The National Consultations: Selling Out?

On Saturday, Joseph Kabila opened the Concertations nationales in Kinshasa with this speech, and the first plenary is supposed to take place today. But the political elite in Kinshasa is deeply divided, with some opposition members boycotting the proceedings. While the concertations were initially intended to foster national unity following the debacle of the 2011 elections, it now appears that they are more about positioning ahead of the upcoming 2016 elections.

How so?
While everyone in Kinshasa––indeed, in the country––has been enthusiastic about the talks, people have radically different understandings of what should be accomplished. There are broadly speaking three different groups:
  1. Some, especially those behind Etienne Tshisekedi’s wing of the UDPS, wanted to contest the very legitimacy of the elections and President Kabila. While Tshisekedi is probably inspired by the Conférence national souveraine of 1992, which elected him as prime minister, these are very different times and very few believe that an assembly organized by Kabila could bring about his ouster;
  2. Others wanted to use the forum as a means to push through national reforms––decentralization, security sector reform, elections. While the usual place for these debates is in parliament, some members of the opposition feel that they need to be included in the structures that oversee these reforms;
  3. A final group sees the concertations as an opportunity to enter into a government of national unity, which would see the opposition enter into government.

The proceedings, which are scheduled to last for 15 days, are beginning to confirm the third option. The president of the senate and a facilitator of the forum, Léon Kengo wa Dondo, has officially stated that the goal is a government of national unity. In private, his co-facilitator Aubin Minaku, the president of the national assembly, has confirmed this.

The goal of co-opting the opposition would not be to bring about national reconciliation or state reform. Persistent rumors have suggested that Kabila is considering setting up a commission to change the constitution to allow him to run for a third term in 2016. While this constitutional change itself would be unconstitutional (Article 220 forbids any messing with term limits), and the jury is still out on whether Kabila will go ahead with this plan, he could probably pull it off if the opposition is sufficiently divided and/or co-opted.
Initial indications would suggest that the talks are having that effect, as critics of the government are attracted by lavish per diems (one participant said they could be getting $200/day) and a possible place in the government. The MLC, the second largest opposition party, is attending, led by Thomas Luhaka, although the wing of Jean-Lucien Busa is baulking. And while Jean-Pierre Bemba has reportedly issued clear instructions to his parliamentarians not to enter into an alliance with Kabila, this could be a golden opportunity for some to line their pockets (there are good precedents: Kamitatu, Mwamba, Senga, etc. have jumped ship in the past).
A similar, smaller dynamic is underway within the UDPS. A group of somewhere between five and twenty UDPS MPs, led by Serge Mayamba, is taking part in the concertations, defying Tshisekedi’s orders. The civil society, meanwhile, is also divided, with some members participating and many others abstaining. And Léon Kengo, the leader of the UFC opposition party, is not only attending but is presiding over the assembly. It is only the UNC led by Vital Kamerhe that appears to be more or less united its opposition to the talks.
All this makes sense. For Kamerhe, who seeks to emerge as the main opposition candidate for the 2016 elections, this is a good opportunity to prove that he is a real opponent to Kabila (as a former Kabila loyalist, his credentials have often been questioned). For Kengo and Luhaka, this good be as good an opportunity as any to obtain a ministerial position. For Tshisekedi, the concertations will again prove that this government is made up of opportunists.
But, while the talks have only just begun, it would seem that the real winner may be Kabila, who could once again succeed in fragmenting the opposition by appealing to their self-interest. He may prove those Congolese pundits right who, with typical sarcasm, call the concertations “le monologue national,” or “extraordinary congress of the PPRD [Kabila’s main party]”.