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DR Congo: New government, old violence

Antonio Cascais
April 18, 2021

With his new government, President Felix Tshisekedi has achieved victory in the power struggle with his predecessor, Joseph Kabila. He has flagged security in the country's troubled eastern region as a priority.

President Felix Tshisekedi (right) with Prime Minister Jean-Michel Sama Lukonde (left)
President Felix Tshisekedi (right) with Prime Minister Jean-Michel Sama Lukonde (left)Image: Giscard Kusema

Violence has once again escalated in the cities of Goma, Beni and Butembo in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo). A group of young people destroyed houses and shops and torched car tires to show their anger with the United Nations' (UN) blue helmets, who are part of the ongoing MONUSCO peacekeeping mission, alongside the Congolese army and the police.

The combined security forces appear to have proved incapable of protecting the population from marauding gangs and militias in the region.

In the past few weeks, rebel attacks have risen sharply. According to the UN, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), affiliated with the so-called Islamic State, have killed more than 200 people since the beginning of the year and forced another 40,000 to flee their homes.

Now the patience of many young people is wearing thin. They have taken to shouting slogans directed at security forces, such as: "You have failed miserably," "you do not protect the civilian population," and even: "Y ou are accomplices of the enemy."

"The MONUSCO blue helmets do practically nothing," Clovis Mutshuva from the Movement for Change told DW in Beni. "They have to get out of our country as quickly as possible."

Burnt down houses are seen in the village of Manzalaho near Beni on February 18, 2020, following an attack allegedly perpetrated by the rebel group Allied Democratic Forces (ADF)
Attacks by the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) rebel group are fueling fear in BeniImage: Alexis Huguet/AFP/Getty Images

Mutshuva said protests, which started over a week ago, would continue until all troops were withdrawn. They were mostly peaceful at first, but by April 12 they had turned violent, with at least ten people killed and more than 20 others injured.

The governor of the troubled province of North Kivu, Carly Nzanzu Kasivita, condemned the protests. "Young, mostly armed demonstrators keep attacking the police," he told DW in the capital Goma. The provincial government has enacted a ban on demonstrations until further notice, which, Kasivita said, was necessary to protect the rest of the civilian population.

But the majority of the civilian population seem to share the concerns of the young demonstrators. "Every day we see that the enemies who terrorize us are wearing uniforms from MONUSCO or the official armed forces," a women in Beni, who wished to remain anonymous, told DW. "So we suggest that they all disappear from here."

An Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC) soldier takes part in a foot patrol in the village of Manzalaho near Beni
The Congolese army also has a poor reputation among citizens, especially in the restive region around BeniImage: Alexis Huguet/AFP/Getty Images

New government promises solutions

"The situation is tense," the head of the German Konrad Adenauer Foundation's (KAS) office in DR Congo, Benno Müchler, told DW from Goma. "You have to watch closely to see whether the new government can do anything to improve things."

After a four-month power struggle with his predecessor, Joseph Kabila, President Felix Tshisekedi presented a new government this month. Tshisekedi had deposed Sylvestre Ilunga — who was considered an ally of Kabila — as prime minister and replaced him with his confidant, Jean-Michel Sama Lukonde Kyenge. Faced with the current tensions in the east, the new government has rushed to make security in the region a priority.

But what exactly can the government go to calm the situation? "You have to be able to have a dialogue with all parties in the country," explains Müchler. "That was always difficult in the past."

Tshisekedi's government is nevertheless aiming in the right direction: The president has recently tried to show that he is striving to improve the security situation, putting it on the political agenda of the African Union (AU), which he has chaired since February.

Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi, right, receives the presidential sash from outgoing president Joseph Kabila after being sworn in in Kinshasa
Even after handing over the baton to Felix Tshisekedi (right), Joseph Kabila (left) held considerable political sway in parliamentImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/J. Delay

Has Tshisekedi won the power struggle?

DR Congo's new government is made up of 57 MPs, including 14 women. While members of Tshisekedi's inner circle have received the defense, home affairs, finance and education portfolios, some figures of the anti-Kabila opposition have also been appointed to key positions, including Eve Bazaiba from the Movement for the Liberation of the Congo (MLC), who now serves as Environment Minister and Deputy Prime Minister.

New Foreign Minister Christophe Lutundula is also part of the anti-Kabila camp. He is considered a supporter of the former governor of Katanga Province, Moise Katumbi, who himself ran against Kabila in the last presidential elections in December 2018. It seems Kabila has largely lost his influence on the government.

So, has Tshisekedi finally won the power struggle with his predecessor, Joseph Kabila? "A new situation has actually arisen," says Müchler.

It looks like the new president has prevailed over the old one, he argues, potentially ending a leadership crisis that has plagued DR Congo since the 2018 election, which brought about the first peaceful transfer of power in the country's history.

Tshisekedi, the son of a well-known opposition leader, was declared the winner, but he was forced into a coalition with Kabila's allies, who at the time held a large majority in parliament.

Eve Bazaiba talks to the press on the second day of a visit of a Belgian delegation in Kinshasa
Eve Bazaiba is the most powerful woman in Tshisekedi's new cabinetImage: Christophe Licoppe/Belga/imago images

Tensions between the two sides were heightened last year when Tshisekedi declared that the power-sharing arrangement was blocking his reform agenda. He promised to seek a new majority in parliament. In fact, following a series of steps, he was able to draw many of Kabila's supporters to his side, meaning he can currently count on a majority in the National Assembly. This majority has enabled him to practically drive out Kabila's remaining allies.

"People have high expectations of the new government," says Müchler. But many citizens are still skeptical of the government's intentions to improve the security situation in the east. One street vendor in Beni told DW: "We'll wait and see what happens. We're so angry we could devour a raw snake."

This article was adapted from German.

John Kanyunyu and Nety Zaidi Zanem contributed to this article.