Joseph Kabila: Holding on to power. Picture: JUNIOR D KANNAH/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
Joseph Kabila: Holding on to power. Picture: JUNIOR D KANNAH/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

As the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) opposition tears itself apart, a resolution to that country’s political crisis seems elusive, making it unlikely that presidential elections will be held this year — or next.

For years, President Joseph Kabila’s distaste for public speaking made him the subject of much mockery on Kinshasa’s political scene. Many thought him an illiterate thug, a puppet in the hands of cleverer actors. They mocked his lack of charisma and tendency to stumble through his speeches.

Today the joke is on them.

Like a chess master, Kabila has weathered street protests that erupted in 2016, when it became clear elections would not be held before the end of his term in December. He let negotiations drag on until New Year’s Eve, when an agreement for the creation of a transition government was finally decided. He then delayed its implementation for months, getting a little help from fate when opposition leader Étienne Tshisekedi passed away on February 1.

Without its historic leader, the country’s opposition has turned on itself.

Kabila’s most recent move — choosing Bruno Tshibala as transition prime minister — is a perfect example of his political artfulness and cynicism.

Under the December 31 agreement, the prime ministerial office belongs to the opposition coalition, Le Rassemblement. It designated Félix Tshisekedi, the son of Étienne, to become prime minister.

But his legitimacy was challenged by a fringe of his father’s party, the Union for Democracy & Social Progress (UDPS), that included Tshibala.

Kabila cunningly picked the dissident member as prime minister, thereby entrenching divisions in the opposition.

"Kabila is not respecting the agreement by not appointing Tshisekedi," says Kris Berwouts, author of Congo’s Violent Peace, which will be released in June. "On the other hand, Tshibala is a genuine opposition leader who is a UDPS pioneer, and who was in prison at the end of 2016.

"A united and strategically capable opposition would have anticipated this situation and dealt with it."

Tshibala’s nomination was immediately rejected by Le Rassemblement, and he was expelled from the coalition — but government simply ignored this.

In protest, Le Rassemblement asked its supporters to protest on April 10. The demonstration was banned by government, and no-one dared to take to the streets of the capital and other large cities, as these were patrolled by security forces.

However, keeping demonstrators in their homes is hardly a victory for government. Deploying security forces to stop people from legitimately voicing their disapproval merely underlines Kabila’s unpopularity.

"You can’t bottle up people’s anger forever — not in DRC," says a member of Kabila’s political coalition, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Eventually things are going to turn sour."

Insurrections have sprouted across the country, most notably in Kasai, where fighting between a newly formed local militia and the Congolese army has raged since July.

Last month, the UN peacekeeping mission (Monusco) said it had found 40 mass graves filled with the bodies of men, women and children. It remains unclear who is responsible for these massacres, but evidence points to state actors. Two UN experts, an American and a Swedish-Chilean, were also found in one of the graves, following their disappearance two weeks earlier.

The situation is becoming untenable for the international community.

Monusco, which has a mandate to strengthen state institutions including the army, is walking a finer line than ever before.

The murder of the two experts in particular has cast a long shadow on the mission’s work in an increasingly hostile environment.

For SA and members of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the situation is especially pressing.

"A new implosion in the DRC would have bad consequences for the development and security of at least half of the continent.

"There seems to be consensus in SADC that Kabila is no longer able to guarantee stability," says Berwouts.

What leverage the international community has is unclear. After the EU and several Western nations criticised Kabila’s decision to appoint Tshibala, DRC’s foreign affairs minister told them their ambassadors would be expelled if they did not mind their own business.

Whether this strategy will work in the long run is anyone’s guess, but Kabila has managed a sleight of hand that only a couple of years ago no-one thought him capable of. Opponents would be well advised to consider him capable of much worse.

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