of the negotiators.

Among the issues currently on the table, the most difficult one is that of judicial appointments. On 17 July, the Kabila camp accused its partner of violating the constitution in opposition to the orders it had formalised. Two Constitutional Court judges appointed to the Court of Cassation refused to leave their seats, supported by the FCC.

As a result, the country’s highest court, which is responsible, amongst other things, for deciding electoral disputes and validating candidacies for the supreme magistracy, was at a standstill. Neither Tshisekedi nor Kabila intended to back down, until Tshisekedi opted to swear in the judges on 21 October.

Some people fear that this episode will have an impact on other issues, such as CENI. After Tshisekedi’s refusal to endorse Malonda’s choice, the case, which was neither sent back to the representatives of the groups nor submitted to the Assembly, is in a grey area. At a time when the debate on electoral reforms is returning to the forefront, neither the FCC nor the CACH are willing to take responsibility for a “slip” in the 2023 elections.

Towards a fairer government?

Another burning issue is the replacement of Justice Minister Célestin Tunda Ya Kasende, who is being pressured to resign for having submitted the government’s observations on the highly controversial judicial reform project without prior consultation. The FCC has already proposed the name of Jean Mbuyu, former Kabila security advisor, as his successor. But, for the time being, he has not yet obtained the validation of the head of state.

READ MORE DRC: Tshisekedi rounds up new allies for 2023 presidential polls

Contrary to what the other side thinks, “the president does not consider this to be a bad choice,” said one of the head of state’s collaborators. “He just wants this issue to be decided on at the same time as the others.” The eight negotiators – four from each camp – also have to agree on future appointments in several key embassies, including those of UN Security Council member countries, and in territorial administration.

Finally, the question of a reshuffle has also been raised. The problem is that there is no unanimity on the way in which it should be carried out. CACH does not want to separate from Prime Minister Sylvestre Ilunga Ilunkamba, who is from the FCC but several members of the Kabila clan are demanding to leave.

To meet the demands of international donors, led by the IMF, which has put in place a condition to the DRC to reduce its government expenses along with its size. While the consensus seems to be around 40 ministers, compared to 67 today, the division of functions is more problematic. The CACH wants a more equitable sharing of portfolios. The FCC, which has an overwhelming majority in the institutions, is obviously reluctant to do so. The project remains at a standstill for the moment.

2023 in sight

Not quite together anymore, but not yet face to face, will Tshisekedi and Kabila manage to play the coalition game for a long time to come? In recent weeks, the supporters of the Congolese president have recalled that the ambition of the latter was indeed to serve a second term. He would even work actively on restructuring of his platform, an issue on which his high representative, Kitenge Yesu, is mobilised to do.

READ MORE DRC: Is Joseph Kabila already preparing for his return to power?

Joseph Kabila is not to be outdone. His visit, on 14 October, to the former president of the Senate, Léon Kengo wa Dondo, during which he recalled that 2023 was going to “arrive quickly”, is also a sign that he does not intend to let his “partner” dictate the tempo. “Joseph Kabila has also learned to be wary of his partner”, says Kikaya Bin Karubi, diplomatic adviser to the former president. “If Kabila doesn’t find a way out if it [the coalition],” said a close associate of Tshisekedi, “then it’ll be good if he at least gets something out of it.”

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