Did DRC’s former President Joseph Kabila think he was safe, protected from a brutal reversal of the balance of power? Did he realise, when he officially handed over power to Félix Tshisekedi in January 2019, that he would be marginalised? After 18 years of holding the reins of power, his political family is now experiencing an unprecedented crisis.
Until the breakdown of the alliance between the Front Commun pour le Congo (FCC) and Cap pour le Changement (Cach) at the end of 2020, it had held a comfortable majority. But following the departure of many of his deputies, who left to join President Tshisekedi’s Union Sacrée, Kabila has suffered a series of setbacks in recent months.
One by one, the elements that once protected his majority – 336 deputies when the legislature was initially formed – have given fallen away. The first to collapse was the office of the National Assembly, headed by Jeanine Mabunda. She was removed from office on 10 December, followed by Prime Minister Sylvestre Ilunga Ilunkamba, who fell victim to a motion of no confidence at the end of January. Finally, Alexis Thambwe Mwamba, head of the Senate, was forced to resign on 5 February.
Since mid-December, the former president has been holed up in his farm in Kashamata, in his Katangese stronghold, and has remained silent. Many of his visitors describe him as “disappointed”, “downcast”, and even “disgusted” with political life. Others – just as many – say that this is not the case, that Kabila remains “combative” and swears that now is the time for some internal “reorganisation.”
“The party and the coalition’s priority is to reorganise and reform its bodies,” says Adam Chalwe, one of the national secretaries of the Parti du Peuple pour la Reconstruction et la Démocratie (PPRD). The fall of Mabunda, made possible by the defection of many FCC deputies, has led to much internal criticism. These criticisms arise from the management of the FCC, which was considered too “pyramidal” and concentrated in the hands of a small number of leaders.
Aware of this turmoil, Kabila appointed – in the wake of Mabunda’s dismissal – a crisis committee, which he entrusted to Raymond Tshibanda, a former minister, and which is composed of several elected members of the FCC. Its mission is “to understand why there have been so many departures and, above all, to prevent further ones,” says Tshibanda.
Within the coalition, everyone has their own explanations. “We never recovered from the successor war,” says a member of the crisis unit. “And then some people showed an excess of pride: they did not want to admit that after the defeat of 2018, it was necessary to hand over the reins to someone else.” Others, such as Tshibanda, believe that it is above all “threats and corruption that have caused this situation.”
Internally, the episode has had some negative consequences, to the point that some have said that the reorganisation must go through a phase of “purification”, in other words, the pure and simple removal of several key figures. “This was one of the missions of the ‘liquidators’,” says a PPRD leader, who uses this term to describe the members of the crisis committee.
The first FCC figure to suffer was Nehemiah Mwilanya Wilondja, the powerful FCC coordinator who has been the target of criticism in recent months. Although he has not been formally dismissed, in practice he no longer holds the same responsibilities.
Although he refuses to talk about Wilondja’s dismissal, Tshibanda confirms that it is indeed the crisis committee that is, even after the delivery of its final report, responsible for “ensuring the day-to-day business of the coalition until the new organisation has been established.”
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Will Wilondja, who has long been Kabila’s chief of staff, be the only victim of this crisis? Even though no reorganisation plan has yet been circulated, several ideas have been proposed, including changing the FCC’s name and introducing a new leadership structure (this will be made official at the next congressional meeting).
The winds of change may even be felt by the PPRD, a fringe which is calling to replace Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, the party’s permanent secretary and Kabila’s successor in 2018.
We contacted Shadary, who did not wish to answer our questions. He said that he would not discuss the party’s strategy until the new government had been formed.
Who is still with the head of state?
But before talking strategy, the political family of the former president will have to clarify the present state of forces. Faced with the upheaval of the political chessboard, it is difficult to appreciate the former president’s influence.
There is still time to assess the damage done in recent months. “It is still a little too early to know who we can really count on,” says a PPRD leader. Many of its members admit that the PPRD and the FCC are waiting to find out who is going to join the government before they know who the head of state can count on.
It is no coincidence that the FCC issued a statement on 24 March warning that it would not take part in Sama Lukonde Kyenge’s government. “We are not holding anyone hostage, but we wanted to clarify things,” says Tshibanda.
He wants to believe that Kabila can still count on some 150 deputies. This is an “absurd” figure, according to a person close to the head of state. “Félix Tshisekedi’s majority was established with 391 deputies [out of 500] according to the report by informant Modeste Bahati Lukwebo. On this point, the debate is closed.” “Better to have a special forces unit of 100 people than a disorganised army,” replied Tshibanda.
It remains to be seen what role these last “soldiers” will want to play in this opposition that they have decided to join. After more than 18 years in power, and despite the setback of the 2018 presidential election, in which Shadary won – according to official figures – only 25% of the vote, can Kabila’s political family really present itself as an alternative to the current government?
“We have the right to speak on behalf of the opposition,” says Tshibanda, who confirms that the FCC is ready to run for the post of opposition spokesperson. This position, which has been enshrined in the constitution since 2007 and guarantees the holder a ministerial rank as well as benefits and immunity, has never been implemented. And if it were to be, the FCC would hold all the power. Martin Fayulu and Adolphe Muzito, who feel that the Union Sacrée is just yet another “ploy” of the Tshisekedi-Kabila duo, do not want to hear about it.
For several months, the last Kabila loyalists have been coordinating their movements via a WhatsApp group called ‘FCC-Resistance”, which, to say the least, reveals their current state of mind.
The word “resistance” is now on the lips of all those we contacted. These loyalists have been denouncing “violations of the Constitution” for several months – accusations of which they themselves were the regular target when they were in power.
But never mind. Kabila’s political family says it is ready to engage in a showdown and is already preparing for the 2023 presidential election. “Our objective is to regain power,” says Tshibanda. While none of the officials dare mention the possibility of the former president’s return to the forefront, all recall that “the Constitution does allow it.”
Kabila, who said in his last interview with us that he “remains at the service of his country”, remains – for the moment – in the background of the political game. This is why, to some of his close party leaders, the idea of a complete reorganisation of the party also means presenting another candidate in the next election.
In the meantime, with his new majority and accompanied by a government that he controls, Tshisekedi should have a free hand to push through the reforms that the country has been waiting on for over two years. But the task is immense, especially at a time when religious groups and diplomats are calling on the government to respect the deadline for organising the 2023 election.
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