DRC: Vital Kamerhe remains powerful despite jail sentence

By Stanis Bujakera Tshiamala

Posted on Monday, 26 April 2021 11:38
Vital Kamerhe and DRC’s President Félix Tshisekedi on 23 November 2018 in Nairobi. ASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP

Despite his prison sentence, DRC’s President Félix Tshisekedi’s former chief of staff Vital Kamerhe has nevertheless ensured the survival of his party by securing five ministry positions within the country’s new government. He has demonstrated determination in his negotiations with Tshisekedi.

“Congratulations to my comrades in the UNC who have been appointed ministers of state, ministers and deputy ministers in the government. I also wish to offer my congratulations to Nicole Bwatshia, who has been appointed deputy director of the head of state’s cabinet.”

On the evening of 14 April, the DRC’s President Félix Tshisekedi’s former chief of staff Vital Kamerhe broke his silence from his room at Nganda Hospital, where he was admitted for treatment. Two days earlier, the composition of Prime Minister Sama Lukonde Kyenge’s government had been announced, and the former chief of staff was savouring the moment. He had managed to ensure the survival of his party, the Union pour la Nation Congolaise (UNC), which will be well represented in both the government and presidential cabinet.

Kinshasa-watcher are puzzled: how did Kamerhe’s UNC, which has 16 MPs, manage to secure five ministerial positions: Budget, Land affairs, Culture, Small and medium-sized enterprises as well as a vice-ministerial position within the Justice Department?

It is only one less than Moïse Katumbi’s platform Ensemble pour le Changement, which has 70 MPs, and two more than Jean-Pierre Bemba’s Mouvement de Libération du Congo (MLC), which has 17 MPs and secured three ministry positions.

“Kamerhe has been resolute”

The UNC, which had already been weakened by Kamerhe’s sentence to 20 years in prison and 10-year disqualification from holding office on charges of embezzlement and corruption, was under threat. In recent weeks, it had suffered another blow by failing to be represented in the offices of two parliament chambers, reorganised after Tshisekedi formed a new political majority.

During the negotiations for the formation of the new government, Kamerhe had tried everything, often negotiating directly with Tshisekedi.

“Initially, it was thought that the UNC would only be given two ministry positions, as per the principle laid down by Modeste Bahati Lukwebo [the president of the Senate], which stipulates that one ministry position be allocated per eight MPs,” said a source involved in the discussions. “But Kamerhe was resolute.” According to the same source, the negotiations with the UNC were one of the last sticking points that delayed the government’s announcement.

“The rule of eight MPs was not applied to this party because it was a former ally of President Tshisekedi’s Cach [Cap pour la Changement] coalition,” another participant in the discussions told us. Additionally, President Tshisekedi has some regrets about Kamerhe’s imprisonment. He has granted Kamerhe these five portfolios in order to not make him more of a martyr. “Félix Tshisekedi is a sensible man and Kamerhe’s behaviour has played a big role in his decision as the latter has remained loyal to him and not been vindictive,” says a person close to the President.

A useful political player

In order to convince the head of state, Kamerhe pointed to how he withdrew from his 2018 presidential candidacy. Until his fall from grace, Kamerhe had since January 2019 been serving as Tshisekedi’s chief of staff.

In addition to the five ministry positions obtained, the UNC also made its return to the presidency. On 14 April, Tshisekedi reshuffled his cabinet and appointed Nicole Bwatshia, a member of the party, as deputy director of the cabinet in charge of administrative and legal issues.

However, several members of the UNC remain disappointed. “We wanted more, because since the FCC [Common Front for Congo] holds the majority, there were eight ministry positions up for grabs. We did not break with Joseph Kabila to lose out,” says one of them.

The fact remains that Kamerhe has managed to retain favour with Tshisekedi. Some of the president’s entourage, who are annoyed by the amount of influence he has over the head of state, certainly have their objections to Kamerhe but still consider him to be a useful political actor who could help Tshisekedi, currently threatened by an internal rebellion.

Will Kamerhe be released?

Kamerhe was convicted in the first instance, but has appealed this decision and his retrial is still pending. The UNC has taken numerous steps to obtain the provisional release of its leader so that he may receive medical treatment abroad. Kamerhe was admitted to Nganda Hospital on 23 August after suffering from several illnesses while in a cell at Makala prison and his visitors describe him as “seriously ill.”

Could the former chief of staff be released before his appeal? In this judicial drama, anything is possible. “Everything is decided in terms of the 2023 presidential election and the way in which the Union Sacrée will mobilise the electoral machine for a second term,” says Congolese analyst Martin Ziakwau Lembisa.

Tshisekedi’s Union pour la Démocratie et le Progrès Social (UDPS) may decide to use Kamerhe’s legal proceedings as an example to demonstrate the importance of good governance. This would reduce Kamerhe’s chances of being released.

“It would limit the possibilities,” says a senior party member. On the other hand, if the UDPS struggles to launch an effective election campaign, especially in eastern DRC where the security situation has not improved, Tshisekedi may need his former chief of staff, who is originally from South Kivu. And so in this case, a conditional release can’t be ruled out.

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