Kabila co-opts the opposition to prolong a family dynasty


The highly contested elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are now over and Joseph Kabila Kabange handed over the presidency to Félix Antoine Tshilombo Tshisekedi on January 24.

Tshisekedi has been quickly recognised officially by the United States, Kenya and all the 16 Southern African Development Community member states to which the DRC belongs, among others.

Much more significantly, the internal and potentially divisive position adopted by the Catholic Church’s National Episcopal Conference of Congo has been undone because six of the eight Catholic bishops in Tshiskedi’s Kasai region have now accepted the electoral outcome, arguing that, however flawed, this is a step towards democracy and social progress for all.

READ MORE: A Tshisekedi finally at DRC’s helm

But these developments highlight the contradictions and lessons learnt from the past in at least three important aspects.

The first is that Africa is having to contend with the cohesion of elite, hereditary “republican” dynasties, which are expanding and consolidating. This was manifest in the temporary collaboration between the families of the late Laurent-Désiré Kabila and the late Étienne Tshisekedi wa Mulumba and now in the consensus reached between Joseph Kabila and Félix Tshisekedi.

This new-found relationship is unequally balanced, with Kabila controlling the instruments of the state, including an important 300 majority of the 500 legislators in the National Assembly, complemented by Tshisekedi’s inherited national mass support and legitimacy.

The test of the collaboration will lie in how they can reach mutual agreement and common positions on the fundamental problems confronting the state, such as governance, domestic and foreign policies, management of the political economy, security and even the selection of alliance partners.

But the ultimate challenge to the new-layered hereditary dynasty is that each partner is inheriting each other’s baggage as well as being expected to respond to the expectations of each other’s constituents.

One of the early issues is Kabila’s understood intentions to run for office again in 2023. This makes it is unlikely that Kabila and his allies, such as the losing presidential candidate, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, will go out of their way to strengthen Tshisekedi’s position and enable him to become independent of them.

Something symbolic about this fraught collaboration occurred during the inauguration. Kabila’s handlers had tightened the visible body armour on Tshisekedi to such extent that he couldn’t breathe properly and nearly collapsed; it had to be loosened to enable him to complete his inaugural speech.

READ MORE: The DRC’s blood-soaked history

The second salutary lesson is the confirmation that, actually, elections do not matter for succession in the DRC. Consider the flawed elections in July 2006, in November 2011, the Catholic bishops conference-negotiated December 2016 extension (on the basis of which Kabila could prepare the country for elections) and the recent December 2018 polls.

In the midst of the most recent electoral crisis, the African Union, at its summit this month, issued a communiqué requesting the DRC to delay announcing the result until the AU could deploy a special intervention and conflict resolution team from its headquarters in Addis Ababa, a request that was simply ignored.

All of this has created yet another layer to the enduring hereditary dynasty, despite coming under intense domestic and international pressures. Kabila’s co-option strategy to secure the support of the leading domestic opposition figures has also marginalised the exiled Moïses Katumbi and Jean-Pierre Bemba, who backed the losing Martin Fayulu, and ultimately temporarily suspended the march towards a vibrant, electoral democracy.

Finally, the survival of the reformed but unequal dynasty in Kinshasa could allow Kabila to join the “Class of 2034”. These are the presidents who have amended their countries’ constitutions and removed restrictive term and age limits.

This phenomenon is concentrated in the Great Lakes region — in Congo (Brazzaville), Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda, and even behind the chaotic crises in the Central African Republic (CAR) and South Sudan.

Underlying Kabila’s determination to stay in office is his correct assessment that many of the Central African conflicts are associated with the DRC’s vast area, access to and exploitation of its mineral and natural resources, as well as the actions of armed groups operating from the DRC, which threaten or support fragile states, including Angola, Burundi, Congo (Brazzaville), the Central African Republic, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda.

It is early days yet but the unforeseen expanded hereditary dynasty is unlikely to be sustainable in the medium to long term. It is also true that free and fair democratic elections have failed to serve as the platform for political succession in the DRC.

Finally, although Kabila tried to emulate the machinations of the class of 2034 and failed, the new dispensation has provided him with a default opportunity for his 2023 quest to return to office, while resisting the security challenges from neighbouring countries in the Great Lakes region.

Professor Martin R Rupiya PhD is the executive director of the African Public Policy and Research Institute in Pretoria

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