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DR Congo: No Grace Period for the New Government
DR Congo: No Grace Period for the New Government
Opposition supporters gather under a billboard of Movement for the Liberation of the Congo (MLC) leader Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo before a rally organised by political opposition parties in Kinshasa on July 31, 2016. Eduardo Soteras / AFP
Briefing 140 / Africa

DR Congo: The Bemba Earthquake

The ICC’s acquittal of Jean-Pierre Bemba comes at a critical point in DR Congo elections. President Kabila and his opponents will have to recalibrate strategies ahead of Bemba’s likely return. Outside powers should keep pressing Kabila to stand down and allow opposition candidates to participate.

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What’s new? On 8 June Jean-Pierre Bemba, a charismatic Congolese leader and fierce rival of President Joseph Kabila, was acquitted by the International Criminal Court’s appeals chamber of a 2016 war crimes conviction. His likely re-entry into Congolese politics will shake up the campaign ahead of elections slated for December 2018.

Why does it matter? Bemba has the profile to contest the presidency. For President Kabila, whose attempts to retain power face stiff domestic and international opposition – or for a successor Kabila anoints – Bemba represents a threat. But his return will also complicate the Congolese opposition’s efforts to unite behind a single presidential contender.

What should be done? International actors need to maintain pressure for elections at the end of 2018 without Kabila. If Kabila stands aside and prospects of a genuine contest for power improve, credible polls and commitments by contenders to avoid inflammatory campaign language and pursue post-election grievances peacefully will be critical.

I. Overview

On 8 June 2018, Jean-Pierre Bemba, a charismatic Congolese leader, was acquitted by the appeals chamber of the International Criminal Court (ICC) of war crimes charges relating to actions of his troops in the Central African Republic in 2002-2003. On 12 June, after a hearing on a related case of witness tampering, he was provisionally released from the court’s custody. Bemba’s arrest on an ICC warrant in 2008 removed one of President Joseph Kabila’s fiercest rivals, and his dramatic acquittal could reshape the political landscape of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) as the country prepares for elections slated for December 2018.  

Bemba has the profile to mount a serious bid for top office. He remained politically active in detention, as far as the conditions of his custody would allow, and it seems very likely that he will seek a political comeback. His return to the DRC could force President Kabila, whose attempts to stay in power have met stiff domestic and international opposition, to shift his calculations in the prospective presidential contest. For Kabila, or a successor he picks from his inner circle or the ruling majority, Bemba is a political threat, but his return could also present an opportunity to split the opposition vote. Similarly, Bemba’s release creates major challenges and opportunities for Kabila’s rivals.

International actors must remain focused on persuading Kabila to stand aside and for elections to take place in December, as scheduled. If Kabila does step down, Bemba’s re-emergence could increase the chances of a genuinely competitive vote. This would be a positive step; indeed, stability in the DRC hinges on a transition of power. That said, a more competitive contest could also prove a flashpoint for violence and will make it all the more important that Congolese citizens and politicians regard the vote as credible.

II. Who is Jean-Pierre Bemba?

Jean-Pierre Bemba (often called “the chairman” by his supporters in a reference to his business past) was born in 1962 near Gemena in Sud-Ubangui province (part of the former Equateur province) to a family close to long-time dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. Having flourished in his family’s business empire, in 1998, as Mobutu fell from power, he established the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC). Part political party, part armed group, the MLC allied itself with Uganda and occupied most of the north of the country in the subsequent civil war. After the 2002 Pretoria power-sharing agreement, he became, in July 2003, one of four vice presidents in the transitional government. In the first round of the 2006 presidential elections, he came in second with 20 per cent of the vote, but lost the run-off with 42 per cent to Kabila’s 58 per cent. He scored strongly in the west, north, Kasai and Kinshasa. As influential opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi and his party, the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UPDS), boycotted the 2006 elections, Bemba was the uncontested candidate of the west as Kabila dominated in the east.

In January 2007, Bemba was elected senator for the MLC, through an indirect vote by Kinshasa provincial deputies. That March, intense fighting erupted in Kinshasa between Bemba’s loyalists and government troops, and was only ended when the Angolan military intervened in support of Kabila. Bemba found refuge at the South African embassy and negotiated his departure to exile in Portugal in April. A year later, he was arrested on an ICC warrant in Belgium.

During his imprisonment in The Hague, Bemba remained president of the MLC and senator, and even hoped to run in the 2011 presidential election. But shorn of its figurehead, his party haemorrhaged support, losing 42 of its 64 seats in parliament in the 2011 elections.  

In March 2016, Bemba was convicted by the ICC and sentenced to eighteen years in prison on two counts of crimes against humanity and three counts of war crimes. Later the same year, the court also convicted him of witness tampering. Bemba seemed to be out of the DRC’s political game, facing several more years in prison and total exclusion from running for elected office as a convicted war criminal – a provision in Congolese electoral law.

On 8 June 2018, however, ICC appeals judges ruled the prosecution had not proven Bemba’s responsibility in crimes committed by soldiers under his command and ordered his release. Despite his acquittal, Bemba was not immediately freed because he is still awaiting final sentence in the separate case in which he was found guilty of influencing witnesses in relation to the principal case. Regarding the charge of witness tampering, Bemba has already served over 80 per cent of the maximum sentence of five years, given that he was served an arrest warrant in November 2013. The court thus called a status conference in his case on 12 June, and provisionally released him until his final sentence is decided on 4 July 2018.  

A return to custody appears unlikely, and even were that to happen and Bemba to serve the maximum sentence, he would be out in time to participate in the electoral campaign, which starts 22 November 2018.

[The] ICC appeals court’s unexpected decision comes at a critical juncture ahead of the Congolese elections scheduled for the end of 2018 and will at least have an important symbolic impact.

This ICC appeals court’s unexpected decision comes at a critical juncture ahead of the Congolese elections scheduled for the end of 2018 and will at least have an important symbolic impact. Many Congolese who interpreted Bemba’s 2008 arrest as part of the then significant international support for Kabila will see the release of the president’s rival in the context of mounting foreign pressure on Kabila to stand down and a sign that Kabila has fallen out of favour with the outside world. The ICC ruling came on the heels of very clear messages by Angolan President Lourenço, during a visit to French President Emmanuel Macron, that he should respect the Saint Sylvester agreement of December 2016 and not stand for a further term in office.[fn]See Crisis Group Africa Briefing N˚139, Increasing the Stakes in DR Congo’s Electoral Poker, 8 June 2018, for further details on mounting Western and African pressure on Kabila. See Crisis Group Africa Report N˚257, Time for Concerted Action in DR Congo, 4 December 2017, for background on the Saint Sylvester deal.Hide Footnote

Bemba’s party, the MLC, has been weakened by Bemba’s decade-long absence. Several senior members have left to join either the government or other opposition parties. However, the MLC is still one of the major opposition formations and has one of four opposition representatives – with Nadine Mishika Tshishima, who is deputy quaestor (deputy head of finances) – in the electoral commission (CENI). From his cell in The Hague, Bemba kept tight control over the party but there is little doubt it would have suffered further losses in the forthcoming elections without his release. As provincial and senatorial elections were not held in 2011, Bemba remains a senator and as such enjoys parliamentary immunity as well as freedom of movement. This affords him some protection against efforts by the Congolese authorities to use legal challenges, as they have done against Moïse Katumbi, to stop him contesting the vote. Bemba will still have to register in-country as a voter to be allowed to participate in the election as a candidate.

III. A Transformed Political Landscape

The DRC’s opposition is in flux as its leaders attempt to negotiate alliances, with deadlines for nominations of candidates only a month or two away (June for provincial, and July/August for presidential and legislative elections). Opposition parties are operating under constraints, as the government continues to impose restrictions on political freedoms, clamp down on their meetings and harass several opposition leaders.

The situation remains fluid, but thus far two opposition blocs are emerging through a process of slow negotiation. Since March, Bemba’s MLC, led on the ground in the DRC by Secretary General Eve Bazaiba, the Union for the Congolese Nation (UNC), led by Vital Kamerhe, and former Prime Minister Adolphe Muzito have been working toward a joint platform. Eve Bazaiba is the only woman in a prominent role in the DRC’s political imbroglio. Muzito, in growing dissidence with his party the Unified Lumumbist Party (PALU), and Kamerhe have complementary political bases – in the west and the eastern Kivus, respectively – but prior to Bemba’s release, it was not clear whether the three parties would jointly launch a bid for the presidency.  

The second bloc comprises Moïse Katumbi, former governor of Katanga province, and Félix Tshisekedi, the new leader of the UPDS, which remains the biggest opposition party. Katumbi’s recently launched alliance Ensemble had its first major rally in Kinshasa on 9 June. Both leaders have recently held talks with international partners and have discussed a possible electoral pact and prospects for uniting behind a single presidential candidate. It remains unclear whether Katumbi will be able to run, as he is facing numerous legal challenges, including claims that he has forfeited his Congolese citizenship. Tshisekedi, who remains untested, is trying to follow the footsteps of his father, Etienne, who passed away in February 2017. He has a functioning but divided party and lacks the resources to wage a nationwide campaign.

If the 2006 vote is any guide, Bemba could expect to gather strong support.

If the 2006 vote is any guide, Bemba could expect to gather strong support in main urban areas – in particular Kinshasa – as well as in his home turf in the north-western former Equateur province (which was divided in 2015 into five provinces: Equateur, Tshuapa, Mongala, Nord-Ubangui and Sud-Ubangui), and in Kongo Central province. To expand his natural base, Bemba will almost certainly have to leap aboard the DRC’s merry-go-round of political alliance building.  

Coalition building is important for parliamentary and provincial elections as parties will have to meet the respective electoral thresholds (they need 1 per cent of votes nationwide to qualify for parliamentary seats and 3 per cent of provincial votes for provincial council seats). But the focus, inevitably, will be on Bemba’s potential impact on the opposition’s bid for the presidency. The DRC’s single-round presidential vote (introduced in 2011) – whereby the winning candidate just needs more votes than any other candidate, rather than having to win more than 50 per cent, to prevail – puts pressure on the opposition to unite behind a single strong candidate or risk splitting its vote. But while forming alliances for parliamentary and local elections will be relatively straightforward, moving from those alliances to an agreement on a single presidential candidate will be tough – if not impossible – and Bemba’s return makes it all the harder.  

Moïse Katumbi has already stated his intention to contest, and if he can overcome legal obstacles and return to the country, it seems unlikely he would stand aside. An alliance between Katumbi and Félix Tshisekedi may not be impossible but it is still unclear that either candidate would stand aside to back the other; both will face pressure from their supporters to contest. Bemba also has a strong national stature and is as well placed as Katumbi to attract allies and position himself at the centre of a countrywide coalition. While the leading opposition figures are young enough to fight another day, the DRC’s centralised winner-takes-all politics makes executive office overwhelmingly attractive and many believe that once another contender is ensconced in the presidency, it could be many years before they have another good shot at the top office. That a number of opposition leaders maintain the aura of being presidential hopefuls to strengthen their hand in intra-opposition negotiations further complicates efforts to arrive at a consensus.  

Furthermore, several of today’s opposition leaders are former allies who subsequently fell out or changed sides. Their often opportunistic past trajectories could make alliance building easier, but it also means they may first have to overcome some bad blood. UNC leader Kamerhe, in opposition since 2010, was a key strategist of Kabila’s victory over Bemba in 2006, but he also found a compromise when he brokered, as speaker of parliament, Bemba’s exile in 2007. Olivier Kamitatu, now the director of cabinet for Moïse Katumbi, previously enjoyed strong personal ties to Bemba – before becoming his number two in the MLC – but split with him shortly before the 2006 elections to form his own party and side with Kabila. Another close Katumbi ally, former rebel leader Mbusa Nyamwisi, also has a difficult past with Bemba – they were on opposing sides in a bloody war in the north east in 2002 and 2003.  

Bemba’s return to the scene could also reinvigorate the networks of former Mobutu loyalists in politics, business and the security services, to whom he was allied before his arrest. Under the de facto leadership of Senate President Kengo wa Dondo these forces thus far have failed to challenge Kabila. That could change if they rally around Bemba.

IV. A New Challenge to Kabila?

The DRC still faces a worrying number of uncertainties as the candidacy deadlines loom. Which opposition leaders will be able to run? Will the government contrive legal obstacles to Bemba’s return, as it has for Katumbi? Will any opposition leader stand aside to avoid a split opposition vote and, if so, which leaders? And, last but not least, is Kabila willing to cede power and not contest the vote?  

The president’s intentions remain unclear at this late stage. Prime Minister Bruno Tshibala’s 12 June statement that Kabila would respect the terms of the Saint Sylvester agreement and stand down was important, but not the first time a senior figure has indicated this without the president providing subsequent confirmation; nor is Tshibala from Kabila’s inner circle.[fn]“Congo President Kabila will not seek third term – DR Congo PM”, Reuters, 12 June 2018.Hide Footnote If the president does find a way to run, then opposition politicians would likely boycott the vote.[fn]Crisis Group Briefing, Increasing the Stakes in DR Congo’s Electoral Poker, op. cit.Hide Footnote If, on the other hand, Kabila stands aside for another candidate from the ruling majority, Bemba may be able to mount a serious challenge, despite an enormously skewed playing field and the government’s control of state resources.  

His return may induce a shift in the ruling majority’s tactics, however. Rather than working to exclude Kabila’s most potent rivals, it may instead relax its obstruction and let even Katumbi run. This would increase prospects of an opposition vote splintered among different major candidates, each largely relying of votes from their respective regional strongholds. Kabila’s anointed successor could then exploit the government’s control of state resources and the national reach of its newly created Common Front for Congo, which includes the majority and several of its allies in the government of current prime minister, Bruno Tshibala, to mobilise votes across the country.

Citizens in eastern DRC (including Katanga) may have concerns about Bemba, a strong candidate in the west, winning the presidency.

The government may even be tempted to stimulate further communal tensions in the provinces to prise apart opposition candidates and make alliance building harder. A particularly dangerous move, for example, would be to stoke friction in Haut-Katanga and Lualaba provinces, where tension is already high between “native” Katangese and “newcomers” Kasaians, in an attempt to drive a wedge between Tshisekedi (whose base is in the Kasai) and Katumbi (Katangese) in the event that they form an electoral alliance. Citizens in eastern DRC (including Katanga) may have concerns about Bemba, a strong candidate in the west, winning the presidency. They fear that people from the west could take revenge on the Swahili speakers from the east, associated with the Kabila regime since 1997. In short, there are multiple possibilities countrywide for unscrupulous politicians to play communities against one another.  

It is unclear at present how a Bemba bid for the presidency would sit with regional leaders. On the one hand, Bemba’s stature makes him a realistic alternative to Kabila, at a time when leaders in central and southern Africa are increasing diplomatic efforts to persuade the president to stand aside, fearing that the crisis in the DRC would worsen if he refuses, and that instability could spill into neighbouring countries.  

On the other hand, some regional leaders may regard Bemba warily, given his mixed record in the region. At times during the DRC’s civil war, his troops fought Rwandan and Angolan troops or proxies – Rwanda and Angola are the very two countries spearheading African pressure on Kabila. As a former close ally of Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, Bemba may pull Uganda back into a prominent role in the DRC’s crisis. That said, some distance from regional powers could play well among a domestic audience eager to see a candidate with more perceived independence from “meddling” neighbours.

V. Conclusion

Six months from the December 2018 elections, the ICC appeals chamber’s unexpected decision has sent a shock wave through Congolese politics. Bemba has yet to announce his next steps, but on 9 June, a day after his acquittal, the MLC announced the organisation of a party congress on 12 and 13 July. Bemba’s plans are likely to be made public on that occasion, if not before, as Bemba will have to register as a candidate shortly in order to run for office. For now, it appears highly likely that he will rejoin the political fray: winning the presidency would represent the culmination of his long struggle to gain power in the DRC.  

Ideally, of course, Kabila will step aside and permit opposition leaders to run. Any attempt by the president to extend his tenure would likely provoke a major political crisis. But even if Kabila stands down and opposition candidates contest the vote, serious risks would remain, particularly given that such a vote would open up real competition. International actors, particularly the African leaders whose pressure has been instrumental in moving electoral preparations forward thus far, should continue their push for Kabila to stand aside, for the government to allow opposition politicians to stand and for a credible vote. If the president decides not to run and elections go ahead on a competitive basis, African and Western powers should urge Congolese leaders and political parties to commit to peaceful and non-inflammatory campaigns and the United Nations mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) should redouble efforts to react swiftly to outbreaks of violence or unrest.

Nairobi/Brussels, 15 June 2018

DR Congo MPs celebrate on 10 December 2020, as legislators remove the Assembly's speaker, in the latest round of a bitter dispute between the current President and supporters of his predecessor. Arsene Mpiana / AFP
Q&A / Africa

DR Congo: No Grace Period for the New Government

Après des mois de manœuvres politiques, le président Félix Tshisekedi s’est affranchi de son prédécesseur, Joseph Kabila et, à la suite de l’investiture d’un nouveau gouvernement issu de sa nouvelle majorité, il détient désormais l’effectivité du pouvoir. Dans ce Q&A, l’expert de Crisis Group Onesphore Sematumba explique que les difficultés ne semblent pourtant pas écartées.

What is the background to the new government’s formation?

The 26 April investiture of President Félix Tshisekedi’s new parliamentary majority, known as the Sacred Union, marks the end of a long period in which the president remained under the strong influence of his predecessor, Joseph Kabila. Prime Minister Sama Lukonde presented his new team on 12 April and parliament endorsed it almost unanimously (with 410 of the 412 deputies present voting in favour), despite tensions over the division of ministerial posts. The new government gives Tshisekedi the freedom to push ahead with his reform program during the remainder of his five-year term in office.

After the controversial 2018 election that ushered Tshisekedi into power amid allegations of fraud from some observers, including the National Episcopal Conference of the Congo, the new president had little choice but to accept Kabila’s continued control over politics in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Kabila’s coalition, the Front commun pour le Congo (FCC), won the legislative elections, securing 342 of 500 seats in the National Assembly. The FCC also attained overwhelming majorities in almost all provincial government and parliamentary elections. These victories emboldened Kabila to place his own allies in important institutions and state ministries at both the provincial and national levels.

From the outset, disagreements undermined the coalition set up after the 2018 elections between Kabila’s FCC and Tshisekedi’s Cap pour le Changement (CACH); their incessant deadlocks prevented institutions from functioning properly. Although the coalition gave CACH the opportunity to take part in government despite its weak legislative presence, with fewer than 50 deputies, Tshisekedi was, in effect, unable to govern. After Tshisekedi was sworn in as president, on 24 January 2019, it took five months for the two partners to agree on the appointment of Sylvestre Ilunga Ilunkamba as prime minister. Ilunga then formed a 67-member government, with the FCC securing key ministries such as defence, justice and mining.

By appointing three new judges to the Constitutional Court in October 2020, the president secured the loyalty of this institution, which was once suspected of being in Kabila’s service.

Faced with this challenge, Tshisekedi started to weaken the former president and to counter the FCC’s influence upon government bodies by pulling Kabila deputies into his own camp. Deputies who remained loyal to the former president have protested that Tshisekedi used undemocratic methods in this manoeuvring. By appointing three new judges to the Constitutional Court in October 2020, the president secured the loyalty of this institution, which was once suspected of being in Kabila’s service. In November, Tshisekedi launched political consultations, including with civil society groups, leading to the coalition’s dissolution one month later. He then looked to form a new majority. The Constitutional Court allowed parliamentarians to leave their former political groups and join new alliances. This decision gave deputies the opportunity to switch political allegiance without the risk of being let go by their original parties and consequently losing their seats. In this way, Tshisekedi persuaded numerous FCC deputies to join the new Sacred Union majority, alongside opposition heavyweights Moïse Katumbi and Jean-Pierre Bemba.

Tshisekedi then secured a series of further victories over Kabila, shifting the balance of power in his own favour. Between December 2020 and January 2021, the new government majority’s deputies toppled via successive motions the presidents of the National Assembly and of the Senate, as well as Prime Minister Ilunga and his government. On 15 February, following negotiations between different Sacred Union factions, Tshisekedi named Jean-Michel Sama Lukonde as the DRC’s new prime minister. Originally from Grand Katanga and former CEO of the country’s largest mining company, Gécamines, the 43-year-old Lukonde belongs to a small political party without a single seat in the National Assembly called Avenir du Congo. Lacking any real political clout and without ambitions for the 2023 elections, the government’s new leader is likely to work in Tshisekedi’s shadow, allowing the president to carry out his policies unhindered during the last two years of his presidency.

Forming a new government was the prime minister’s first test. Upon his appointment, Lukonde pledged to form a solid government team to address the country’s problems. After two months’ horse trading of ministerial posts within the new majority, the 57-member government is hardly less bloated than its predecessor. A full 80 per cent of its ministers are new faces, however, as opposed to the previous government where some ministers had already served under Kabila, under his father and predecessor Laurent, and even under the DRC’s long-time dictator, Joseph Mobutu.

What challenges await this new government?

Controlling the various forces within his new coalition is Tshisekedi’s immediate challenge. The thorny negotiations to form the Sacred Union government show the precariousness of a majority that rallied to displace Kabila but lacks a shared political agenda.

Controlling the various forces within his new coalition is Tshisekedi’s immediate challenge.

Cracks began to appear in the coalition almost as soon as the government was proclaimed on 12 April. Almost 200 of the deputies who had defected from Kabila’s FCC set up a “coalition of revolutionary deputies” to protest the imbalance in the new government. Some provinces had several ministries; others had none. They accused Lukonde of failing to reward their “shift of allegiance” with a government position. On 14 April, in a memorandum addressed to Tshisekedi, this group threatened to block the investiture of Lukonde’s government unless their demands for change were met. On 26 April, after the prime minister and Tshisekedi met with the deputies, the National Assembly expressed its trust in the new government and endorsed its ambitious program with a decisive majority. At the end of a chaotic plenary session in a hall taken over by militants from the president’s party, the deputies cast their vote of confidence without proper debate.

Another weakness of this team is the plethora of decision-making entities prone to causing deadlocks within the coalition government. First, the appointment of powerful opposition figures to deputy prime minister positions, particularly Eve Bazaiba, secretary general of Bemba’s Mouvement pour la libération du Congo, and Christophe Lutundula, a senior official in Katumbi’s Ensemble pour la République, will severely restrict Tshisekedi’s room for manoeuvre within a Sacred Union where he will not be the only captain aboard ship. The other leaders of political parties belonging to the Sacred Union will also use their positions to ensure that their interests are being catered to. They will constantly be coercing their allies in ministerial posts to steer the governments’ choices. Such a situation could hamper Tshisekedi’s plans to develop a single, non-partisan program of government.

Indeed, the prospect of general elections in December 2023, when the big names in Lukonde’s government are likely to stand as candidates, could soon cause tensions and generate rivalries, destabilising the government. The president should also be alert to potential manoeuvres by the two opposition luminaries, Bemba and Katumbi, as well as by other potential candidates such as Tshisekedi’s former ally and chief of staff, Vital Kamerhe, imprisoned in 2020 for corruption. Kamerhe’s party has secured four ministries, where he has placed members of his inner circle. Although Kamerhe is barred from participating in any election for the next ten years, his party will influence votes in his stronghold, the South Kivu province, where it is running against Bahati Lukwebo’s party, the Senate’s current president. Although Bemba is unelectable after he was found guilty of corruption by the International Criminal Court, a political decision by Tshisekedi could still give him a route back to the political arena. Katumbi, meanwhile, has already begun to prepare his party in the country’s 26 provinces ahead of the forthcoming elections.

Will this government be able to cope with violence in the eastern DRC?

As Tshisekedi said after receiving the deputies on 24 April, the government’s “top priority” is to put an end to violence in eastern DR Congo. Since the beginning of April, the population in the east has been protesting the ineffective presence of UN peacekeepers and the Congolese army amid massacres and other violence by armed groups. In North Kivu, where Uganda’s Allied Democratic Forces are generally believed to be responsible for atrocities, people are increasingly defiant of the central government. In Ituri, after a period of relative calm, supporters of the Cooperative for the Development of the Congo launched a new round of attacks on the civilian population. In South Kivu, local Mai-Mai militia groups and rebels from other countries such as Burundians in the Résistance pour le droit au Burundi (RED-Tabara) are targeting civilians in the high plateau around Uvira. And in Katanga, Gédéon Kyungu’s Bakata-Katanga group and other armed men continue to terrorise locals on the basis of secessionist claims.

The government’s “top priority” is to put an end to violence in eastern DR Congo.

Tshisekedi has so far responded to the security challenges in eastern DRC by using force. His announcement of a state of siege in the North Kivu and Ituri provinces on 1 May – imposing martial law – has shown this once again. Yet his army has achieved only limited success on the ground. Both in North Kivu and in Ituri, armed groups have been remarkably quick to reoccupy positions previously lost to the army.

Considering its military campaigns’ poor results, the government should now explore different approaches to deal with armed groups. To this end, it should accelerate implementation of the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) program aiming to reintegrate former fighters into the community. This initiative was agreed upon with the main donors in November 2020, but then blocked due to the political stalemate in Kinshasa. Organising a large demobilisation campaign is a major undertaking, however. The government should learn the lessons from previous DDR programs that failed mainly due to lack of political commitment from Congolese authorities and their inability to resolve underlying causes of violence. If the demobilisation campaign falls short of its aims, Tshisekedi and his government would once again have to resort to military force in order to combat militia groups.

Kinshasa’s new political situation should help Tshisekedi in his task; he has a new team in place and no longer faces the distraction of tussles with his predecessor. But he will need to accommodate a government that encompasses a range of disparate interests, as well as individual and group-based rivalries among the parties involved that could carry the seeds of future deadlocks. He must also manage the conditions set out by donors who expect him to turn the page on the Kabila era before releasing their funds.

Tshisekedi needs to tackle the issue of armed groups as a matter of urgency. “There’s no time to lose”, tweeted Katumbi on 26 April, adding that “Sama Lukonde’s new government paves the way to peace in the east”. Tshisekedi should now get to work. Some political leaders are already suspected of having reached agreements with armed actors before the 2023 elections, in order to put political pressure on Kinshasa, or possibly to trigger violence if their demands are not met. Tshisekedi, who now has the necessary institutional scope for action, must do everything in his power to cut the links between armed groups and politicians who, since the 1990s, have used them for their own political or financial ends. This is the only way for the DRC to benefit from his promised reforms.