By Kris Berwouts*
On 15 February, President Felix Tshisekedi appointed Jean-Michel Sama Lukonde Kyenge as the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) new prime minister. A 43-year-old politician and former director of the state-owned mining company Gémacines, Sama Lukonde’s promised in his first statement to prioritise security in the eastern Congo and his home province of Katanga.
Tshisekedi’s appointment came faster than most expected. It was only at the end of January 2021 that the previous government had collapsed, following a parliamentary motion of censure against Prime Minister Sylvestre Ilunga and his resignation two days later. This departure had marked another political victory for an ascendent Tshisekedi who, since unexpectedly being declared the winner of the presidential election two years ago, has gradually managed to wrest control from his predecessor.
By appointing his own choice of prime minister with Sama Lukonde, Tshisekedi has fulfilled another important ambition. Former president Joseph Kabila is far from powerless now, but much of tight control that he managed to retain when stepping down in 2019 have been wrested from him. He no longer dominates the DRC’s legislative and judicial branches.
By playing old school Congolese politics, Tshisekedi has come a long way in emerging from the shadow of Kabila’s 18-year reign. But his next set of challenges are arguably just as complex and fraught as those he has overcome in the past two years. Sama Lukonde’s appointment may be a canny move, but will it be enough?
How Tshisekedi took control
Tshisekedi took office in highly unusual circumstances following the December 2018 presidential elections. According to leaked data from the electoral commission and the Catholic Church’s 40,000 observer mission, opposition leader Martin Fayulu won the vote with about 60%, followed by Tshisekedi with 19% and the ruling party candidate Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary a shade below that.
The official results were wildly different. They claimed that Tshisekedi was the narrow victor with 38.6%, followed by Fayulu with 34.8% and Shadary on 23.8%. This announcement was initially surprising. Fayulu was reportedly the true winner, while Kabila had been harnessing his vast power to get his dauphin Shadary elected. It soon became apparent, however, that Kabila and Tshisekedi had struck a deal behind the scenes.
Calculating that imposing the unpopular Shadary on the country would spark widespread protests, Kabila decided to allow Tshisekedi to become president. He would allow a transition to an opposition figure to take place, but at least avoid his nightmare of Fayulu – along with his powerful alliance partners Moïse Katumbi and Jean-Pierre Bemba – taking power. The exact arrangement remains secret, but likely involved agreements regarding the division of posts, functions and responsibilities.
Despite the blatant manipulation of the election, Kabila and Tshisekedi got away with it. Perhaps seeing this arrangement as the only way to avoid violence in the short run, African multilateral institutions, Western partners, and the Congolese public reacted pragmatically. Following years of uncertainty and unrest, they were relieved to see Kabila make way for an opposition politician. On 24 January 2019, Tshisekedi was inaugurated.
What followed was months of political tug of war, with both men struggling to please their supporters given the more limited number of lucrative posts to go around. Tshisekedi travelled extensively raising support for his new regime. Meanwhile, Kabila seemed focused on bringing the presidency back into his ranks in the 2023 elections. The former president had maintained his control of the country’s political institutions, constitutional court and electoral commission. Moreover, his allies in government blocked Tshisekedi’s reforms, ensuring the new president could not keep his electoral promises.
In mid-2020, however, Tshisekedi began fighting back in earnest. In October, he managed to appoint three new judges to the constitutional court, removing Kabila’s grip on the arbiter of electoral disputes. A few days later, he announced broad consultations into the establishment of a new political alliance known as the “Union Sacrée”. On 6 December, he declared that his coalition with Kabila’s political coalition, the Front Commun pour le Congo (FCC), was over. Four days later, parliament passed a vote of no confidence in Jeannine Mabunda, the pro-Kabila speaker of parliament, despite the FFC’s large majority. Several members of Kabila’s political coalition, along with 24 of the DRC’s 26 provinces, declared themselves to now be part of Tshisekedi’s Union Sacrée.
A whole new world?
By appointing Sama Lukonde, Tshisekedi now has an ally with a technocratic background and significant political experience as his prime minister. Sama Lukonde was previously a sports minister under Kabila before joining the opposition G7 platform in 2015. That coalition was led by the influential former Katanga governor Moise Katumbi, who welcomed Sama Lukonde’s appointment.
Tshisekedi who will be hoping that his new prime minister can use his understanding of the workings of Congolese politics to play an important connecting role. So far, reactions to his selection have been positive. Nonetheless, the president and prime minister will face several tough challenges up ahead.
Tshisekedi’s own party, Union pour la Démocratie et le Progrès Social (UDPS), has noisy and demanding militants. His broader political coalition, Cap pour le Changement, has been under heavy pressure since the arrest and conviction of Vital Kamerhe, the leader of the UNC party and Tshisekedi’s former chief-of-staff. Katumbi and the influential former vice-president Jean-Pierre Bemba have finally joined the Union Sacrée, but the likely winner of the 2018 elections Martin Fayulu has not.
The question now is how Tshisekedi and Sama Lukonde can transform this wide range of players and ambitions into a coherent government able to enact a clear vision and pass policies that will benefit the population.
At the same time, Kabila is not yet down and out, and it will take further efforts for Tshisekedi to further limit his power. The former president’s grip on the army, for instance, is still strong. Tshisekedi lacks his own military allies to bring in, though he is gradually succeeding in loosening support for Kabila by persuading key military figures that he can defend their interests better than his predecessor. This process started with high-ranking soldiers who, like Tshisekedi, have their roots in Kasai, but is expanding to officers from other regions. Kabila also still oversees an economic empire with his family. As in many countries, however, control of the state is the preeminent instrument for gaining, maintaining and expanding economic power.
Internationally, Tshisekedi is also on the ascendency. He has just taken up the mandate as Chair of the African Union. Meanwhile, he has visible and tangible support from neighbouring Angola and Western countries, in particular the US.
There is no doubt that Tshisekedi has outmanoeuvred Kabila over the past few months. Contrary to some expectations, he has dismantled much of his predecessor’s power and successfully imposed himself on the country. It is important to note, however, that none of this is necessarily a victory for the Congolese people or democracy. Tshiskedeki has simply outplayed his opponent in a game of old school Congolese politics.
The next question therefore is key. With his newfound freedom and space, will President Tshisekedi be able to form an effective government with the vision and capacity to implement policies that will meaningfully improve security, governance and the socio-economic living conditions of the people? This question is crucial for Sama Lukonde too; from now onwards, everything that goes wrong will be considered his fault.
*Author of Congo’s Violent Peace: Conflict and Struggle since the Great African War published in the African Arguments series and numerous articles.