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Democratic Republic of Congo: Canny Kabila

By William Clowes in Kinshasa
Posted on Friday, 9 June 2017 12:29

Opposition barracking and blaring vuvuzelas punctuated the grand ceremony in parliament to install Bruno Tshibala, the new prime minister chosen by President Joseph Kabila, on 16 May. So loud were the opposition’s protests against Tshibala’s installation – which they regard as a clear violation of a political accord – that state television suspended its broadcast of the ceremony and the new prime minister delayed his inaugural address. Police finally cleared the protesters out of parliament.

When Tshibala was finally able to speak, he vowed to “do his best to maintain a perfect collaboration” between his government and President Kabila. That will be a tall order. Aside from the fact that Tshibala’s appointment as head of a ‘national unity’ government was rejected by the largest opposition faction, his declared “determination to offer the Congolese people the best elections in their history in the agreed time frame” looks like extremely wishful thinking, if not wilful self-deception.

Prospect of a referendum

With tensions ramping up across the country, a 10-month-old uprising in Kasaï and fears of more fighting in Kivu Nord, it is unlikely that there will be credible national elections this year. Assembling the funds and arranging the logistics for elections is complex and tortuous.

Many suspect Kabila will try to hold a referendum to change the constitution and extend his stay in power. That raises big questions about what difference the new prime minister can make. Certainly, Tshibala’s fortunes have improved since 9 October, when he was arrested and accused of organising ­anti-Kabila protests last September. Security forces had responded with lethal force and killed at least 56 people over two days, according to non-governmental organisation Human Rights Watch.

After seven weeks in prison, Tshibala was released in late November. And about four months later, on 7 April, Kabila picked him to head his government.

The new premier was a senior opposition politician, so his decision to serve Kabila is hugely contentious. “I did 36 years of combat with Etienne Tshisekedi,” Tshibala told The Africa Report shortly before accepting Kabila’s nomination.

Tshibala’s path to power

Tshisekedi, an iconic figure who died in February, founded the country’s oldest and largest opposition party, the Union pour la Démocratie et le Progrès Social (UDPS), in 1982. Tshibala was there from the beginning and rose to become UDPS deputy secretary general.

Last June, Tshisekedi became the founding president of Rassemblement, a large opposition coalition that selected Tshibala as its spokesman. The rassemblement was created to force Kabila to respect the constitution by relinquishing office on 19 December 2016. It failed on that count, but on New Year’s Eve it struck a deal with Kabila’s Majorité Présidentielle (MP), which appeared momentarily to give the rassemblement the upper hand.

The signatories undertook to not alter the constitution and to form a new transitional government tasked with organising delayed elections at the end of 2017. The agreement dictated that the new prime minister would be chosen by the rassemblement.

Deprived of Tshisekedi’s unifying influence, the rassemblement has fractured. The bulk of the movement agreed to share Tshisekedi’s presidency between his son, Félix, and Pierre Lumbi, the head of the G7 alliance. The G7 was part of the MP until September 2015 and supports the presidential aspirations of Moïse Katumbi, the ex-governor of the copper-rich Katanga Province and a former ally of Kabila.

But as soon as Katumbi announced his candidacy in 2016, the government charged him with a raft of criminal offences. Katumbi says the charges are baseless. They are currently being investigated by the Commission Episocopale Nationale du Congo, which has persuaded the government to drop charges against other opposition figures.

Katumbi is seen as a threat to Kabila, but the former governor sees a tough struggle ahead: “The opposition remains very strong and united, and we are going to fight. The election is due in December, but Kabila is going to come with some excuse to postpone it. He doesn’t want the election.”

Outside forces

Arguing that Kabila has lost all legit­imacy, Katumbi says he should be held to account for the killing of demonstrators in 2015 and 2016. “The army is not with Kabila. […] Our army will not fire on Congolese people. Kabila is using outside forces,” Katumbi argues.

He says he is confident the opposition has got the coherence and support to prevail: “We are not going to get guns to fight. We are going to fight with our brains […] a peaceful fight.”

But a rump – led by Tshibala and Joseph Olengankoy – reject the alliance running the rassemblement. “Félix is linked with Katumbi […] It’s an unnatural alliance,” Tshibala told The Africa Report in March.

Tshibala and Olengankoy subsequently established a dissident wing of the rassemblement, with which Kabila swiftly engaged. Tshibala’s nomination outraged the larger Rassemblement bloc but also upset the European Union and the United States, both of which backed the New Year’s Eve accord. They view its implementation as the DRC’s smoothest route out of its constitutional morass.

“This fringe represents absolutely nothing,” claims Martin Fayulu, a prominent supporter of Lumbi and Félix Tshisekedi. “It’s the politics of poaching and these people have been seduced”.

Nevertheless, Tshibala’s cabinet includes prominent opposition figures such as Joseph Kapika and Lisanga Bonganga. For Jason Stearns, director of the Congo Research Group (CRG) at New York University, “Kabila has succeeded in peeling off some more members of the fractious opposition and dividing the remaining members further.”

Albert Moleka, Tshisekedi’s former chief-of-staff, says: “Kabila has learnt that the Congolese politician doesn’t perform according to ideology or doctrine or conviction but money and position.” According to Moleka, Kabila’s rehabilitation of officials once loyal to Mobutu Sese Seko, the country’s dictatorial president from 1965 to 1997, has given him a keen understanding that “alliances in Congolese politics last just as long as someone finds their financial interests or prospects served by it.”

Opportunism knocks

Polling by CRG has found that Kabila is deeply unpopular and most Congolese believe he should have stepped down at the end of his second term. But if the president cannot win his compatriots’ love, he can still tarnish his opponents. “Kabila has muddied the waters of popular sentiment”, says Stearns. “It’s beginning to seem that all these endless negotiations are about is access to power and wealth, thereby tarring everyone with the brush of opportunism.”

The president has allocated ministries to former adversaries but he has not ceded any meaningful power to the opposition. The key portfolios – interior, defence, mining, finance, oil, justice and foreign affairs – remain in the hands of regime loyalists.

It seems that the future is yet to play for. In mid-May the MP’s spokesman said that a “referendum is an inalienable constitutional right” and noted that “the people” did not sign the accord. “Look at the referendums which happen systematically in Europe”, observes Tryphon Kin-Kiey Mulumba, a member of the MP’s political bureau. “We should go to the people and ask them the precise question: what do they want?”, he says.

Throwing his weight behind a dauphin is the alternative but as yet, as one Western diplomat puts it, “no one can think of the obvious person.”

Co-opted or marginalised, the opposition has hardly landed a punch on Kabila during the six months since the supposed conclusion of his presidency. But the hinterland is increasingly unstable and much less biddable than the incestuous domain of Kinshasa politics.

From the June 2017 print edition

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