On Friday 7th and Sunday 9th of February, the Congolese opposition leader Vital Kamerhe and a delegation of his party tried to take a plane from Kinshasa to Goma, to complete a tour through eastern Congo. The authorities prevented his departure twice. There was also a strange indictment against him for an old case of defamation brought by MP Wivine Moleka. It’s possible that Kamerhe will now face a trial and up to 3 years imprisonment. Is Kabila’s former right hand man now becoming public enemy number one?
The break from Kabila
I first met Vital Kamerhe in November 2009, eight months after he resigned as the President of National Assembly and two years before the pivotal 2011 elections. His position in Parliament had become untenable after he openly criticized the government’s alliance with Rwanda which included the integration of the CNDP in the national army and a joint military campaign (with Rwanda) against the FDLR (‘Umoja Wetu’). Vital Kamerhe did not believe that the alliance and campaign would bring sustainable peace.
He remained very quite after his departure. Both the international crowd in Kinshasa and Congolese public opinion speculated whether Kamerhe would decide to start a genuine opposition party. He told me he would, but the time wasn’t yet ripe to make his plans public. He made very few public appearances or statements but spent his time reading, mainly focusing on two subjects. First, he wanted to deepen his political vision (which I found very refreshing, in all those years of talking with would be politicians, I hardly met any who bothered much about political visions) and studied contemporary Latin American left-wing populists (especially Lula). Kamerhe saw a lot of parallels between Congo and Brazil. Second, he studied rhetoric and the great speeches in history – Lumumba of course, but also Lincoln and Churchill.
Presidential candidate for the UNC
In mid December 2010 Kamerhe organised a press conference in Kinshasa to announce that he would run for the presidency as candidate of the Union pour la Nation Congolaise (UNC). The next day he flew to Goma and then traveled to his hometown, Bukavu. A huge and noisy crowd gathered at each of these three occasions. That didn’t mean he would win the elections, but at least he had made clear that the 2011 elections would be entirely different from what we had seen in 2006. Kabila had won those elections because of widespread support for him in the east. Now that his 2006 campaign leader had decided to run against him things would never be the same again.
Two weeks earlier (December 2010), on the other side of the country, the old anti-Mobutu opposition icon, Etienne Tshisekedi, had made his own Glorious Entry into Kinshasa after years of absence – the people had gathered massively to welcome him. We seemed to be heading for interesting elections – a confrontation of ideas with an unpredictable outcome.
But this hope was shattered only one month later: in January 2011, the Parliament reviewed the 2005 constitution at record pace and turned the semi-presidential regime of the old Constitution into a more centralist system with greater power for the head of state. One of the implications was that the presidential elections would be decided over one round. The winner would, even with less than 50% of the votes, be sworn in as president. In practice, this meant that the opposition had little chance of beating Kabila unless they united around a joint candidate well before the first and only round. This narrowed down the clash of ideas to an enervating game between big egos looking for the best starting position.
Kabila eventually won with 48.9% of the vote, Tshisekedi obtained 32.3 % and Kamerhe was third with 7.7% . This result was so contested that the country lived for weeks on the brink of implosion.
Walking on egg shells
We are now about halfway through the current legislature and theoretically the third presidential election of the Third Republic should take place at the end of 2016. 2013 was a tumultuous year in Congo – not only was the country engaged in the war with M23, but the leadership of the electoral commission (CENI) changed. Daniel Ngoy Mulunda had chaired the CENI since 2011 but was held responsible for the chaotic course of the last elections and for their negative consequences for the regime’s legitimacy. In June 2013, he was replaced by Abbé Apollinaire Malu Malu, who had organised the elections of 2006 which received much better marks from national and international observers.
Not only does Malu Malu have to organise transparent national elections in 2016, he also has to finalise the current election cycle. Provincial elections haven’t been held since October 2006 and the local elections were simply cancelled in 2006. To organise constitutionally legitimate elections in 2016, the local and provincial elections of the 2006 electoral cycle should take place first.
Meanwhile, the regime seems to be struggling with its own internal balance of power: the military victory in November 2013 against M23 brought the country, its citizens and its leaders into some kind of winning mood, especially because it was facilitated by its own national army. However, the assassination of the influential Colonel Mamadou Ndala on January 2nd was an indication of the continuing necessity for army reform. Best evidence indicates that the colonel was slaughtered as the result of an internal reckoning within the army itself. The fact that the FARDC has achieved a major success does not necessarily imply that the country has the unified, efficient and disciplined army that it needs. Achievement of this will be a much more complex and slow process.
The regime also has to sort out two important questions. First, who will be their candidate for the 2016 presidential election? President Kabila, who succeeded his father as head of state in 2001, was president during the transition from 2003 to 2006 and then was elected twice as President of the Third Republic. Kabila wouldn’t be the first ruler in the region to juggle with the constitution in order to eternalise his regnum, but there are indeed indications that Kabila is serious about preparing for his departure at the end of his current mandate. In that case, a successor needs to be identified. Several people are now finding themselves eligible for the job including the current president of Parliament Aubin Minaku, his predecessor Evariste Boshab, the governor of Katanga Moïse Katumbi, Prime Minister Augustin Matata Ponyo and even his predecessor Alphone Muzito.
The second question concerns the balance between the regime’s regional pillars. The strange and dramatic incidents around the self-proclaimed prophet Joseph Mukungubila on December 30th 2013 at least made one thing clear: some leaders of the Katanga province, where the roots of the Kabila dynasty lie, are afraid of being marginalised. This is quite remarkable in view of the fact that the province has eight ministers and a deputy minister in the national government, but it is also true that leading personalities from Katanga such as John Numbi (ex-chief of police), Jean-Claude Masangu (ex-governor of the Central Bank) and the already mentioned Mulunda Ngoy (ex-chairman of the CENI) recently left very prominent offices. The inner circle of power in Congo will have to negotiate the upcoming months with great care and determination if they want to go to the 2016 elections with ranks closed.
Curiously, there seems to be little room in this picture for the opposition. The UDPS, the party of Kabila’s main 2011 opponent, Etienne Tshisekedi, has lost all cohesion. Immediately after the elections, the party became divided over the question of whether the elected MPs should or should not take up their mandate. In the two years since then, each of the camps went through more internal divisions. At this moment, the party lacks leadership able to bring the different factions of the party back into one vision and plan.
The party of Kabila’s main opponent in 2006, Jean – Pierre Bemba, is paralysed by the uncertain future of its leader, still held by the International Criminal Court and waiting for the outcome of his trial (he is accused of war crimes in the Central African Republic). His party remains somewhat adrift, hesitating between genuine opposition and trying to get on board in the next government reshuffle, announced in September. The Constitution sees Bemba’s official function as leader of the opposition, but this office has not been filled in since the elections.
An inconvenient opponent
Within the landscape of political opposition, only Vital Kamerhe has managed to keep his reputation intact. His faction in parliament remained consistent and some of the new MPs with a civil society background (like Kizito Mushizi from Bukavu and Juvenal Munubo from Walikale) developed into hard-working and competent backbenchers. The harassment of Kamerhe and his colleagues is an indication that the regime fears that he might capitalise on its current unpopularity in eastern Congo.
The defeat of the Rwanda-backed M23 rebels should also be seen as part of the Framework Agreement which was signed a year ago in Addis Ababa. But there is some more homework still to be done: Congo committed itself in Addis to reforming the security sector, to democratising its institutions and to establishing an efficient and transparent administration. I am not sure how the harassment of Kamerhe fits into this programme… At least the European Union did not consider it to be an encouraging signal; they immediately released a statement expressing worries about the travel restrictions that certain opposition leaders, including Kamerhe, are facing.
But what is the impact of such statements, now that the immediate threat of the war is over and now that the main donors (World Bank, EU, UNDP) just signed off on their contributions for the coming years?
We might know more reasonably soon as it’s likely that Kamerhe will present himself at the airport in another attempt to reach eastern Congo and its electorate.
Kris Berwouts has, over the last 25 years, worked for a number of different Belgian and international NGOs focused on building peace, reconciliation, security and democratic processes. Until 2012, he was the Director of EurAc, the network of European NGOs working for advocacy on Central Africa. He now works as an independent expert on Central Africa.
Kris’ current field research is made possible by a working grant of the Pascal Decroos Fund for Investigative Journalism.