Is Kabila on his way out?

President Kabila faces challenges on a number of fronts, from the opposition to the grassroots to members of his own inner circle. How much longer can he hold on?

  • GovernmentZA (CC BY-ND 2.0) President Joseph Kabila during a visit by South African President Jacob Zuma in 2013. GovernmentZA (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Last month, three separate events shook the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) fast-evolving political landscape and the administration of Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001.

Firstly, the opposition UDPS party broke off negotiations with the government. The talks aimed to define conditions for a national dialogue regarding the electoral process.

Secondly, seven party leaders from within the ruling alliance signed an open letter urging President Kabila, whose second term comes to an end in 2016, to respect the constitution. The signatories of the letter, known as G7, were later expelled from government.

Although the president has yet to speak about his plans, there have been attempts by those close to him to extend his rule.

And thirdly, on 29 September, Moïse Katumbi, the influential governor of Katanga province, resigned from the ruling party.

These three events all dealt a blow to the ruling elite and to Kabila’s purported ambitions to hold on to power after 2016. Although the president has yet to speak officially about his future plans, there have been clear attempts by those close to him to extend his rule.

For instance, in September 2014, the regime tried to force a constitutional amendment through parliament but failed to mobilise the necessary support. Then, in January 2015, the government attempted to pass a law that would integrate a population census into the electoral calendar. While a census would be welcome in principle, the timing has been seen as an attempt to slow down the electoral process. After days of protests, the government was forced to withdraw the law.

Who are the G7?

In March 2015, the critical voices within the ruling majority crystallised in the members of G7, a group which some see as a coalition of the moderate and which others view as simply les frondeurs (‘the troublemakers’).

The group finds its origins in the dissidence of Pierre Lumbi, president of the MSR party, when he spoke out against the proposed constitutional change in September 2014. Lumbi was later joined by six other disillusioned figures: Planning Minister Olivier Kamitatu; José Endundu; MP Christophe Lutundula; and three leaders from Katanga, Charles Mwando-Simba, Kyungu wa Kumanza and Dany Banza. Together they form an interesting mix of regions, generations, social backgrounds and skills.

In March, G7 published its first open letter to Kabila in which the group asked the president to communicate clearly about his plans. They also expressed concerns about the local elections and the policy ofdécoupage in which the DRC’s 11 provinces are to be split into 26 provinces. The G7 figures were hugely anxious at the havoc the president could wreak in the country if he attempted to maintain his grip on power.

For Kabila, the G7 was too big to be ignored yet too small to make much difference. Together, the seven parties represented by the group’s leaders have 79 seats in parliament, yet the entire majority (including that 79) holds 353 seats of a total 500.

The seven party leaders themselves hesitated as to whether to remain within the majority to encourage internal debate or whether to become a broader movement, potentially joining forces with opposition parties. In the end, Kabila’s decision to throw them out of the ruling majority after their second letter in September made the choice for them.

When talking to the different personalities within the G7, one does not get the impression any of the party leaders sees himself as the DRC’s next president. Rather, it seems likely that the group will work together with Moïse Katumbi, the figure now seen as the clearest challenger to Kabila. Whether that partnership is forged remains to be seen, but regardless, the group will have to formulate what they stand for in the near future.

The inner workings of Kabila’s camp in decay

It is not only the G7 that is concerned about the uncertainty around Kabila’s future intentions. In fact, the entire ruling majority suffers from Kabila’s silence.

Kabila had a strong team around him in the early years of his presidency. But in more recent years, he has tended to meet with key leaders individually and give them orders not known by the others. A holistic approach has disappeared and no minister dares take a decision without approval from Kabila’s cabinet. There is a lot of bitterness, frustration and envy in the air, and individuals can rise and fall quickly in the hierarchy.

A year ago, Speaker of Parliament Aubin Minaku looked in a good position to be Kabila’s anointed successor. But in less than six months, he disappointed the president three times: he failed to mobilise a parliamentary majority to change the constitution; he led national consultations in 2014 but was unable to implement its recommendations; and he proved incapable of stemming dissidence within the ruling coalition as the G7 emerged.

If Kabila does pick an heir, he may prefer to name a family member.

In December 2014, when Kabila reshuffled his cabinet to create a ‘Government of National Cohesion’, a different figure was elevated to new prominence. After the 2011 elections, Evariste Boshab, secretary-general of Kabila’s PPRD party, had hoped to become PM but he was left out of Prime Minister Augustin Matata’s technocratic government. However, he came back in style last December as he was appointed Vice-Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior and Security.

Boshab openly supported a revision of the constitution in favour of a third mandate for Kabila and organised the repression ofdemonstrators who protested in January 2015 against the electoral law. At least 40 people were killed. Since then, however, Boshab has already lost influence. Kabila is understood to have held the vice-PM responsible for the failure to pass the electoral law, and in May, Boshab was replaced by Henri Mova as secretary-general of the PPRD.

A few months ago, yet another individual – Kalev Mutondo, chief of theAgence National des Renseignements (ANR) – notably increased in prominence as he became Kabila’s main messenger in laying the groundwork with the opposition for a national dialogue. The idea for this consultation was tabled in May 2015 and the regime hoped it would result in the consensus view that holding elections in 2016 would be impossible for technical reasons. The government intended that the dialogue would thus also create a legal framework for this eventuality.

Kabila’s inner circle wanted to impose a Government of National Unity with Félix Tshisekedi from the opposition UDPS as Prime Minister. This new government, according to the plan, would oversee a three-year transition period up to the end of 2018. In this time, the constitution would be revised, provincial and senate elections would be held in 2016, and local elections would be conducted in 2017. Presidential elections would then finally be held in 2018. In this scenario, Kabila would not only remain president during the transition, but would also stand for elections for his first mandate under the Fourth Republic.

One of the cornerstones of the scheme was to integrate UDPS in a new government. But after the opposition party withdrew from the preparatory talks, the dialogue as well as its architect Kalev Mutondo lost authority.

The relations within the quartet of Minaku, Boshab, Matata and Mutondo are notoriously bad, and confrontations between them recently have found their way onto the front pages of the capital’s newspapers. All of them consider themselves to be in the race to be Kabila’s appointed successor – if he needs one. However, while they may be in the running, if Kabila does pick an heir, he may prefer to name a family member, for instance his twin sister Jaynet.

A split opposition

The DRC’s opposition parties haven’t been particularly impressive since they lost the 2011 elections. UDPS has been paralysed by leader Etienne Tshisekedi’s refusal to play an active role in the opposition since he still considers himself to be the true winner of the elections. Most of his elected MPs did, however, take up their mandate despite his call for them not to. For about a year now, Tshisekedi has been in Belgium for medical treatment, and it is extremely difficult to obtain exact information on his physical state and mental ability to lead the party.

Many of the provincial and local sections of UDPS claim that the party has been taken hostage by the leader’s family. Tshisekedi’s wife Martha is reportedly playing an important role in the background and trying to launch the couple’s son Félix up into the higher spheres of the state.

Any formal debate between these factions of UDPS is blocked by Tshisekedi’s absence, and it is difficult to estimate the party’s credibility amongst the population and its capacity to mobilise.

The MLC party meanwhile has been formally divided in two since April 2015. Soon after the installation of the Government of National Cohesion, when Kabila brought the former opposition party into the ruling fold, MLC leader Jean-Pierre Bemba excluded the three new party ministers. Vice-Prime Minister Thomas Luhaka questioned Bemba’s right to do this and founded a new party under the label MLC/Libéral.

Elsewhere in DRC’s political landscape, Vital Kamerhe has managed to keep the reputation of his opposition UNC party intact. His faction in parliament has remained more or less consistent in their message, and some of the party’s new MPs with civil society backgrounds have developed into hardworking and competent backbenchers. Kamerhe and the UNC have important roles to play, but will have to step into broader alliances to make a real impact.

An unpredictable grassroots movement

It is difficult to ascertain what people at the grassroots level think, and the emotional and violent reactions to the electoral law submitted in January 2015 came as a big surprise to most observers. Furthermore, it is notable that the demonstrators only partially seemed to heed the instructions of the opposition. Much of the Congolese population appears to be not only allergic to the continuation of the present regime, but disconnected from the entire political caste. Politicians are viewed as archetypal Big Men out to enrich themselves and not much distinction is made between those in government and those in opposition.

One can easily imagine a popular uprising degenerating into violence, plundering and chaos, causing a lot of human and material damage before being suppressed by security forces.

One can easily imagine a popular uprising degenerating into violence, plundering and chaos.

Indeed, it is to be expected that Kabila will use more and more repression if he feels his control slipping away. This was clearly the strategy towards the demonstrations in January, though it may have backfired. Not everybody within Congo’s circles of power agree with the way the regime deals with youth movements such as La Lucha andFilimbi, and when mass graves were discovered in Kinshasa in March 2015, sources inside the regime told African Arguments that the way information was leaked suggested it was being used by different leaders to weaken and discredit each other.

Kalev as well as Boshab reportedly prepared gangs to dismantle thedemonstration of 15 September, and it could only be a matter of time before they will start to fight each other. The Congolese regime lacks the necessary coherence to deploy effective repression. If it tried, it would likely quickly put the country in chaos, but one cannot exclude the possibility it will deliberately chose that option if that turns out to be the last route to stay in power.

Elections or transition?

In February, CENI published a calendar scheduling the construction of its premises, the recruitment of its agents, and other preparations ahead of local and provincial elections in October 2015, indirect elections of governors and senators in January 2016, and presidential and legislative elections in November 2016. This calendar was considered unrealistic by most observers.

In the past, Western partners have insisted on holding elections yet have turned a blind eye to many non-democratic practices.

While the regime has failed in its attempts to change the legal context to keep Kabila in power, it has been successful in delaying the electoral process. This has been achieved in many ways, but the most important strategy has probably been the government’s refusal to disburse the necessary budgets. There is a constant struggle between CENI and the government − in particular Prime Minister Matata and vice-Prime Minister Boshab − for control over the electoral process. It will take more than one miracle to keep the process on track.

When it comes to international partners, there appears no enthusiasm to participate financially in an electoral process without a clear commitment from the Congolese government. It is highly unlikely international actors will engage with the process without evidence of the government’s goodwill.

International partners are worried that non-respect of the constitution could lead the country into chaos and want to avoid a repeat of Burundi, when they sleepwalked along and only opened their eyes when it was too late. However, they are well aware of the limits of their impact and are searching for an efficient lever.

In the past, Western partners have sent ambiguous signals on democracy. They have insisted on the holding of elections yet have turned a blind eye to many non-democratic practices. There is a difficult balance between pushing democracy on the one hand, and not risking upsetting precarious stability on the other. The challenge for international actors is often of trying to choose the lesser of two evils − though this pragmatism is of course also based on the international player’s own interests.

This ambiguity of the DRC’s partners is well understood by both the broader population and political players. As an opposition figure said of Western actors, ‘You finally have to make a choice between your values and your interests’.

Kris Berwouts studied African linguistics and history. He worked over 25 years for a number of NGOs focused on building peace, reconciliation, security and democratic processes. Since January 2012, he has worked as an independent writer and expert on conflict, security and democratization in Central Africa. He can be found on Twitter @KrisBerwouts. Kris conducted research for DfID DRC’s Evidence, Analysis and Coordination Programme (EACP), on behalf of Integrity Research and Consultancy, in August and September 2015. This article is the summary of his conclusions. This article was published on African Arguments and was republished here with permission of the author.

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