‘A Seed Sown Among Thorns’: Tshisekedi’s DRC One Year On

After a year in power, is the presidency of Felix Tshisekedi fated to fulfil the old adage: ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose’?

900,000 refugees and 500,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) still in a state of flux within Congo’s borders. A nationwide measles epidemic that has killed 6,000—double the Ebola death toll. Ongoing atrocities against civilians, with massacres in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) perpetrated across the last fortnight. Foreign aid barely staving off cataclysmic famine. An ongoing Ebola crisis that continues to sow discord and which has provoked hundreds of attacks on aid workers. Such are the problems that continue to beset the Democratic Republic of Congo.

This reality is in stark contrast to the optimism that prevailed following Tshisekedi’s election. Victory for Tshisekedi was supposed to represent a hopeful future for one of Africa’s largest and potentially wealthiest nations. Freedom from dynastic despotism and an increased concern for human rights were heralded as key policies on the new government agenda. Increasingly; however, this vision appears to have become more fantasy than reality. Despite Tshisekedi’s Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) holding the executive, its governmental authority hinges upon a power-sharing agreement with former President Joseph Kabila. Kabila’s Front Commun Pour Le Congo (FCC) holds a parliamentary majority, and in May 2019 was responsible for electing Congo’s prime minister, Sylvestre Ilunga. The FCC governs appointments to the ministries of finance, defence and justice. Kabila acolytes within these key departments, and among the Congolese top-brass, make a mockery of Tshisekedi’s claim to independent rule.

“The prevailing opinion here in the east is that Tshisekedi has the will to change things but that he does not have all the power of the president, given the power-sharing with the FCC.” This, according to one resident of South Kivu, reflects a fairly widespread assessment of the current situation. “In terms of social management, we see no change because he [Tshisekedi] and his entourage act in the same way as the old regime[…]Corruption embezzlement and impunity continue.” These views are mirrored by Edward Kisiang’ani, a political historian at Kenyatta University in Nairobi. “Joseph Kabila is still in charge of Congo[…]People should not expect any meaningful reforms in such a government setup where Kabila’s allies still control government apparatus.”

However, some believe that Tshisekedi’s government merits greater credit. Infrastructure improvements in Kinshasa and free primary education have both won praise—mostly in pro-Tshisekedi areas. A Kinshasa resident describing the easing of  education costs was full of praise for the policy: “the joy we have is indescribable.” Politically, Tshisekedi’s approach to governance has also shown some marked improvements. In March 2019, Tshisekedi ordered the release of 700 opponents to the former Kabila regime, a significant divergence away from the repressive policies of his predecessor. Nevertheless, in January 2020, riot police in Kinshasa forcefully suppressed anti-government demonstrations, using tear gas to disperse supporters of Martin Fayulu (who has protested claims of electoral fraud since his defeat in the 2018 election).

So what can Tshisekedi do to fulfil the aspirations that buoyed his accession to the presidency little over a year ago? It seems imperative that he obtains greater independence from the Kabila cabal. Working in partnership with the UN, Tshisekedi must also do more to securitize eastern Congo. While rebels and regional interlopers continue to destabilise the Kivus, reconstructive and reconciliatory development remains unlikely. The removal of corrupt armed forces officials, alongside tighter regulation of the army’s integration of former rebels, is urgently required. Finally, Tshisekedi must work collectively with the international community and regional neighbours, terminating the ruinous exploitation of Congo’s vast natural resources. Only time will tell if these aspirations can truly become a reality.

Sam Peters