One year later in post-Kabila Congo

DRCPolitics2020KINSHASA, Congo – Thousands recently took to the streets here to protest President Felix Tshisekedi’s failure to improve public security, reform the economy or deliver on other promises.

“He should resign, we don't need him anymore,” shouted Didier Nzengele, who said the president was moving too slow in distributing the country’s wealth to the people. “Tshisekedi has done nothing since he assumed power. He is confused, unfocused and being misguided by Kabila who failed our people during his reign as the president.”

Nzengele’s complaints reflected the political climate in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Almost a year after taking power in a vote mired by fraud allegations, Tshisekedi appears paralyzed.

Armed groups still roam the vast country, where civil and international wars raged in the 1990s and early 2000s. Almost 900,000 refugees still live outside the Congo while more than 500,000 people are displaced internallyand food imports stave off famine. A proposed program to build roads, bridges and other infrastructure has yet to get off the ground. An Ebola epidemic has also been unfolding in the area, resulting to more than 1,600 deaths in the past year.

The lack of progress highlights Tshisekedi’s lack of control over the Central African country, analysts said. His powerlessness reflects who is really in charge, they added.

“This shows that Joseph Kabila is still in charge of Congo,” said Edward Kisiang’ani, a political historian at Kenyatta University in Nairobi, Kenya. “Kabila stepped down but rigged the elections in favor of Tshisekedi to maintain control.”

Taking over in 2001 after the assassination of his father, Kabila ruled Congo for 18 years. The 48-year-old still lives in the presidential compound and has a security detail that compares to the incumbent president’s protection.

But Kabila’s reach is more than symbolic. His political coalition, the Common Front for the Congo, controls large majorities in the legislature. Sylvestre Ilunga Ilukamba, a Kabila ally, is prime minister. Congo’s security forces and top military commanders remain firmly under Kabila’s thumb, too.

Kabila left office in 2019, three years after his limit of two terms technically barred him from office. Public pressure forced him to step down, but he still wields considerable power. He’s left open the possibility of running in 2023, when he’ll be eligible to stand for the presidency again.
But residents are worried about Tshisekedi’s commitment to fulfill the pledges he made one year after he was sworn in. The country’s powerful Catholic Bishops, for example, have urged Tshisekedi to end the fighting that continues in isolated areas, especially in eastern Congo.

“We want the government to urgently deploy security officers in the region and restore state institutions such as the national police, army and immigration, among others,” said Archbishop Marcel Utembi Tapa of Archdiocese of Kisangani.

During his swearing in as the president, Tshisekedi promised a new era of respect for human rights, addressing one of the most notorious failings of the Kabila era. However, this pledge has not been fulfilled, said activists. Security officers continue to arrest critics of his government. Last week, at least one person was wounded and several arrested after police dispersed opposition march in Kinshasa.

“He has banned peaceful protests and arrested critics like Kabila,” said Nzengele. “He promised to allow citizens to picket but he is not fulfilling his word.”

Tshisekedi had also vowed to tackle corruption in the mineral – rich country and raise the average wage from $1.25 to $11.75 a day but he’s made no progress. Tshisekedi’s cabinet has been rocked by allegations of disappearing funds, angering residents, too.

“It’s simply Kabila who is still governing this country behind the scenes,” said Daniel Tshibala, a resident who owns electronic shop in Kinshasa. “Why are former Kabila allies accused of corruption still working in his government? Tshisekedi is not serious about the fight against corruption. He is just lame duck president.”

Tshisekedi’s allies have dismissed the claims, saying that, since his inauguration in January after winning a December 30 vote, Congo has been making satisfactory progress along the road to peace and stability.

In March, they said, Tshisekedi released hundreds of political prisoners, a marked shift away from the policies of Kabila, who had scores of his enemies jailed. He has deployed military and police to the eastern Congo to respond to armed groups and improved relations with neighboring countries, they charged.

“The President should be given time to work. He has done a lot in one year including enacting reforms, responding to armed groups and repairing relations with other countries,” said Edouard Lomboto, who served as Tshisekedi’s election campaigner.

Tshisekedi has on several occasions reiterated his commitment to tackle corruption, build peace and uphold the rule of law, social and economic development.

"I am aware of persistent corrupt practices and the existence of massive fraud networks," Tshisekedi said in his first state-of-the-nation speech in December before parliament. "These networks will be dismantled. I will be unflinching in the fight against corruption.”

However, the Kenyan historian Kisiang’ani believed it would be difficult for Tshisekedi to make any reforms in the central African nation because he remains in political competition with Kabila.

“People should not expect any meaningful reforms in such government set up where Kabila’s allies still control government apparatus,” said Kisiang’ani. “Tshisekedi lacks the power to enact the wide-ranging reforms to fight insecurity, corruption and improve the lives of people.”

Photo: Jan 10, 2020 - Kinshasa, DRC - Congolese President Felix Tshisekeidi speaking during the 18th Council of Ministers meeting. 
Credit: Courtesy of the official Twitter account of the DRC Presidency. (01/25/20)

Story/photo published date: 01/26/20

A version of this story was published in The Washington Times.
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