President of the Democratic Republic of Congo Felix Tshisekedi in Brussels, Belgium, September 2019
Francois Lenoir / Reuters

It is never easy for the ship of state to navigate turbulent waters when two captains are battling for the helm, yet that is the fate that befell the Democratic Republic of the Congo for two years. In December 2018, as the country’s president, Joseph Kabila, wrapped up his 18 years in power, a disputed election led to an awkward power-sharing arrangement: Félix Tshisekedi, the leader of the oldest opposition party, succeeded Kabila as president, but Kabila’s allies gained an overwhelming majority in the country’s powerful parliament. Tshisekedi was relegated to the role of a symbolic president, unable to press forward on a popular reform agenda. Meanwhile, pro-Kabila elements controlled enough power to protect the former president’s interests.

At last, this unwieldy arrangement has come to an end. In December, Tshisekedi announced that his pact with Kabila had failed. “This sad conclusion comes after two years of tireless efforts and self-sacrifice,” he said. So began a thorough purge of Kabila’s allies. A prime minister and the leaders of both houses of parliament have now been forced out, and Tshisekedi has formed his own majority in parliament and installed his own prime minister. No longer must he appoint his predecessor’s allies to senior administrative positions or consult with Kabila to pass legislation.

Congo’s sudden power shift is as unexpected as it is momentous. For more than 30 years, the country has suffered through dictatorship and war. Its social and economic indicators have been in free fall, including a GDP per capita and an average life expectancy that rank among the lowest in the world. Congo’s courts and taxation system have been plagued by constant dysfunction. Its mining sector is hopelessly corrupt, robbing the state of royalties to the point where it often cannot afford to pay its civil servants and soldiers. Its police and military are unable to stamp out militias—with the February 22 killing of the Italian ambassador to the country, his bodyguard, and their driver being only the most recent headline-grabbing attack.

When Tshisekedi ran for president in 2018, he promised a radical break from the past, offering a new trajectory for a troubled state. Two years on, he finally has his chance to prove that he meant what he said.

TWO PRESIDENTS

Few predicted that the 2018 election would shake out as it did. Many observers had expected Kabila to arrange the victory of his preferred successor, but Tshisekedi was declared the winner instead. Martin Fayulu, another opposition candidate, challenged the victory and claimed that he had received the most votes—a conclusion that most outside observers shared. The surprise result fueled persistent reports that Tshisekedi and Kabila had struck a backroom deal: the former would be declared president, and the latter would still pull the strings. Indeed, after his inauguration, Tshisekedi was forced to install or retain close Kabila advisers on his foreign policy team and in key security positions.

Further complicating matters, Kabila’s coalition—the Common Front for Congo, known by its French initials, FCC—won a large parliamentary majority. That majority allowed Kabila to play a behind-the-scenes role in Congolese politics, and it was no secret that he harbored ambitions to run for president again in 2023. Tshisekedi thus began his term in a weak position: his legitimacy was contested, and his power was curtailed.

But the pro-Kabila majority in parliament was always more fragile than it appeared. Some of its members were decidedly unenthusiastic: they had joined the FCC before the election not out of any affinity for Kabila but simply because they saw no point in backing the opposition, believing that no anti-Kabila candidate could win. Others had conditioned their loyalty to the FCC on Kabila’s continued ability to distribute pork-barrel projects, but out of power, Kabila proved unable to provide this form of patronage. These were hardly the makings of a reliable bloc.

Kabila himself seemed to recognize the shallowness of his support, behaving as if the majority were about to slip through his fingers. In February 2019, for example, a month after Tshisekedi’s inauguration, Kabila had the heads of each party in the FCC coalition sign an oath reaffirming their allegiance to him and declare that their members of parliament were now officially “members of the FCC parliamentary majority.” In the short run, the gambit worked: by rechristening the parliamentarians who made up his fractious coalition, Kabila prevented Tshisekedi from triggering the constitutional process of identifying a majority in parliament, a process characterized by political bargaining and shifts in loyalty. But the fact that Kabila had to resort to a tactic that bordered on intimidation revealed just how weak his long-term grip on power was.

Congo’s sudden power shift is as unexpected as it is momentous.

The most dramatic sign of Kabila’s weakness emerged when Tshisekedi insisted on redefining the terms of his presidency. Originally, Tshisekedi was governing in what was called a “cohabitation”—meaning that the FCC had a comfortable enough majority to appoint its own government and carry out its own program, leaving Tshisekedi little more than a figurehead. But soon, Tshisekedi successfully shifted to a “coalition”—meaning that his allies would also have a say in forming a government and making policy. Indeed, the agenda that the government released included such programs as free primary education, universal health coverage, a fight against corruption, and a national truth-and-reconciliation program designed to heal a divided society. All these were campaign promises of Tshisekedi’s, suggesting that his group was more than just a junior partner in the coalition.

By fits and starts, Tshisekedi steadily consolidated his power as Kabila’s majority crumbled. After the pro-Kabila minister of justice tried to ram through a controversial law that would have eviscerated what little judicial independence remained in Congo, Tshisekedi forced him to resign. Tshisekedi created an anticorruption agency and placed it under his own authority, preempting efforts by Kabila’s supporters in parliament to establish their own Potemkin version. Tshisekedi prevented a Kabila ally from being appointed to Congo’s electoral commission, thus reducing the risk of flawed elections in the future. Perhaps most crucially, Tshisekedi managed to name dozens of officials to senior military and judicial positions without the FCC’s approval. The FCC protested that Tshisekedi was violating the power-sharing agreement he had struck with the coalition, but there was nothing it could do to stop him.

As important as these moves were in helping Tshisekedi accumulate power, they were small victories in the grand scheme of things, and the president realized that baby steps weren’t going to get him anywhere. He was still regularly getting blocked in parliament, and he found an almost insurmountable obstacle in the power-sharing agreement’s requirement that the FCC sign off on major decisions. But then he received an unexpected boost: Kabila overplayed his hand in parliament.

BREAKING FREE

To attend to his interests in the legislature, Kabila had arranged the appointment of Jeanine Mabunda, one of his most loyal associates, as speaker of the lower house of parliament. Because of the unusual setup at the time, with Tshisekedi in the presidency and the FCC controlling parliament, Mabunda found herself in an awkward position: she was both the leader of the majority in parliament and the leader of the opposition to Tshisekedi. The first role required her to keep the parliamentary machinery running and allow members to legislate. The second demanded that she obstruct the president’s agenda.

Forced to choose between these two incompatible postures, Mabunda chose the second, opposing Tshisekedi at every turn, threatening to impeach him, and blocking his reform agenda. Determined to serve the former president’s ambitions at all costs, parliament under her leadership neglected to perform its most basic function: legislating. In two years, parliament managed to pass only four laws. In the eyes of most Congolese, the majority had discredited itself.

The breaking point came in October 2020. Tshisekedi had just appointed three new judges to Congo’s highest court without the FCC’s approval. Alleging that the move was unconstitutional, Mabunda led the FCC in boycotting the judges’ swearing-in ceremony, writing a letter to Tshisekedi that even some of her allies would call “discourteous.” Tshisekedi had had enough. He announced that he was ending the coalition with the FCC and delivered an ultimatum to the legislature: either give me a new majority or I will dissolve parliament and call for early elections.

Members of parliament reacted more enthusiastically than Tshisekedi could have predicted. In December 2020, more than half the chamber’s 500 representatives voted to impeach Mabunda—thus making her the first speaker to be deposed by her own peers after she had made history as the first woman to serve as the speaker of the lower house of parliament.

Then, in January 2021, parliament ousted two more Kabila allies: the lower house passed a vote of no confidence in the government, removing Congo’s prime minister, Sylvestre Ilunga, and the upper house voted to remove that body’s president, Alexis Thambwe Mwamba. Meanwhile, Tshisekedi created his own majority coalition. At long last, he was free to pursue his own agenda.

THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF KABILA

At the beginning of his presidency, Tshisekedi was seen as illegitimate and weak at home and abroad. Both the Congolese public and key Western donors questioned his electoral victory and viewed him as firmly under Kabila’s thumb. Many wondered whether a changing of the guard had really happened. Today, Tshisekedi’s position has been strengthened and his stature enhanced. His allies now occupy the prime minister’s office and hold a majority in parliament. Now he can turn to the task of reforming the state.

There is a problem, however: in Congo, the most lasting reforms have been driven by parliament and civil society groups, not by the presidency. There is a long tradition of members of parliament exercising independent activism. Parties hold little sway over individual politicians, whereas civil society groups play a large role. The result is that political appointees are not the key to effecting change; the professional civil servants who answer to parliament are.

As a first step, Tshisekedi should spin off various agencies under his control and put them in their proper place. His anticorruption, financial oversight, and ease-of-doing-business agencies, for example, would all function better either as independent organs or as part of their appropriate ministries. To further push power out into the ministries, Tshisekedi should reduce the size of his staff and make sure that the advisers he keeps have adequate experience.

At the beginning of his presidency, Tshisekedi was seen as illegitimate and weak at home and abroad.

But because a great deal of power resides in parliament, that is the venue in which reform will have to originate. There is much the legislature can do. To clean up Congo’s military and police, parliament should hold public hearings on the issue, exercise vigorous oversight, and provide security agencies with stable, multi-year funding that would reduce the incentives for graft. To strengthen the independence of the courts, parliament should guarantee a permanent budget for the courts and accede to their persistent demand that it lift the existing system of immunity that prevents corrupt officials from being prosecuted. To protect future elections, parliament should enact proposed reforms that would make the electoral system transparent and the independent electoral commission truly independent.

Economic reforms will be particularly important, given that they would improve Congo’s standing in the eyes of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and other donors, which heavily supplement the country’s national budget. (In 2020, outside donors provided more than $300 million to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic alone.) To that end, parliament needs to replenish the treasury by improving tax collection. It should demand an audit of Congo’s revenue-collection agencies, the depoliticization of key leadership positions within public enterprises, and a rigorous application of the tax code to private businesses. Parliament also needs to pass legislation to give Congo’s various anticorruption agencies the financial resources and legal authority they need to guarantee their independence. In this, parliament should tap the expertise of civil society groups, which have acted as vital watchdogs when it comes to corruption.

Tshisekedi’s best bet now is to forge a real partnership with parliament, a collaboration that would give him a free hand to deliver on his agenda. But whatever path forward the president chooses, it will be his. With no one else to blame, Tshisekedi will rise or fall on the merits of his own leadership. He is alone at the helm.

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