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DR Congo political crisis

Cai Nebe | Wendy Bashi
December 8, 2020

DR Congo President Tshisekedi wants to end a two-year power-sharing coalition with ex-President Joseph Kabila's faction, which stalled many of Tshisekedi's much-touted reforms. But he is already facing major headwinds.

Bildkombo I Félix Tshisekedi und  Joseph Kabila

A full-blown political crisis has developed in the Democratic Republic of Congo since President Felix Tshisekedi announced that he wanted to form a new coalition government.

On Monday, the coalition partner in the Democratic Republic of Congo's government, the Common Front for Congo (FCC), accused President Felix Tshisekedi of "a flagrant and intentional breach of the constitution" after he said he would consider dissolving the Cabinet or hold fresh elections. Chaotic scenes erupted in Parliament, with lawmakers trashing furniture.

Tshisekedi has been president of the mineral-rich DR Congo since he won the 2018 election, the country's first peaceful transition of power since gaining independence from Belgium in 1960. But Tshisekedi's supporters say the coalition government between his parliamentary alliance, Heading for Change (CACH), and the FCC, which is composed of parties and politicians loyal to ex-President Joseph Kabila, has straitjacketed his leadership.

Read more: DRC: Is President Tshisekedi a puppet of Kabila?

Last week, the FCC said it still held more than 300 seats in the 500-seat parliament and has accused Tshisekedi supporters of trying to bribe deputies to switch parties.

Kabila ruled the DRC for 18 years until he stepped down after long-delayed elections in December 2018. Kabila retains considerable clout through political allies and officers he appointed to the armed forces. He is also a senator for life.

DR Kongo Kinshasa Tshisekedi und Kabila
Felix Tshisekedi (L) took power when Joseph Kabila stepped down in 2018, but Kabila's clout has overshadowed TshisekediImage: REUTERS

Tshisekedi's authority comes under renewed scrutiny

Analysts say President Tshisekedi's coalition comes after weeks of consulting coalition members and military leaders to ensure he had their support.

Tshisekedi said on Sunday he would name an official to identify "a new coalition that included an absolute majority of National Assembly members."

"Identifying, let alone forming, a new parliamentary majority during the current political climate will be very difficult," says Tresor Kibangula from New York University's Congo Research Group. He says Tshisekedi's success might depend on his ability to gain the support of powerful Congolese politicians such as Jean-Pierre Bemba, Modeste Bahati, and Moise Katumbi.

Tshisekedi has indicated that if he failed to set up a new coalition, fresh elections would be the solution "using the constitutional prerogatives that have been invested in me to come back to you, a sovereign people, and ask for a majority."

Félix Tshisekedi between army leader
Throughout his presidency, Tshisekedi has had to walk a fine line between his own ambitions and appeasing Kabila's alliesImage: Giscard Kusema/Press Office President DRC

According to international politics professor Phil Clark from London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), this strategy presents Tshisekedi with a bigger problem. 

"It's widely recognized that he didn't win the 2018 vote outright. But because of a deal that he did with Kabila, there was this very peculiar situation where Kabila's party ended up rigging the vote to support Tshisekedi as an opposition candidate. They saw him as someone that they could do business with and said they preferred to catapult him to power," he told DW. 

Clark says President Tshisekedi is instead engaging in "gamesmanship" and is "probably not that serious about having fresh elections."

"Both the military and Kabila in the last 24 hours have basically said that Tshisekedi should be very careful how he acts now if he tries to exclude them."  Clark said.President Tshisekedi is unlikely to get support from the international community. Having learned to live with Kabila for almost two decades, international organizations. are weary of seeing fragile Congolese political institutions threatened.

"Even when Kabila was busy rigging elections and using violence against his political opponents, the UN continued to support him because they saw him as the only game in town."

Popular opinion split

On the streets, though, Tshisekedi's supporters celebrated the coalition's end between the FCC and CACH.

"I have been waiting for this decision. We all understood that the coalition gave us almost nothing. And naturally, we were fed up with it. Personally, I see a head of state in the process of freeing himself," said Eli Okitawao, a jobless IT graduate. 

But some Congolese worry Tshisekedi's dissolution of parliament may plunge the DRC into chaos.

Helping rape survivors in the DRC

"How is he supposed to govern when the basis of his authority is in question? It's like counting chickens before they hatch," said a Kabila supporter who didn't want to be named.

A primary school teacher, who asked to remain anonymous, said, "We're not really happy. The president is causing chaos in our country because of a disagreement with the former president." 

Some of the supporters of Lamuka, an opposition coalition led by former presidential candidate Martin Fayulu, refused to comment, describing the showdown between Tshisekedi and Kabila as a "spectacle of two thieves fighting over stolen property."

Read more:

Violence still rife in DRC after UN rights abuses report

Will 'rocking the boat' backfire?

Tshisekedi's move to make parliament more favorable towards him has been interpreted as a sign of Tshisekedi "trying to be his own man," according to Clark.

With a parliament heavily favoring Kabila's faction, Tshisekedi's success depended on "him not being seen to oppose Kabila too much."

This makes predicting the fallout from President Tshisekedi's announcement so difficult to predict, says analyst Tresor Kibangula.

"The FCC will try to hold on to what is still their parliament. The Prime Minister [a Kabila ally] is probably not going to resign, which will surely lead to a new crisis," he told DW.

Kibangula also said the current political crisis might be decided by military intervention, "even if, for the moment, Tshisekedi's camp is assured everything or almost everything is under control."

For Clark: "This will be a real test of Tshisekedi’s leadership. And there's no guarantee that he'll still be the president by the end of this week."