The DR Congo’s political opportunity

Gérard Prunier
14 March 2007

The Democratic Republic of Congo two-round election on 30 July and 29 October 2006 marked an important step towards political normality in a country haunted by forty years of dictatorship under Mobutu Sese-Soko and, more recently, five years of war which cost 3.8 million lives between 1998 and 2003. After a major logistic operation which saw the election itself conducted effectively, an uneasy post-election atmosphere was characterised by continuing rivalries between the declared winner Joseph Kabila and his main challenger, Jean-Pierre Bemba.

After an arduous process lasting three months, which occasionally threatened to erupt into violence, a new cabinet was eventually declared on 5 February 2007. Its composition, and the events surrounding it, offer some clues about the DRC's possible political future.

A well-tempered cabinet

The process which led to the selection of a cabinet was long and difficult. There were four basic reasons:

  • after thirty-two years of dictatorship followed by five years of civil war and five years of political transition, the country had no experience of democratic politics.
  • the political chessboard is essentially ethnic and regional; every MP, senator, minister or governor is perceived first and foremost not as a citizen or the member of a political party but as belonging to a tribe, sub-tribe or provincial group
  • the political infighting of the late Mobutu years followed by the military conflict of the civil war have left deep scars and enmities which it is extremely difficult to begin to heal
  • a number of compromised and corrupt politicians had to be sidelined if the new government was to have a minimum of credibility
  • the government wanted a firm control of the political situation which it was hard to reconcile with a truly democratic dispensation; the result, as could be expected, leaned more on the side of authority than on that of openness.

The political sifting which eventually led to proclamation of a new cabinet on 5 February was hard and unavoidably imperfect. But the results are cautiously encouraging, in three ways:

  • the elimination of practically all the overtly corrupt politicians who belonged to the entourage of the president's late father, Laurent-Désiré Kabila
  • the inclusion of many largely unknown newcomers who refresh the political landscape
  • the prolongation in their jobs of some ministers, like General Denis Kalume at the interior ministry, who have suffered from a chequered reputation but have the tough hand necessary to ensure continuity.

There are also two more questionable trends:

  • too big a cabinet (six ministers of state, thirty-four ministers and twenty deputy ministers), albeit probably a necessary evil given all the necessary inclusions
  • the absence of any opposition personalities either from the defeated Bemba camp or from veteran politician Étienne Tshisekedi's Union pour la Démocratie et le Progrès Social (UDPS); worse , there are no Baluba from Kasai (Tsishekedi's tribe), something which risks marginalising this important ethnic group.

This latter point suggests a frankly unpleasant factor: the cabinet has too much the aspect of a "winner-takes-all" body. Through dubious manipulations, Kabila's Alliance pour la Majorite Presidentielle (AMP) has taken eleven provincial governorships and fifty-five of the 108 senate seats (governors and senators are indirectly elected by the provincial assemblies). It also has thirty-four ministerial positions. The executive branch, since it controls around 330 MPs (out of 500) and since parliamentary regulations voted in November 2006 specify that the commission presidencies will be chosen by majority vote, has ensured its almost total control over the whole government.

Gérard Prunier is research professor at the University of Paris and director of the French Centre for Ethiopian Studies in Addis Ababa. He is the author of The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide (C Hurst, 1995), Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide (C Hurst, 2005), and From Genocide to Continental war: The Congolese Conflict and the Crisis of Contemporary Africa (C Hurst, 2006)

Also by Gérard Prunier in openDemocracy:

"Darfur's Sudan problem"
(15 September 2006)

The Bas-Congo violence

Some of the shortcomings in the electoral process have already had tragic consequences. In the western Bas-Congo province, Ne Muanda Nsemi - leader of the Bundu dia Kongo (BDK) sect - aspired to become the provincial vice-governor (Bundu dia Kongo is a politico-mystical sect whose programme is the restoration of the sacred 16th-century Congo monarchy by seceding from the DRC and joining up with those Bakongo-populated parts of the Brazzaville Congo and Angola which used to belong to the old kingdom). Nsemi got the support of de facto opposition leader Jean-Pierre Bemba, whose men had a majority in the provincial assembly. But Kabila's men offered more money to the provincial MPs, who voted for the AMP candidate instead.

When the BDK leader called for a demonstration against what he aptly termed this "democratic corruption", the result was an ugly military confrontation between the sect's militiamen and the army and police, which used disproportionate means that resulted in 134 deaths. The AMP-controlled parliament refused even to investigate the events, and interior minister Denis Kalume did not have any questions to answer.

Since the sect is not very popular outside of its Bakongo tribal home area, the Kinshasa press did not seem too indignant about the massacre and implied that the BDK had it coming to them because of its confrontational politics.

The eastern conundrum

A more extensive problem facing the new government is the confused and tragic situation in the east. The east is where the war started and its intricate ethnic mosaic has not changed. What has changed though is the attitude of Rwanda's president, Paul Kagame, who may not have turned into a convinced democrat but has at least decided to let the Congolese stabilisation process run its course - and even tried to help it to some degree.

A major part of the problem comes from the fact that many of the militia actors in the east could not be accommodated in the democratic process and are now trying to parley their nuisance capacity into some kind of a settlement for themselves and their followers. First among those is former rebel general Laurent Nkunda, who rebelled against the government in November 2006 rather than joining the new "national" army. He was quickly defeated by forces of the United Nations Mission in DR Congo (Monuc), before withdrawing into the hills of North Kivu and attempting to negotiate. President Kabila sent a tough general, John Numbi to talk to him and Rwanda's President Kagame sent Nkunda's old comrade-in-arms, the legendary "Commander James" Kabarebe.

Nkunda is not the only disaffected warlord in the east. On the Itombwe plateau, the Munyamulenge rebel-turned-government-commander Patrick Masunzu has tried to eliminate his rivals, whom he accuses of still being in the pay of Kigali. The accusation is most probably spurious, but Masunzu has unleashed a cycle of violence among the tight and traditional (Tutsi) Banyamulenge community.

This threatens to upset peace in the east, both because the Banyamulenge often acted as the spearhead of rebellion during 1996-2002, a role which has left a lot of bad memories behind, and because Banyamulenge trouble has a regrettable tendency to bring back all the anti-Rwandese racist feelings of the easterners (the Banyamulenge are originally migrants from Rwanda who came into what is now the Congo in the 18th century, but were never fully integrated locally).

At the same time, an unexpected turn of events has been the temporary rapprochement of all the discontented warlords and local bands in the east. This often results in creating rather strange bedfellows, with viciously anti-Tutsi Mai-Maii groups like those of Padiri Kanero opening talks with (the Tutsi) Laurent Nkunda, and roving bands of outlaws like Mundundu 40 suddenly discovering their potential political relevance.

This situation is very difficult for the government to handle since as soon as it satisfies one group, all the others ask for the same treatment or else threaten to go back to war. In addition, satisfying some groups is inimical for others and recent government discussions with Masunzu have irked Babembe Mayi-Mayi leaders who brandished a supposed "Tutsi threat" to justify returning to the warpath.

The eruption of violent confrontation on 10 March in North Kivu between the DR Congo army and a Rwandan Hutu rebel group (the Forces démocratiques pour la libération du Rwanda / FDLR) - leading to the displacement of thousands of civilians - is a sign of how combustible the situation in the east remains.

Also in openDemocracy on the politics of DR Congo:

Nicola Dahrendorf, "Mirror images in the Congo: sexual violence and conflict"
(23 October 2005)

Tristan McConnell, "The Democratic Republic of Congo: living up to its name?"
(28 July 2006)

Tristan McConnell, "DR Congo's dangerous run-off"
(23 August 2006)

The SSR headache

This anagram means "security-sector reform" in UN-speak - and it is perhaps the main problem of the new government. The militias of the east are a nuisance for Kinshasa and a tragedy for the local population in the Kivus who suffer from their exactions. But the DRC's official army - the Forces Armees de la Republique Democratique du Congo (FARDC) - is in fact much more of a danger: not in political terms (it is too splintered and confused to be able to carry out a coup) but in social and security terms. This army is poorly paid, poorly trained, poorly integrated (it is composed of elements from the different armies which fought each other during the war), tribally divided and brutally treated by their officers who tend to steal the soldiers' pay. The army is only one notch up from banditry.

The official idea is called brassage (mixing), a quasi-magical operation which is supposed to give birth to a unified national army. Brassage is not working too well, for three reasons: the necessary trainers are not always available; the brassage's foreign sponsors (Belgium, France, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, South Africa and Angola) cannot agree among themselves about what to do; and that old Congolese nemesis, corruption, has wreaked havoc with the process (over $30m has "disappeared" from the demobilisation fund). The result is the non-resolution of the SSR issue and the danger of continued insecurity coming from both the disaffected militias and from an official military establishment which is not much more disciplined or professional than the militias themselves.

The situation then is worrying, if not yet desperate. Even with all the negative factors being taken into consideration, the DR Congo is for the first time since independence in 1960 capable of a real democratic transformation. But the distance to travel is still a long one.

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