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Kabila’s Strengths and Vulnerabilities as DRC Deadline Nears
Kabila’s Strengths and Vulnerabilities as DRC Deadline Nears
DR Congo: No Grace Period for the New Government
DR Congo: No Grace Period for the New Government
Op-Ed / Africa

Kabila’s Strengths and Vulnerabilities as DRC Deadline Nears

Originally published in Independent Online

Protests have been announced for December 19, the day President Joseph Kabila’s mandate is supposed to end. What should we expect?

For many, December 19 should be the end of Kabila’s second and last term in office. Opposition parties and civil society groups are invoking article 64 of the constitution, which places with the people the “duty” to defend the country against unconstitutional rule. Large demonstrations in January 2015 and this September revealed a popular mood against Kabila’s attempts to amend the constitution, which would allow him to stay in power. Both series of protests were violently repressed and dozens killed. After September, demonstrations were banned and some organisers were arrested or prohibited from domestic travel. This repression has dampened popular mobilisation.

This reliance on security and intelligence will continue and pro-regime youth groups are being mobilised in Kinshasa. Without a consensual agreement on the date of elections and the transition period, the opposition is bound to call for protests: its credibility is at stake. So protests and violence are almost inevitable. But there are signs that repression has had an impact and December 19 may not be as explosive as some expect.

The ruling majority portrays the 19th as a “normal” day, noting the constitutional court ruled that the president will remain in office until his replacement is elected. While the court’s independence is heavily contested, this interpretation is an important underpinning of the AU-backed the October 18 agreement which put the new election dates in April 2018, leaving President Kabila with full powers.

What is your prognosis for violence and political instability over the coming year?

Even if the regime contains unrest in December, tension will remain high. The economic crisis will put more pressure on families. Increased numbers of people will question state institutions’ legitimacy, so we can expect to see pockets of violence around the country gain ground. In North Kivu in the east, where the state is doing little to protect local communities, Mai Mai community defence militia are taking actions against predatory armed groups. While dispersed violence, however, is far from civil war, the regime could hunker down and survive, the more dangerous the outlook gets.

What drives President Kabila and the people around him to remain in power?

Congo has never known a peaceful democratic handover of power. Winner-takes-all politics, lack of transparency, violence, corruption and instability all mean a change at the top can have enormous consequences. So the status quo is preferable for the regime, unless change can be managed from within.

Kabila has no popular or regional political base, although he was once respected for having helped end the civil war. His entourage fears he would have little chance of winning an election. And losing, in their eyes, means likely prosecution for corruption and human rights violations. The loser of the 2006 elections, Jean-Pierre Bemba, was prosecuted by the International Criminal Court.

What is the role of the opposition in the current crisis?

The main opposition is calling for Kabila to leave well before April 2018. But it has struggled to maintain unity. The current umbrella group, the Rassemblement, formed in June 2016, is led by UDPS leader Etienne Tshisekedi and includes the former governor of Katanga, Moise Katumbi. It refused to participate in the AU mediated National Dialogue launched in September 2016. But other opposition figures, including Samy Badibanga (a dissident from the UDPS) did take part. Badibanga was appointed prime minister in November, a move probably calculated to further divide the opposition by tempting some into government. A limited mobilisation on December 19 risks weakening the opposition’s credibility.

Youth groups, in particular Lutte pour le changement (Lucha), continue to play a prominent role, but have struggled to put down deeper roots. Targeted repression has hampered their development but contributed to their credibility.

There has been emphasis on the need for dialogue and inclusivity. Do attempts at mediation, such as the recent process managed by the Catholic Church, still stand a chance?

All actors agree on the need for dialogue. But when it comes to the details, agreement is rarely found. The Rassemblement refused to participate in the September dialogue which they saw as an attempt to legitimise the government’s desire to stay in power. So the resulting agreement of October 18 has not been signed by the opposition - hence the new Catholic Church initiative.

This process is however also deadlocked. The church has now called for direct talks, which the president has accepted in principle. So while agreement may be reached on second order issues such as political prisoners, positions on fundamentals are still far apart. The Rassemblement’s view - that the president should remain for up to a year, but with limited power - is a more pragmatic position, but the regime feels under little pressure to make concessions.

How does political tension affect the country?

Tension is more apparent in big cities. People have used gatherings, such as football matches, to express their desire for political change. The regime has deployed police and the military to deter protest, or to counter it with violence.

As the regime focuses on maintaining power, the neutralisation of armed groups in the east has taken a back seat, thereby further weakening the government's legitimacy. This is mostly felt in Beni, North Kivu, where nearly 1000 have been killed since 2014. These killings have also eroded the credibility of the UN mission (Monusco).

The country’s economic crisis could also have more impact on popular mobilisation. If the worsening situation triggers hunger riots, this will have a more unpredictable outcome than organised political protests.

What is the regional dimension of the DRC crisis?

The region is concerned about the security implications of the DRC’s political crisis escalating. Immediate neighbours worry about refugees. The region and AU have both supported dialogue. Angola continues to support mediation. Regional organisations have accepted the October 18 agreement, but seemingly put little pressure on Kabila to step down. They show little faith in the opposition and support the status quo for now. The opposition, meanwhile, focuses its attention more on the EU and the US, regarded as defenders of democracy.

In the east, Rwanda and Uganda are not interfering as they once did, which led South Africa to intervene through the UN.

What has been the role of the international community and Monusco, the UN’s largest peacekeeping mission?

The US and, to a lesser extent, the EU, pressured the government to organise elections within the constitutional timeframe. As this has had little effect, both have supported inclusive dialogue and called for elections in 2017. Unlike African powers, they have criticised the October 18 agreement, for delaying the electoral timetable into 2018. To increase pressure, the US has adopted targeted sanctions.

The EU has stated it is willing to follow suit. Sanctions have caused some unease within government, as has the increased recent publicity over corruption scandals. The direct political impact has, however, been limited. Repression continues. This is a reminder of the decreasing influence of Western actors on the continent.

The UN mission and Special Representative have played a discrete role. Monusco and joint human rights office observers have publicised human rights abuses in Kinshasa and other cities, with some dissuasive impact. The South African-led military component, has expanded its presence in Kinshasa. But if urban violence breaks out, the UN mission will struggle to protect civilians.

* This text corrects the original published version that dropped the words "for the regime" in the sentence "So the status quo is preferable for the regime, unless change can be managed from within".

Read the PDF version here.

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.