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Leaked national electoral commission data showed Martin Fayulu had Democratic Republic of Congo’s presidency stolen from him in the 23 December poll won by Félix Tshisekedi Tshilombo (AE 384/20, 383/20). Ex-president Joseph Kabila Kabange’s candidate Emmanuel Shadary gained only 23.8% of the official vote – and unofficially much less – but politicians allied to now senator-for-life Kabila have since taken a dominant position in national and local government and parastatals.

Kabila’s Senate majority means he could have Tshisekedi impeached if he so wished. While he failed to have his candidate elected last December, adroit manoeuvring means Kabila supporters hold 342 of 500 seats in the National Assembly, 92 of 108 seats in the Senate and 20 out of 26 provinces.

During a mid-April visit to London, Fayulu asked how Kabila could have emerged so empowered. “Mr Tshisekedi is unable to meet the expectations of investors or give signs of good faith to the international community… Mr Kabila controls all the levers of power,” he told a meeting at Chatham House. While Tshisekedi has announced some initial measures – including a multi-sector emergency programme (AE 388/7) – he has yet to appoint a prime minister. According to Fayulu – who maintains he is still friendly with the new president – there is no premier because Tshisekedi is “not really president”.

A critical contested area is natural resources, where Kabila allies retain control. Former ExxonMobil executive Fayulu said DRC could regain control over its plundered resources by coupling “cool, clear responsible leadership” with the rule of law. Repeating figures that the Kabila family has $18bn-22bn stashed away, while the annual budget is no more than $5bn, Fayulu said the ex-president was still gaming the system.

A self-professed “social liberal”, Fayulu believes events in Algeria and Sudan show that peaceful mass protest can overcome even entrenched autocrats. But his opposition movement faces a tough task to persuade international opinion that the Tshisekedi/Kabila axis should be rejected and new elections held. Despite the widespread publicity surrounding electoral abuses, South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa called on all stakeholders to accept the result. Tshisekedi’s first trip outside Africa after his inauguration was to Washington in early April, in recognition of what the US State Department called “the country’s historic transfer of power”. Secretary of state Mike Pompeo praised Tshisekedi’s “change agenda”.

There have been rumours that some major backers of Fayulu’s coalition – including former Katanga governor Moïse Katumbi Chapwe – might be preparing to deal with the Tshisekedi administration. In exile since 2016, Katumbi could return to DRC as the appeal court has quashed a dubious three-year sentence and his passport has been restored. Fayulu himself sees “no area of cooperation with Félix [Tshisekedi]… I cannot betray the Congolese people”.

Tshisekedi may need significant international support, but also a speedy transition to more efficient, less corrupt government, if he is to deliver improved living standards and services. Eastern DRC remains troubled, amid tensions with Rwanda, South Sudan and Uganda, and conflict in Ebola-affected North Kivu where elections were cancelled, though the president’s savvy chief of staff Vital Kamerhe has a strong South Kivu constituency. Tshisekedi has yet to show he can curb abuses against local populations by government forces.

Problems Kabila at best contained will not go away under Tshisekedi. But neither will a frustrated Fayulu get his new elections; and nor is a peaceful and effective popular uprising likely. Kabila’s formal departure may have engineered an ‘historic transfer of power’, but the new government has much to do to show it was more than cosmetic.