Kabila announces national reforms, a new government

Today President Joseph Kabila finally addressed the nation and a joint session of parliament in Kinshasa. It was his response to the conclusions of the concertations nationales, which had brought together the government, opposition, and civil society to debate the challenges facing the country. The concertations were a strange forum. Proposed by the opposition to deal with the legitimacy crisis following the flawed 2011 elections, then transformed to debate a wide array of challenges facing the country––except the 2011 elections––that would usually be addressed through traditional, constitutional means: parliament, or the court system.

Nonetheless, the concertations produced a substantial list of recommendations, and Kabila seized on several. Most importantly, he said that in the interest of national cohesion he would create a “government of national cohesion.” This probably differs from a government of national union in that the opposition and civil society members will be drafted in as unequal partners. But that is not surprising, as since the beginning it has appeared that the presidency wants to us the concertations as a means to further fragment (an already fragmented) opposition. We can therefore imagine that some MLC (close to Thomas Luhaka) and UFC (close to Kengo wa Dondo) members may join government. This is not a good thing, as it will undermine the opposition and also make the government––which had just begun to become a bit more structured under Prime Minister Matata Ponyo––less manageable.

Matata’s own fate was still in the balance as of this evening. Kabila had not made clear––nor did he mention in his speech––who would lead this new government, and a battle seems to be underway between the technocratic government of Matata and members of Kabila’s inner circle who have felt marginalized since Matata took over 18 months ago. Kabila’s choice seems to be between backing Matata, who is liked by some donors and is key for obtaining grants and credits in the international scene; and people like Aubin Minaku (president of the national assembly) and Evariste Boshab (head of Kabila’s largest political party) who have much more political clout in Kabila’s inner circle, and can help Kabila going into the delicate next 3 years, when he will have to figure out how to deal with his constitutional term limit.

But there were other important decisions (maybe we should call them exhortations) in Kabila’s speech. He asked for his prosecutors to clamp down on corruption and abuse of power, especially within the army, and to prosecute those supporting armed groups, “regardless of their social status,” and he said he would name a personal representative in charge of sexual violence and child recruitment. He said he would repatriate the bodies of Mobutu Sese Seko and Moise Tshombe, two controversial leaders of the country, in the name of national unity, and that his government would now follow-up (and provide assistance?) to Congolese citizens detained by the International Criminal Court. Importantly, he said he would also create specialized chambers within the Congolese court system to try war crimes and crimes against humanity, for which human rights activists have been clamoring for years.

That was all on a positive note. But there was another decision that could undermine the current constitutional framework. Backing up suggestions by the president of the election commission, Kabila said that he wants a general census to be carried out before the next elections, and that he wants provincial parliamentarians to be elected indirectly. A general census will require means and time, which could delay the electoral calendar. And having provincial MPs elected indirectly by local councilors will mean that senators and governors will be elected through two layers of indirect elections, each of which are susceptible to corruption. Finally, he said he would like to reconsider the proportional system of legislative elections, whereby several candidates are elected in most voting districts. If the Congo adopts a first-past-the-post, winner-takes-all system (as in the US) it will privilege the larger, more affluent parties, but will also reduce the current cacophony in the national assembly, where dozens of small parties turns legislating into cat-herding.

No word, however, in all of this, on how Kabila will deal with the debate––hotter by the month––over his own term, which ends in 2016 and cannot, at least on paper, be renewed.

Posted by Jason Stearns