Making Sense of DR Congo’s Stunning Political Turnaround

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Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi, November 15, 2019 in Berlin. © Michele Tantussi : Getty Images
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Until December 2020, the Front Commun pour le Congo (FCC) of ex-president Joseph Kabila held a majority of 338 out of 500 seats in Congo’s National Assembly. In a token alliance with President Tshisekedi’s Cap pour le Changement (CACH, 48 seats), it controlled all branches of government aside from the presidency.  Yet, by late January 2021, Tshisekedi had wrestled away control of both parliament and government, and appeared for the first time firmly in charge of the state. How did it happen?

The beginning of the end

It started in July 2020 when Tshisekedi, in a move of dubious legality, appointed three judges to the Constitutional Court.  The FCC’s objection led Tshisekedi to pull out of their alliance. In December, he tasked South Kivu’s Modeste Bahati Lukwebo, the leader of the AFDC-A (a reluctant member of the FCC), with identifying a new majority.

Bahati came up with a list of 391 députés willing to rally the new majority Union Sacrée de la Nation (USN), confirming dynamics at the National Assembly, which voted no confidence against speaker Jeannine Mabunda and against Prime Minister Sylvestre Ilunga (both members of Kabila’s PPRD, the FCC’s core party) in December and January. A similar process unfolded in the Senate.

As many as 150 FCC MPs switched sides, with the largest group of defectors (42) from Kabila’s PPRD.  More than a rejection of Kabila, these defections may represent an attempt to demand positions, retain a degree of control and limit the damage that the new coalition could inflict upon Kabila. 

Second is Bahati’s AFDC-A with 41 seats.  Bahati had been denied several leadership positions over the years, leading to a break-up with the FCC and his party splintering in 2019.  He got his revenge.  Other important FCC turncoats include Julien Paluku (with 23 MPs), Pius Mwabilu (20), François Rubota (20), Véronique Tshala Bebel (10), Jean-Paul Nemoyato (10), Athanase Matenda (10), and Lambert Mendé (8). With four of the seven members of the new National Assembly bureau, including president Christophe Mboso, these defectors have done well for themselves.

The rest of the UNS newcomers is accounted for by the bulk of Lamuka, the coalition which supported Martin Fayulu, the actual winner of the 2018 elections, including Jean-Pierre Bemba’s MLC (22 députés) and the parties around Moïse Katumbi (for a total of about 70 seats).  Fayulu himself has remained in the opposition.  Lamuka got two seats on the assembly bureau. CACH retained the last one with First Vice-President Jean-Marc Kabund-a-Kabund, the influential secretary-general of Tshisekedi’s own party.

Step forward Kyenge

Tshisekedi appointed 43-year-old Sama Lukonde Kyenge, an ethnic Sanga from Haut-Katanga, prime minister in February.  (Regional balancing matters in Congo: Tshisekedi is Luba from Kasai; Mboso is a Kikongo speaker from Kwango; Lukonde is Swahiliphone; most likely the new president of the Senate will speak Lingala.)

An Avenir du Congo (ACO) MP from Likasi, Lukonde was minister under Kabila until 2015, when he joined Katumbi’s “Group of 7” defectors, after it became obvious Kabila wanted to stay in power beyond his two terms.  Unlike Katumbi, however, he campaigned for Tshisekedi in 2018, who appointed him director general of the mining conglomerate Gécamines. A chemical engineer, Lukonde has a reputation for integrity and autonomy.

The carrot and the stick

How did Tshisekedi do it?  Frustrated with his shackles, with time running out and his US ally prodding him along, Tshisekedi tested Kabila’s system and found it hollow. He threatened to dissolve the National Assembly if he could not form a new majority, frightening MPs who would lose their generous emoluments and, most having never truly been elected, knew they stood little chance of being (re)-elected.

He also used judicial harassment. Kalev Mutond (former director of the feared domestic security agency), Lambert Mendé (former government spokesperson), Albert Yuma (Gécamines’ chairman) and Jaynet Kabila (Joseph’s sister) all experienced temporary arrest or limitations to their freedom to circulate.  And Senate President Alexis Thambwe found himself investigated by the Inspection Générale des Finances.  The Interior Ministry also notified parties that splintered after their leader joined the USN that only the wing under their original leader would be recognized and dissident MPs would see their mandate invalidated.

Finally, money flowed.  AFDC MPLéon Nembalemba declared on TV that he had received $15,000 for his vote and had been asked to go and “corrupt” others (he obliged).  Rumors estimate payments at $15,000-50,000 depending on the individual’s influence.  This could have cost Tshisekedi more than $5 million.  Where did he get those funds?  From the World Bank’s education loan that was recently suspended because of corruption?  From the public-work projects started earlier in his presidency?

Either way, Kabila, never a generous patron, was outbid.  His monopoly of power and willingness to use violence kept politicians in tow at reduced costs.  A restructuring of patronage networks in favor of Tshisekedi is a very significant development in a regime where they constitute the strongest power foundation.

A hollow victory?

The extent of Tshisekedi’s victory remains an empirical question, however.  The USN will be a transactional and unstable majority.  Many MPs will continue to condition their support upon payments or extractive opportunities.  Expect more no-confidence motions and accusations of corruption.  Moreover, CACH members, already a fissiparous lot, are likely to be frustrated by the necessity to share positions with the defectors. 

Governance-wise, corruption will remain central to a political system whose actors have not changed. Tshisekedi has curbed down Kabila’s predation, but he is an apt practitioner of patron-client relations, with many mouths to feed. His regime has already had its fair share of scandals.  As we near the 2023 elections, which will soon monopolize everyone’s attention, the use of state resources for political gain and general policy paralysis are likely to prevail. Reforming the electoral law and the National Election Commission (CENI) is on the docket but will Tshisekedi still want to restore a two-round electoral system now that his own odds of staying in office after 2023 have considerably risen?

His main competitors will be Katumbi and, possibly, Kabila. After having been persecuted under Kabila, Katumbi’s circumstances are much improved.  But Tshisekedi’s benevolence towards him could fade away.  If unable to co-opt him, he could reopen some judicial dossiers against the former Katanga governor. 

The relative ease with which Tshisekedi extricated himself from his secret agreement with Kabila has cast the latter in an unfavorable light.  True to type, Kabila has been silent throughout the ordeal, but most expect some sort of counter-attack, even if Tshisekedi has probably given him reassurances regarding his and his family’s ill-acquired wealth.  Kabila can destabilize parliament and retains influence in the military and among some militias.

The fake election of Tshisekedi in 2018 was no real transition.  The current majority switch holds more potential, but improvements in governance, democracy and development remain a long shot.

Pierre Englebert is H. Russell Smith Professor of International Relations and Professor of Politics at Pomona College, and Senior Fellow of the Atlantic Council.

Georges Kasongo is a professor at the University of Lubumbashi in Haut-Katanga, DRC.

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