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The Perils of Factions: Congo Edition

Alexander Hamilton and James Madison famously argued that factions were one of the greatest dangers to American democracy. This week, we learned of the Congolese analogy––in contrast with the American variety (in the 18th century), Congolese factionalism sprang from the elites, as President Kabila continued to peel off former leaders of the UDPS in his effort to undermine the opposition. On Saturday, he named Bruno Tshibala as prime minister, replacing another former UDPS leader, Samy Badibanga, who had only been in power for five months.

In response, the Rassemblement, the main opposition coalition, called for nationwide protests in the streets yesterday. Cowed by repeated crackdowns––protests in September and December 2016 were brutally repressed, leaving dozens dead––people chose to stay at home instead, paralyzing downtown Kinshasa by simply not showing up for work.

It’s the usual playbook: co-opt and coerce. There are few veteran UDPS stalwarts left around its new leader, Felix Tshisekedi––the past few years have seen such leaders as Moleka, Shabani, Mavungu, Tshibala, Badibanga, and Mubake jump ship. In the meantime, it will be difficult for the remaining leaders to mobilize a population in the face of repression. (The younger Tshisekedi’s decision to leave the country on the day of the protests after having called for mass mobilization will hardly help.)

The remaining pressure will now come from foreign donors, many of whom have been bitterly critical of Kabila. The local European Union delegation denounced the « lack of consensus » surrounding the new prime minister, and said that his nomination went against the letter and spirit of the December 31, 2016 agreement. The Belgian and French governments reacted in similar terms, whereas the US statement was slightly milder (they didn’t explicitly note the violation of the New Year’s Eve deal).

However, fissures are already opening up. The UN peacekeeping mission was much softer in its statement, which simply took note of the nomination and encouraged all parties to find a consensus. The African Union has chosen to wait until after Foreign Minister She Okitundu meets with senior officials in Addis Ababa. The Catholic Church, which worked tirelessly to broker the New Year’s Eve deal, has not commented.

A new chapter is opening up in Congolese political history. If the political process collapses entirely, it will lead to radicalization and the erosion of institutional legitimacy.