The stuff that politics is made of: palace intrigues, not upliftment

Politics in Kinshasa is in turmoil––the coalition between President Tshisekedi and Joseph Kabila has crumbled, leading to a radical reconfiguration of power in the country. In this season of political intrigue, however, little has been done to attend to the needs of Congolese people. Substantive discussions of how to transform the Congolese state and economy have been put on the backburner. Power, for now at least, is an end in itself, not a means for economic development or social change.

The logic within the presidential camp seems to be, as expressed to me by one of their allies in parliament: “We need to get power first, to get out of this clumsy coalition with Kabila, then we can roll our sleeves up.” Indeed, Etienne Tshisekedi’s motto “le peuple d’abord”––of which his son’s followers continuously remind him during rallies––has taken second stage to Kwame Nkrumah’s exhortation:  “Seek ye first the political kingdom and all else shall be added onto you.”

Political tactics do not a reform plan make

And Tshisekedi has been astonishingly successful with regards to his political emancipation. Two years ago, journalists were describing Kabila as the power behind the throne, and the opposition claimed that Tshisekedi was merely his puppet. After all, his election in 2018 is widely considered to have been illegitimate, and parliament, the cabinet of ministers, and provincial governments were all still dominated by Kabila’s people. But then, beginning early last year, Tshisekedi began wresting power away from his coalition ally. He shuffled army officers, named three new judges to the constitutional court, and changed the board of the largest state mining company. These moves culminated on December 10, 2020 in the ouster of Jeanine Mabunda, the president of the national assembly. Last week, the president of the senate was also pushed out, and Tshisekedi is expected to form a new government by March. According to diplomats, he will then take on the Central Bank and the electoral commission. He seems to be making good on his nickname, Fatshi Béton, the man of cement. 

But political tactics do not a reform plan make. Since the campaign trail, there has not appeared to be a comprehensive strategy for reforming the state, promoting economic growth and bringing an end to violent conflict. This is not to say that nothing has been done. Immediately after coming to office, the new president launched a massive infrastructure project––the programme des 100 jours. The government claims to have built or renovated 132 schools and 82 health centers, carried out major electricity and waterworks projects, and built a series of flyovers in Kinshasa––some of which were finally inaugurated In December 2020. And free primary education clearly became his flagship initiative, launched in September 2019 and succeeding––at least according to the World Bank, which was funding the program until it froze payments due to governance concerns––in enrolling 2,5 million new students in schools.

Félix Tshisekedi, président de la RDC, à Kinshasa, le 19 octobre 2019. Copyright : Flickr/Présidence RDC.
Félix Tshisekedi, président de la RDC, à Kinshasa, le 19 octobre 2019. Copyright : Flickr/Présidence RDC.

However, there are critical concerns with Tshisekedi’s reform plan. First and foremost, what is it? While the government published its Programme du gouvernement in August 2018, this was a bullet-pointed list of broad objectives, not a detailed plan for the legal, financial, and administrative means needed to get there. For example, the plan for dealing with insecurity in the eastern DRC includes “restore security in the northeast of the country,” and “rehabilitate the necessary military infrastructure.” 

Some of Tshisekedi’s speeches offer better clues. Staying in the security sector, for example, he he has said he will set up an advanced headquarters of the army in Beni, that he would open up new military academies, and that he is pushing for a new demobilization program to be set up (DDRCS: Désarmement, Démobilisation, Réinsertion Communautaire et Stabilisation.) But this is not tantamount to a plan, and few of the specifics are made available to the public. Today, with over 5 million people displaced in the eastern Congo, where around 120 armed groups are active, and with an increasing number of massacres, especially around Beni, this lack of a plan and a vision is deeply disappointing. 

Similar objections could be made about other sectors. The Congo is the largest producer of copper in Africa, the largest producer of cobalt in the world, and yet this country (population 86 million) has a national budget of around $5 billion, smaller than that of the city of Seattle (population 724,000)––an indication of how deeply unequal the globalized world continues to be. How could the Congolese government better leverage its natural resources to benefit its population? Over 70 percent of Congolese are involved in agriculture, and yet the agriculture ministry is allocated than 1 percent of the total budget. In some sectors, such as education and health care, there are plans that have been elaborated, often in conjunction with donors. But these are rarely debated in public and, as an evaluation of the education sector suggested, there is a “large number of planned reforms and the low likelihood that they will all be implemented.” Most importantly, most of these programs were elaborated by Tshisekedi’s predecessor and have not incorporated his own goals.

What about the organisation ?

The second challenge is organization. When Tshisekedi was still in a coalition with Kabila, his government had 66 ministers from over a dozen political parties. While there were regular ministerial councils, often chaired by Tshisekedi, many of his advisors complained that their reforms were being hampered by Kabila’s people. In order to push through his agenda, Tshisekedi started setting up parallel structures, mostly managed through his presidential cabinet. The most important such initiative was his controversial initial 100 day infrastructure plan, pushed through mostly before the power-sharing government was inaugurated in August 2019. Even though parliament never approved its budget, this program spent at least $488 and as much as $2 billion. Tshiskedi also announced the setting up a series of new agencies, some of which had mandates that overlapped with existing government structures: 

  • Agence congolaise de la transition écologique et développement durable
  • Agence pour l’amélioration du climat des affaires
  • Agence de la prévention et de lutte contre la corruption (APLC) 
  • Coordination pour le changement des mentalités
  • Conseil présidentiel de veille stratégique (CPVS)
  • Mécanisme national de suivi de l’accord-cadre d’Addis-Abeba (MNS)

This last agency, for example, has provoked grumbling from the ministries of interior and defense, as it has taken the lead in discussions around armed violence in the eastern Congo.

The CPVS, led by François Muamba, appears to be conceived as a means not of setting up a parallel structure, but of following up on the priorities of the president within the various ministries. All of this, however, and the fact that Tshisekedi has at least 160 members of the presidential cabinet, working on a list of approximately 80 priorities across various sectors––according to an advisor––has also hampered reform.

Outsized ambition

The final problem is money. The president has huge ambitions for the country, wanting to grow its economy by 25 percent a year, to provide free healthcare and education for all, and to bring an end to the violence. This outsized ambition can be seen in the financing of his projects, as well. Before he was elected, he said he wanted to create an army seven times larger than the current one, with 800,000 soldiers. He later said he would build barracks and improve living conditions for all soldiers and police. 

The reality, however, is that the Congo has no money. This is probably the steepest challenge to any reform effort. Even though Tshisekedi pushed for a budget of $11 billion for 2020, only around $5 billion in revenues came in. In 2019, the amount spent on salaries, servicing public debt, and the functioning of institutions, was 77% of the total budget, leaving less than $1bn for everything else the government was supposed to do. While this lack of funds does not absolve the government from failing to act, it is a massive constraint on its ability to act. How Tshisekedi’s new government intends to raise revenues beyond current levels remains to be seen.

But this is not what the focus of politics is in the Congo today. Court intrigue, not economic development or political reform, is the subject of most debate. That is not just the fault of the president––media, civil society, political parties, and donors need to keep their eyes on the prize. And that trophy ultimately is not political power but the public interest.