How DR Congo’s Tshisekedi lifted Kabila’s grip on power

Two years after the election, Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi has finally taken control and has unleashed his predecessor Joseph Kabila’s seemingly indestructible iron grip on power behind the scenes.

It seemed impossible for Tshisekedi to climb out of Kabila’s shadow when he joined the top job in January 2019 – a month after appearing in the presidential election amid doubts from election observers that he had indeed won more votes than Kabila’s arch-rival Martin Fayulu.

Tshisekedi had little room for maneuver: in power since 2001, Kabila had tightened control over DR Congo’s major institutions: the army, intelligence services, the constitutional court and the election commission. Kabila’s Common Front for Congo (FCC) party controlled two – thirds of the seats in parliament and forced Tshisekedi to form a coalition government with his own minority party.

But two years later, Tshisekedi has managed to loosen Kabila’s long-standing grip. The Senate chief of Kabila resigned on Friday as MPs prepared a no-confidence motion against him. Then the vast majority of FCC MPs changed their allegiance and joined Tshisekedi’s new political group, the Holy Union, which gave it a large majority in the lower house.

‘Never any trust’

These MPs expelled pro-Kabila Prime Minister Sylvestre Ilunga Ilunkamba with a motion of censure on January 27 – a month after they fired the head of the National Assembly.

“There was never any trust between Tshisekedi and Kabila,” said Trésor Kibangula, an analyst at the Congo Study Group. “Each side has always tried to reduce the other.”

Consequently, a year and a half of backbiting and power play followed Tshisekedi’s inauguration. In 2020, the president’s camp banned some Kabila family members, including his once powerful twin sister Jaynet, from traveling. Tensions rose to a boiling point in July, when Tshisekedi appointed three new judges to the Constitutional Court in the midst of the absence of the then Prime Minister. Kabila’s camp was upset and refused to attend the swearing-in ceremony. In early December, Tshisekedi announced the end of the ruling coalition, which combined his presidency with an FCC-controlled parliament.

Tshisekedi had already prepared for this. His camp set up meetings in the summer to persuade Kabila supporters to support him. “We sat down to have disillusioned FCC MPs on our side,” said an anonymous member of Kabila’s camp.

Anger had been brewing there for several months. “The FCC was controlled by a clique that did not want to see new people emerge,” said MP Patrick Munyomo, who has joined the Holy Union.

In December, Tshisekedi threatened to dissolve the National Assembly if he did not gain a majority – prompting many MPs to worry about losing their jobs. “It was a good move, mentally,” said Nsingi Pululu MP.

Tshisekedi and his allies placed the carrot after this skillful use of the stick. The head of his UPDS party, Jean-Marc Kabund, said he would “watch out for the interests” of MPs who deviate from the FCC.

“Many of them left opportunism and were anxious to get jobs,” said Marie-Ange Mushobekwa, a member of the FCC’s pro-Kabila “crisis committee”.

“I did not ask for a job – but I hope I get one,” Pululu said.

A series of corruption allegations arose against both sides among the defections – where both sides accused the other of “buying” parliamentarians with billions of dollars and 4×4 cars.

“It’s going on, even though I refused to accept anything,” said an FCC defector. “I’m not saying there have been no banknotes, but we have not bought people’s consciences,” said a member of the Tshisekedi camp.

Kabila redux?

Kabila has been silent throughout this process. Since the dismissal of close ally Jeannine Mabunda as head of the National Assembly, he has lived on his farm in Katanga province near the Zambian border, far from the political unrest in the capital Kinshasa.

He had warned Tshisekedi that the National Assembly was a red line, but realized that “he can not react yet”, Kibangula said.

Kabila is still a powerful figure in DR Congo. He and his family control a relationship with more than 80 companies operating in almost every sector of the economy. Gécamines – the country’s largest mining company and largest contributor to the state budget – is led by one of the ex – president’s most loyal lieutenants, Albert Yuma.

At the same time, Kabila has significant support in the army and intelligence services: “Tshisekedi has more and more support in the security forces, but it is still not much compared to the support for Kabila,” Kibangula said.

With more than 100 MPs loyal to the ex-president, the FCC will become DR Congo’s largest opposition force. This would provide a springboard for Kabila to jump back into battle. “Kabila has not left the world of politics,” said FCC spokesman Alain Atundu. “We are now beginning to put a battle plan in place.”

This article has been translated from the original into French.