Congo: reading Kabila’s silences – By Kris Berwouts


Joseph Kabila, President of the DRC – will he attempt to hold on for a third term?

On November 28th 2011, Joseph Kabila was elected for his second term as President of Congo’s Third Republic. The elections were so controversial that a climate of turmoil reigned on the streets of Kinshasa for months. The political situation was complex. Etienne Tshisekedi, Kabila’s main challenger, considered himself as the legitimate winner, as did many of his followers. Opposition and majority were not on speaking terms, but the situation was also very confused and tense within both groups.

The only way to move forward and keep the country on track seemed to be a technocratic government with low profile ministers. In April 2012, President Kabila appointed former Minister of Finance Augustin Matata Ponyo as Prime Minister – an office he still occupies despite recurrent rumours of a forthcoming government reshuffle.

The Concertations Nationales

These rumours became chronic after the Concertations Nationales the government organised in September 2013. President Kabila took this initiative to restore a sense of national cohesion, but part of the opposition refused to participate because they considered it to be fundamentally undemocratic and anti-constitutional.

But the concertations did take place. The closing session was held on Saturday October 5th and different recommendations were formulated on various fields of public life. Kabila announced the imminent formation of a government of national unity consisting of representatives from the current presidential majority, the opposition and civil society. The government would have the task of restoring peace and the authority of the state, consolidating national unity, supporting the decentralization process and the organization of elections and improving the social conditions of the population. A commission was established for the follow up after the concertations, led by the speakers of Parliament (Aubin Minaku) and the Senate (Kengo wa Dondo).

In the weeks after this declaration the national focus shifted once more to the military situation in the east. The Congolese army, supported by a new Monusco brigade with a larger mandate, managed to defeat M23. The military victory of the national army – something unheard of in Congo for many decades – caused a wave of optimism in the population and self-confidence in the government. But both the  optimism and self-confidence had to be put on hold until after December 30th 2013, when a series of curious but bloody incidents involving the followers of the shadowy self-declared prophet Joseph Mukungubila revealed that Kabila was facing a lot of frustration and discontent within the community his family originates from, the Balubakat of northern Katanga.

All of a sudden, the regime seemed to be vulnerable in the region where it was supposed to be strongest. The assassination of Colonel Mamadou Ndala, three days later near Beni, proved that the military victory did not mean that Congo now has a strong and disciplined national army, and that the genuine reform of the security sector remains a work in (very slow) progress.

No smoke at all

I traveled to Kinshasa in early March in an attempt to understand the underlying agendas and sensibilities on the political scene. I spent a lot of time with people from both the majority and opposition, diplomats and independent analysts. Everybody seemed to believe that the new government would be announced soon, probably at the opening of the parliamentary session in March.

The four people who had initially been cited for the office of Prime Minister were the governor of Katanga Moí¯se Katumbi, Kengo wa Dondo, Aubin Minaku and of course teh current Prime Minister Augustin Matata Ponyo himself.

Katumbi was the first to drop out: his potential appointment faced a lot of opposition from his own Katangan constituency. As a southerner, he would not get the required support from the north.

Minaku was another obvious possibility. He had already hoped that in 2012 he would  be appointed Prime Minister and insiders told me of his frustration when eventually Matata was chosen. His chances have increased by the fact that during these last few months Minaku has been the key figure within the inner circle of power in Congo and has the most regular and easy access to the President. But Minaku already holds an important and strategic office where he would not be easy to replace. As long as Kabila doesn’t have a obvious alternative as speaker of Parliament, it will be difficult to move him.

Kengo wa Dondo was very active and nearly omnipresent during the concertations and everything that followed them. But as President of the Senate he already has an important role. If something happened to President Kabila, Kengo is his constitutional successor. On top of this, the loyal opposition which took part in the concertations is crystalising itself around Kengo. It is unlikely that the position of Prime Minister would give him more power or glory than he has already. And Kengo knows, of course, that his decreasing eye sight and mobility would hinder him in the hectic role as leader of the government. So Kengo is very active in the talks, he wants to place his confidants in strategic positions, but is not at all sure that he has the ambition to become Prime Minister himself

For a period, Matata Ponyo seemed to be in posession of all the best cards. After all, he had not done a bad job as Prime Minister. Of course, his appointment two years ago had frustrated many of the party apparatchiks who had had ambitions themselves , and some of his reforms went against their material interests. He had been appointed because of his technocratic profile as a financial and macroeconomic expert, but now his lack of political experience and history inside PPRD counts against him. He can’t count on a lot of support within the party ranks. Recently he got involved in a public scramble with some of his ministers and with Albert Yuma of the Fédération des Entreprises du Congo (FEC) and looks much too isolated to lead another government.

President Kabila also considered reactivating his coalition partner PALU for the office of Prime Minister, which Gizenga and Muzito had done that for almost the entire first legislature. The most obvious candidate seemed to be the actual Minister of Budget Mkoko Samba, whose skills and competences are close to Matata’s. Mkoko Samba comes from the Bas-Congo, which did not get any key functions in the state for a long time. But as soon as Muzito heard that Kabila had received Samba, he mobilized the party to appoint himself instead of Samba as the PALU’s candidate for the office. Exit Mkoko.

Some weeks ago, there were two people in the running for the post. One of them was Jean-Claude Masangu, former Governor of the Central Bank. He is one of the Balubakat (together with Mulunda Ngoy and John Numbi) who recently lost much of his influence, his competence is however unquestioned. But of course, appointing him Prime Minister would be perceived by many inside and outside Congo as a reward for the prophet Mukungubila and whoever sent his followers into the minefield.

The man previously in pole position was Albert Yuma. As president of FEC he is considered “le patron des patrons” and this gives him an aura of independence. As president of Gécamines he knows the details of the contracts and the unwritten deals in the mining sector. Like Matata, he has his origins in Maniema province, and he has a technical/economic profile. But he belonged to the inner circle of the late Katumba Mwanke, Kabila’s senior advisor who died in a plane crash in February 2012. Yuma is also well connected in western capitals and with the IMF/ Worldbank.

People expected the government reshuffle to take place in March, at the opening of the parliamentary session. That did not happen. This has reduced Congolese and foreign observers to the crowd in Saint-Peter’s Square – waiting for the white smoke that announces a new pope. But while the believers see black smoke at least twice a day, we don’t see any smoke at all.

Kite flying

Of course the perpetual  non-reshuffle of the government is not the only subject for speculation and smokescreens. A lot has been said and written about the 2016 elections and whether it is likely or not that Kabila will try to remain in power by obtaining another mandate or by extending his present one.  Obtaining a new mandate would only be possible by a review of the Constitution – the present one does not allow the Head of State to go beyond two successive terms.

There are different options on how this might be done; for instance by removing the limitation on the number of mandates. Or by changing the way the President is elected from direct to indirect. If Kabila was to  be elected through indirect elections, that would be a new situation and a new first mandate. Interesting articles have been written on the issue, such as on Afrikarabia. There could be ways to extend the present mandate, for instance by postponing the elections  for technical reasons or lack of finance. Or by changing the length of a presidential mandate from 5 to 7 years and applying the change immediately.

Some people have suggested that Kabila could be interested in a Putin/ Medvedev scenario where a confident would become Head of State and Kabila Prime Minister for one term, after which he could become President again.  It is an interesting idea but there are three technical inconveniences to it: (a) Congo is not Russia, (b) Kabila is not Putin and (c) I don’t see an obvious Congolese politician who would take the chair, keep it warm for five years and give it back without complaining.

There is a lot of speculation going on which gives way to some fascinating kite flying with politicians and other public personalities through the media, personal initiatives or via an intentional leak to gauge how local and international public opinion reacts.

Talking to many people in the heart of the Congolese political life, I believe Kabila hasn’t made up his mind yet. He would probably be interested in staying where he is if it’s possible to do so,  but he realizes that this will be very difficult. Some clear signs have come from the international community, but these are not necessarily that important. Donor countries have insisted earlier and elsewhere  on the quality of the democratization process but afterwards they went quite far in accepting non-democratic practices.

Some signals came from different sections of Congolese society. The churches for instance spoke out clearly against a constitutional review to keep the President in office. Perhaps the most important reason to quit is that Kabila realizes that it will be very difficult for him to leverage the different regional poles of his power again. The prophet Mukungubila showed how fragile his position in Katanga is, Kamerhe’s trip to Kivu did the same in the east.

There are many examples to give from the past about how difficult it is for Kabila to communicate and to take decisions. This is also true today. At this point he has not said what he really wants and there is no indication at all that he is preparing a concrete scenario for his succession. Even his inner circle is forced to speculate.

But underneath all this speculating there is nothing concrete. Someone in Kinshasa told me: “If you want to understand Kabila, you do not only have to understand his words. You also have to be able to read his silences.”

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.

This article has been written with the support of the Pascal Decroos Fund for Investigative Journalism.

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