Congo-Kinshasa: Felix Tshisekedi's Search for Real Power, Two Years On

Republic of the Congo President Felix Tshisekedi signs Secretary Mike Pompeo's guestbook before their meeting at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on April 3, 2019.
3 February 2021

On 27 January 2020, the Congolese parliament passed a motion of censure against Prime Minister Ilunga. The PM called the parliament's decision unconstitutional, but nevertheless offered his resignation two days later. The question now is whether President Tshisekedi will succeed in establishing a new government. On 10 January 2019, two weeks earlier, Felix Tshisekedi was unexpectedly declared the winner of the presidential election in the Democratic Republic of Congo with 38.6% of the vote, less than 700,000 votes ahead of Martin Fayulu (34.8%). FCC candidate Ramazani Shadary was third with 23.8%. But leaked data from the electoral commission's voting computers and data collected by the church's 40,000 observers gave an entirely different picture. According to these figures, Martin Fayulu secured a crushing victory with about 60% of the votes, with Tshisekedi and Shadary lagging far behind with around 19% each. Fayulu immediately challenged the results, but the constitutional court confirmed them.

It soon became apparent that the official results were the product of an agreement with outgoing president Joseph Kabila, in an effort to keep Martin Fayulu from power. Within this uneasy coalition, 'Fatshi', the new president's informal nickname, was the frontman, but his predecessor remained firmly in control. But in the last weeks of 2020, Tshisekedi redesigned the outlines. Is Congo moving towards a delayed but effective change of power?


Nothing has been made public about the deal between Kabila's FCC (Front Commun pour le Congo) and Tshisekedi's CACH (Cap pour le Changement). It would exist on paper, there is only one copy of it, signed by both parties in the presence of three African ambassadors. Most likely, precise quotas have been agreed upon for the division of posts, functions and responsibilities. The essence is that the Kabila camp retained control of the political institutions, the military and the key economic sectors. The main goal was to eliminate Martin Fayulu, Lamuka's candidate ('Awake' in Lingala), because political key players Moïse Katumbi and Jean-Pierre Bemba were part of this alliance.

Despite the blatant manipulation of the figures, the new coalition got away with it. African multilateral institutions, increasingly important players in Congo, eventually accepted the official electoral results. The new political constellation may have been a mockery of democracy without any guarantee for sustainable stability, but it was probably the only scenario for avoiding large-scale violence in the short run. It was obvious that the population would never accept FCC candidate Shadary being declared the winner, and the outgoing regime would never hand over power to Fayulu, with Bemba and Katumbi behind him. Shortly after the African endorsement, the West accepted the results as well.

The reaction of Congolese public opinion was equally pragmatic. People were relieved that Kabila had failed to obtain a third term in office and had been unable to have his crown prince Shadary installed as his successor. The fact that Kabila eventually made way for an elected opposition member without the country plunging into chaos was more than many people could ever have dared to hope for, even though everyone knew that this was not the result of a transparent democratic process.


On 24 January 2019, Felix Tshisekedi took the oath as fifth president of the DRC. He immediately gave signals that he had no ambition to act as his predecessor's marionette. With much intelligence and strategic skill, he defended and tried to expand the limited space at his disposal. The population gave him the benefit of doubt, because Tshisekedi promised that his presidency would make the difference in issues that directly touched upon people's daily lives: the bad social and economic living conditions, the fight against corruption, human rights and security in the East, among others.

What followed were months and eventually nearly two years of tug-of-war between the two camps within the coalition. Both Kabila and Tshisekedi faced discontent in their own ranks. The fact they had to divide responsibilities and lucrative posts between FCC and CACH made it difficult to satisfy the expectations of their constituencies. But the two main protagonists themselves could live with the cohabitation. Fatshi travelled extensively around the world raising support for 'his' regime, while Kabila seems confident to bring the presidency back into his ranks in the 2023 elections. It was unlikely that Tshisekedi would deliver on his promises, especially whilst Kabila's control of the country's political institutions, the constitutional court and electoral commission gave him the best cards to win that race.


Tshisekedi was aware that Kabila's confidants in the government were blocking his initiatives and reforms, and that by 2023 the voter would check him out on the untapped promises. Mid-2020, he launched an offensive against a number of institutions that had played a key role in manipulating the December 2018 elections. He succeeded: on 21 October 2020, three new judges took the oath at the constitutional court. As the supreme juridical instance and the ultimate executioner in electoral disputes, it was a cornerstone in Kabila's fortress, and it now slipped out of his hands.

Two days later, he stated that he would initiate a broad consultation round to mobilize a sacred union, 'a Union Sacrée', within the existing political landscape. In Kabila's camp, that punch was taken as a declaration of war. On 6 December, Tshisekedi made a speech, live on national radio and television, in which he made an end to the coalition with the FCC. Four days later, something happened that, some weeks before, no one could have imagined: a vote of no confidence against the very Kabila-loyal speaker in parliament Jeannine Mabunda was approved, despite the FCC's large majority in parliament. This was a political landslide. The changing power relations in the house of representatives also put PM Ilunga and his entire team at risk. The Congolese government had led an almost anonymous existence and its low profile prime minister had never shown credible leadership. His days were numbered.

Political transhumance

The dismissal of Mabunda became a turning point. Different sorts of FCC leaders and apparatchniks suddenly confessed themselves to the Union Sacrée. The trend was very clear at the national level, but in the provinces the evolution was as spectacular. Until recently they were regarded as solid outposts of Kabila's fortress, but within days 24 of the 26 provincial authorities declared themselves part of the new dynamic.

We must distinguish between two very different things. On the one hand, Kabila's political bastion is really crumbling. A considerable number of FCC MPs voted against their own leadership to oust Mabunda, which is very likely an expression of profound discontent within Kabila's own party PPRD and the broader FCC, uniting the political family beyond the party. Mabunda surely aroused quite a bit of resistance in her own ranks, but throughout the years, many FCC leaders have felt excluded from decision-making and presented with faits accomplis, including Shadary's nomination as the FCC's presidential candidate in 2018, and the decision to share power with Tshisekedi. For the time being, Kabila does not communicate. Not even internally.

But does this mean that Tshisekedi will succeed in laying a solid foundation in the loose sand of parties, fractions and splinter groups on which something new and sustainable can be built? That remains to be seen. Voting out the speaker of parliament is one thing; forming a new government that can make a difference with vision and efficient policy is quite another.

Tshisekedi's own party UDPS has noisy and demanding militants. Since the arrest and conviction of his cabinet chief, UNC leader Vital Kamerhe, the CACH alliance has been under serious pressure. And then of course Lamuka is an important player in parliament. Unfortunate presidential candidate Martin Fayulu continues to claim victory, others are eager to join the Union Sucrée ('sweet union' as Fatshi's demarche is sometimes called), while key leaders Bemba and Katumbi have been on speaking terms and are consulting with Tshisekedi, but they remained reluctant to join the Union Sacrée. Presumably because they do not think the chances of success are very high, they prefer to wait for the elections in 2023. In the first days of February, Katumbi's own party Ensemble and Bemba's MLC formally joined the Union Sacrée. With Fayulu's decision not to join, the Lamuka platform will probably lose most of its significance and relevance in the short run.

Meanwhile, the president has sent Modeste Bahati Lukuebo as informateur into the minefield. Bahati is a very shrewd politician, leader of AFDC, one of the largest parties in the Kabila camp, but at the same time someone who never shied away from the fact that he is not married to Kabila and can blow up the partnership if he thinks that his party or himself is not being heard enough. Apparently that moment has now come.

The question now is if, how and when Felix Tshisekedi will be able to transform this wide range of players and ambitions into a coherent government, preferably smaller that the previous governments, who can make the difference with a clear vision and efficient policy.

Things could evolve in different directions. One thing is certain, however: Congo is not going through a democratic boost. It's all very old school Congolese politics. Some speak of political transhumance. Transhumance is the seasonal migration of herders with their flocks during drier periods in search of pasture land. In Kivu, it is a regular source of tensions and conflict, since the cattle often has to pass through agricultural areas destroying crops. This often leads to violence between individuals, families and communities. The present changes in Congolese politics are not about values, vision or ideas, but about searching for greener pastures. Opportunism is the watchword. People who exercise power at a certain level see that power is shifting at a higher level, and they are moving along.

Where does the real power lie?

In Congo, as elsewhere, only part of the power lies in the political institutions. Before leaving office, former president Kabila made sure that he kept his grip on the army. Felix Tshisekedi tried to gain a foothold in the security services, but he cannot bring in his own military people because he simply does not have them. He proceeded with caution to avoid the risk of a coup d'état. But after two years of presidency, it is starting to be clear that he has succeeded in loosening Kabila allegiances in the military by making them feel he will defend their interests better than his predecessor. This process started with high-ranking soldiers who, like Tshisekedi, have their roots in the Kasai, but has been expanding to officers from other regions in recent weeks.

As to the question of economic power, during the 18 years of his presidency Kabila has become very rich and has built an impressive economic empire with his family. That remains intact until today. But as elsewhere in Africa, control of the state is also in Congo the preeminent instrument for gaining, maintaining and expanding control over the economy. Kabila is undoubtedly concerned about the future of his business interests. In 2017, José Eduardo dos Santos, in power since 1979, stepped down as President of Angola. He had done everything he could to maintain his economic grip, but less than two months after his successor Joao Lourenço came to power dos Santos's gigantic empire began to dismantle. All African rulers are very aware of this.

The role of the international community is also important. Tshisekedi was endorsed two years ago by African and Western partners, who now actively support him. This month, Tshisekedi is taking up his mandate as President of the African Union. He sought and found backing in neighbouring countries. Angola's support is very visible and tangible. But Fatshi gets the most explicit support from the United States. In the last years of his presidency, Kabila had turned his back on Western countries, and Tshisekedi now offers them the chance to be at the centre of the playing field again. With the flamboyant ambassador Mike Hammer in a leading role, the US is particularly eager to take advantage of this.

If predictability is an indication of normalization, Congo is still far away from home. Many Congolese told me: 'By now, we are accustomed to expect the unexpected.' This will remain a useful quality in Congo until further notice.

Kris Berwouts studied African linguistics and history, worked for 25 years for various Belgian and international NGOs, and has worked since 2012 as an independent researcher and commentator. He is the author of Congo’s Violent Peace: Conflict and Struggle since the Great African War published in the African Arguments series and numerous articles. In November 2020, he published ‘Mijn leven als mushamuka’ in Dutch. He received funding for his research on the change of regime between Kabila and Tshisekedi from the Pascal Decroos Fund.

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