icon caret Arrow Down Arrow Left Arrow Right Arrow Up Line Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Crisiswatch Alerts and Trends Box - 1080/761 Copy Twitter Video Camera  copyview Youtube
Kabila’s Strengths and Vulnerabilities as DRC Deadline Nears
Kabila’s Strengths and Vulnerabilities as DRC Deadline Nears
Moïse Katumbi’s Return Portends Shifting Alliances in Congolese Politics
Moïse Katumbi’s Return Portends Shifting Alliances in Congolese Politics
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.

Democratic Republic of Congo opposition leader, former governor of Katanga Moise Katumbi waves as he arrives in Lubumbashi on 20 May 2019 after three years in self-imposed exile. AFP / Junior KANNAH
Q&A / Africa

Moïse Katumbi’s Return Portends Shifting Alliances in Congolese Politics

On 20 May prominent opposition leader and businessman Moïse Katumbi returned to the Democratic Republic of Congo from exile. In this Q&A, Crisis Group’s Deputy Project Director for Central Africa Nelleke van de Walle discusses the possible impact on Congolese politics, five months after Felix Tshisekedi’s controversial election as president.

Who is Moïse Katumbi, and why has he returned?

Moïse Katumbi is one of the richest persons in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – and a political force to be reckoned with. A self-made man, he accumulated his wealth running mining and transport companies in the southern Katanga province. He is popular in Katanga, in part because he is president of a successful football team, Tout Puissant Mazembe, based in the provincial capital Lubumbashi.

Katumbi first fled the DRC to neighbouring Zambia in the chaos of the civil war in the 1990s. In the early 2000s, President Joseph Kabila, who had succeeded his father, Laurent, after his assassination in 2001, invited Katumbi back to the country to help him fix Katanga’s mining sector. Katumbi chose to return on 11 July 2003, to coincide with the date when the state of Katanga declared its short-lived independence – a period many Katangais still recall with nostalgia.

His political career took off in 2007 when he was elected Katanga’s governor. He boosted his popularity by contributing to the province’s economic development – targeting corruption, encouraging foreign investment and improving infrastructure. For years, he was a member of Joseph Kabila’s People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy. In the summer of 2015, however, he had a falling-out with Kabila after trying and failing to dissuade the former president from seeking a third term. (The Congolese constitution bound Kabila to a maximum of two terms, but he long sought ways to overcome this limitation.) In September of that year, Katumbi resigned as governor.

Many Congolese expected him to run for president in elections initially scheduled for November 2016. But in May, after the government accused Katumbi of hiring mercenaries in a coup plot, he fled the country again, this time to Belgium. He subsequently was convicted in absentia on separate property fraud allegations and sentenced to three years in jail. Katumbi has consistently denied all charges, calling them politicised. In August 2018, he tried to re-enter the DRC in order to submit his candidacy for president in polls that Kabila, after several delays, had finally slated for that December. The government denied him entry.

The legislative balance of power could shift further were FCC deputies to defect, whether out of political opportunism or for other reasons.

Ultimately, under pressure from African and Western governments, Kabila decided not to run for a third term. Instead, he sought to handpick his successor. That proved no easy feat. His preferred candidate, Ramazani Shadary, failed to win at the polls and a parallel vote count, widely regarded as credible, suggested that Martin Fayulu, an opposition politician backed by Katumbi, had prevailed in a landslide. Yet the Electoral Commission declared Félix Tshisekedi, another opposition figure, the winner. Kabila appears to have engineered victory for Tshisekedi, whom he viewed as less dangerous to his interests than Fayulu; Kabila and Tshisekedi reportedly struck an informal deal pursuant to which the new president gave his predecessor unspecified assurances about his future.

Under Tshisekedi, the DRC’s political space is opening up. In his inaugural speech he pledged to free political prisoners, close the secret police’s detention centres and allow exiled politicians to return. He has made some progress toward fulfilling all these promises. Katumbi has been one beneficiary: in late April, the Court of Cassation, the DRC’s supreme court of appeals, overturned the property fraud conviction. In May, prosecutors also dropped the coup plot investigation, paving the way for Katumbi’s return.

In keeping with his proclivity for historically resonant dates, he chose 20 May for his return to Lubumbashi, three years to the day since his exile, and a national holiday under the DRC’s long-time president, Joseph-Desiré Mobutu (1965-1997). Dressed in white – a colour he chose to symbolise peace – Katumbi arrived in Lubumbashi, where he was welcomed by tens of thousands of supporters, also wearing white, who proceeded to rally peacefully in the city centre. National and local media covered the homecoming favourably.

What impact will his return have on the DRC’s politics?

Tshisekedi could use an ally in pursuing his ambitious political agenda, and Katumbi arguably fits the bill.

The new president is struggling in the face of resistance by Kabila, who remains an important power behind the scenes. Though Kabila’s intended successor Shadary lost the presidential election, his Common Front for Congo (FCC) coalition won a parliamentary majority in the legislative contests, the results of which were equally disputed. The FCC’s several constituent groups control almost three quarters – 346 of 500 – of the National Assembly seats and the constitution mandates that the prime minister hail from the parliamentary majority’s ranks. It took Kabila and Tshisekedi four months to settle on a candidate before finally naming Sylvestre Ilunga Ilunkamba, a member of Kabila’s party and experienced politician, on the day of Katumbi’s return, diverting some attention from events in Lubumbashi.

Although Tshisekedi cannot come close to challenging the FCC’s majority even if he forges an alliance with Katumbi, he could nonetheless strengthen his position. Katumbi’s Ensemble is the largest opposition coalition, with at least 66 seats, and Tshisekedi’s Heading for Change alliance has at least 47. (Both could gain additional seats in Beni, Butembo and Yumbi where polls were postponed due to security concerns.) Moreover, the legislative balance of power could shift further were FCC deputies to defect, whether out of political opportunism or for other reasons.

In short, a Tshisekedi-Katumbi alliance might not carry immediate benefits for the new president but it would help balance Kabila’s overwhelming influence. Yet, although it would be more natural than his tense “marriage of convenience” (as press outlets have called it) with Kabila, it would represent a break from the recent past.

Katumbi was welcomed in Lubumbashi by tens of thousands of supporters, who proceeded to a peaceful rally in the city centre. Lubumbashi, 20 May 2019. CRISISGROUP/Paul Kaboba

Indeed, in a sign of friction between the two men, Katumbi backed Tshisekedi’s rival Fayulu in the 2018 presidential race. Along with other major opposition leaders, Katumbi and Tshisekedi had formed a coalition called Lamuka (“Wake Up”, in Lingala) to contest the elections. Lamuka decided to throw its weight behind the relatively unknown Fayulu as its presidential candidate. But Tshisekedi broke ranks shortly after the coalition was formed, under pressure from his party, the Union for Democracy and Social Progress, to run separately. Fayulu, convinced that he was robbed of his victory, has maintained his call for new elections and for Tshisekedi’s resignation.

In an interview with Crisis Group on 15 May, Katumbi said he saw no point in being too hard on Tshisekedi. “The enemy of the population is not the one who won the elections, but the one who organised them”, he explained. While refraining from overtly supporting Tshisekedi, he praised the new president for his work to protect freedom of expression. Referring to the Court of Cassation decision, he maintained his innocence and rejected the idea that the court’s decision to rescind his conviction was politically motivated. Importantly, he stressed the importance of separating Tshisekedi from Kabila and avoiding pushing the president into his predecessor’s arms. He sounded the same note while addressing the crowd in Lubumbashi on 20 May, when he urged Kabila to afford his successor some space, using the metaphorical phrase “un véhicule ne peut pas avoir deux chauffeurs (a car can’t have two drivers)”.

What does Katumbi’s return mean for the Congolese opposition?

With Katumbi now serving as its rotating head, Lamuka is still projecting a united front. But it is unclear how long this can hold. The coalition featured Katumbi’s return prominently on Twitter, and in interviews announcing his return he reaffirmed his commitment to the opposition coalition. He likewise has made clear that he would not join the government. Still, when he spoke to Crisis Group, Katumbi said he has advised Fayulu to forget the past and move forward, because his demand for new elections is untenable. He cited this stance as evidence that he is “un homme pragmatique (a pragmatic man)”.

Lamuka’s other major figure is Jean-Pierre Bemba, Kabila’s vice president from 2003-2006. Bemba was also barred from running in 2018 and likely continues to harbour presidential ambitions. On 13 May, with Fayulu by her side, Eve Bazaiba, secretary general of Bemba’s Movement for the Liberation of the Congo, announced that Bemba would also be returning to the DRC within three weeks. His homecoming may further strain the coalition. Like Katumbi, he will tour the DRC’s 26 provinces in the coming months. Whether he will do so with Katumbi or with Fayulu has not been confirmed.

The DRC’s political landscape remains fractured, with shifting alliances and ongoing tactical manoeuvring. This presents the president with a dilemma: enjoying only a relatively weak base of support, he will need to look to the opposition to bolster his presidency’s stability; yet the main opposition figures also have their own ambitions and, if given significant space, could quickly become powerful contenders in the 2023 election.