DR Congo: Tshisekedi takes office, but Kabila's legacy casts long shadow

Olivia Acland, Reuters | DR Congo’s Felix Tshisekedi takes the oath of office at a ceremony at the Palais de la Nation in Kinshasa, Jan. 24, 2019.

Will Félix Tshisekedi, inaugurated as DR Congo’s new president on Thursday after a contested election win, be able to institute real change? Furthermore, will Joseph Kabila -- after 18 years in power -- really allow his successor to govern?


DR Congo experienced an inauguration on Thursday, the likes of which it has never seen. For the first time in the central African nation’s history, the Congolese witnessed a peaceful transition of presidential power.

Before a crowd of cheering supporters in the capital, Kinshasa, Tshisekedi, dressed in a blue suit and dark glasses, took the oath of office on Thursday.

In his inaugural address, Tshisekedi called for a “reconciled country”. As Kabila, the outgoing president looked on, the DR Congo’s new leader said, “We want to build a strong Congo, turned towards its development, in peace and security – a Congo for all in which everyone has a place.”

That is likely to be easier said than done. Tshisekedi’s journey to the presidency has not been without controversy. A relative newcomer to Congolese politics, Tshisekedi heads the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS), a position he took over after the death of his father, the veteran opposition politician and long-time Kabila rival, Étienne Tshisekedi. The 55-year-old politician was declared the winner of the December 30, 2018, presidential vote by DR Congo’s Constitutional Court even as the Catholic Church and its 40,000 election observers said the real winner was another opposition candidate,Martin Fayulu.

After the proclamation of the final results, Fayulu has persisted in contesting the result, stating that he is “the sole legitimate president” while appealing for a popular movement to back his claim. But the international community, after some initial hesitation over the results’ credibility, has now moved on and is ready to work with Tshisekedi.

However, in a sign of lingering doubts about the credibility of the vote and the results, Kenya's Uhuru Kenyatta was the only foreign head-of-state present at Thursday’s inauguration ceremony.

Breaking free from the Kabila clan

Tshisekedi will have to hit the ground running. Aware of the overwhelming pressure for results, the man whose family was in the opposition for nearly 36 years, met with the officials and generals who are the products of a state and security apparatus over which Kabila, who is now a senator for life, reigns.

But questions, nevertheless, remain.

>> Read more on Tshisekedi: A son emerges from his father’s shadow

Will the new president have free rein to lead one of Africa’s largest and wealthiest countries? Will he be free of Kabila, whose Joint Front for Congo (FCC) coalition claimed a majority (300 out of 500) of seats in the National Assembly despite its presidential candidate’s heavy defeat? Tshisekedi and Vital Kamerhe’s own coalition, Heading for Change (Cach), has only 46 deputies in the chamber. Cohabitation with a Kabila-designated prime minister is, as such, inevitable.

A few names are already circulating, with Jean Mbuyu, special advisor to Kabila on security matters, and Interior Minister Henri Mova Sakanyi, among them.

Two pro-Kabila and pro-Tshisekedi coalitions have signed a “political coalition” and “power-sharing” agreement, according to a document obtained by AFP. The document provides for a “distribution along political family lines of ministerial posts and other administrative posts”.

It is clear that the key ministries (foreign affairs, defence and interior) are poised to go to the “political family of the elected president”, but “Tshisekedi has his hands tied,” explained Gérard Prunier, an Africa specialist at France’s CNRS research agency.

“He will not be able to free himself from the Kabila clan completely as they still have a stranglehold on the economy. Félix Tshisekedi has neither the charisma nor the popularity of his father,” the researcher told FRANCE 24.

"Think again!"

However, Alexandre Kiyedi, who represents Tshisekedi’s UDPS in Paris said to FRANCE 24, “Think again! Félix Tshisekedi is the only president of the republic. No one will be dictating anything to us.”

In an interview with the French-language weekly Jeune Afrique before the presidential election, Kabila promised not to cast a shadow over his successor, no matter who won.

“The president who is proclaimed the elected winner will be the president of DR Congo, with all of the powers to apply his political agenda,” Kabila said, before adding: “I do hope we will communicate. My 18 years at the head of this country are surely worth a few useful pieces of advice, provided I am asked for them.”

The defeat of the regime’s candidate, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, manifests a public rejection of Kabila. But the now ex-president, in rare interviews he has given to the French media, has sought to defend a record he characterises as positive.

“A country without problems, that’s paradise. My detractors can go to hell,” Kabila told French daily Le Monde. “When I arrived [as head of state] in 2001, I promised the reunification of the country, the stability of the economy, democratisation and reconstruction. Economic growth was never under three percent, the country is united and I organised three elections…” he said.

Bringing peace

However, the DR Congo remains subject to conflict in the east of the country where foreign militias continue to pillage its prized mining wealth. Security will be Tshisekedi’s top priority. The new president plans to invest heavily “in the pursuit of peace and security”, he told Jeune Afrique. “That is why I will travel to the east to appreciate the situation for myself. I will ask the United Nations to not withdraw their troops and, if possible, to reinforce them,” he added.

Kiyedi, the UDPS representative in Paris, confirms that line, saying the solution in the east lies in “dialogue with neighbouring countries, like Rwanda and Uganda”. Many of the fighters from rebel groups like the ADF come from those countries.

“But Félix Tshisekedi knows very little the east of the country, which is in a permanent state of anarchy. I do not see how he can cope [on that issue],” Africa specialist Prunier said.

It was during the election campaign that the new president travelled to these provinces for the first time, with his coalition partner, Kamerhe. Tshisekedi conceded to Le Monde to having been shocked by what he saw. He found a population living in daily fear of being killed by armed groups. He has promised them a return of law and order.

Army reform

To make good on that promise, the army will need to be reformed and former militia fighters that still have links inside the rebel groups will have to be weeded out.

“The army today is comprised of conglomerates of militias who were fighting one another a decade ago. Those are the people who are not at all trained. It is therefore necessary to re-establish a responsible and republican army,” Tshisekedi told Jeune Afrique.

Like Kabila before him, the new president has pledged to devote his term to reconciliation between his Congolese countrymen. He has appealed for a national unity government within which all political groups will be represented; this being an olive branch to Fayulu, in particular. But the presidential runner-up has rejected Tshisekedi’s call.

“Martin Fayulu is a sore loser. Two months ago, he was unknown. He could never have reached that score without [DR Congo political heavyweights] Jean-Pierre Bemba and Moïse Katumbi,” said Kiyedi.

On the economic front, Tshisekedi is promising more than $86 billion over 10 years to fight unemployment, eradicate poverty and raise the population’s average income. Those are the policy pledges which most Congolese -- 80 percent of whom live under the poverty line, according to the IMF – will hold him to.

This article has been translated and adapted from the original in French.

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