Kabila’s musical chairs: at last a government of National Cohesion in Congo – Interview with Kris Berwouts and Gie Goris
On December 8th, the political chessboard in Kinshasa was reorganised. President Kabila finally installed the Government of National Cohesion that he originally announced fourteen months ago. Kris Berwouts (KB) formulates his first impressions with Gie Goris (GG) of Mo Magazine.
GG: Why did Kabila feel the urge to reshuffle his government so thoroughly?
KB: The outgoing government had been installed in May 2012, a few months after the highly contested elections of 2011. It was a technocratic government and the key personalities of the political scene remained absent. At that moment, this seemed the only way to move forward and out of the political impasse.
In October 2013, Kabila had announced a Government of National Cohesion but he had difficulties finding the necessary regional and political balance to make the new government a reality. The fact that it took several attempts to form a new team became a major sign of the Kabila regime’s vulnerability and gave way to endless speculation, including about the person who should lead it as Prime Minister. The more difficult it proved to replace Prime Minister Matata Ponyo, the higher the chances grew that he would, in effect, succeed himself.
GG: The new government is finally there. Will it be able to create national cohesion around the president?
KB: The new government was eventually installed, fourteen months after it was announced. And Matata Ponyo is still Prime Minister even if he seems weaker than he was: he has lost much of the direct control over the finances. The ‘national cohesion’ of this new government is found in the fact that ministerial responsibilities have been given to ten people from the opposition.
It is obvious that, this time, the political heavyweights are on board: several party leaders became minister. It seems a solid team but its cohesion will be proven (or not) by the fact that there is a concrete plan and a clear vision on how to deal with the 2016 elections. Thus far, Kabila has not expressed his feelings, ambitions or plans regarding the elections: will he respect the constitution and leave his office after two terms or will he try to stay in power as suggested by an important part of his entourage?
GG: For the second option, the constitution needs to be changed?
KB: Over the past year, quite a few people around Kabila took an initiative or launched ideas through a press leak to gauge how local and international public opinion would react to the scenario of maintaining Kabila in power. This group was led by Evariste Boshab, the Secretary-General of Kabila’s PPRD, who has now become vice Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior and Security.
Since September 2014, the advocates of a constitutional amendment to enable Kabila to stay seem to have lost momentum. They had apparently underestimated the opponents of constitutional change. Not only did important voices of public opinion speak out against any juggling with the constitution, also the international partners clearly expressed their non-acceptance of any scenario to eternalize Kabila’s reign.
But above all, there is a growing resistance to such a scenario in the majority itself. Even within his own PPRD and also in his home province of Katanga. The fact that Kabila finally managed to install this government could create a new wave of optimism within the camp that defends the constitutional change, but that remains to be seen. Congo’s political landscape is very complex and fragmented.
GG: Is this complexity the reason they created the function of vice-prime minister?
KB: Boshab is not the only vice-prime minister, there are three of them. The others are Thomas Luhaka of the MLC and Willy Makiashi of PALU. That function did not exist in the outgoing government. I don’t believe that a vice-prime minister has a lot of power, but the role is important to give visibility and identity to the new government, both in geographical and political terms.
Boshab for instance comes from the Kasai, which is Tshisekedi’s background as well. Making Boshab vice-PM anticipates criticism from the Kasai that they have been excluded from power.
Thomas Luhaka was born in the east but spent most of his career in Kinshasa, and the third vice-PM, Willy Makiashi, is from the western province of Bandundu. This is equally crucial for a government which has its power base in the east of the country. The fact of having two vice-PMs from parties with a real capacity to mobilise people in the streets of Kinshasa (Luhaka/ MLC and Makiashi/ PALU) also seems an important strategic choice to anticipate riots and uprisings in the capital. The recent events in Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso) might have been a source of inspiration.
GG: Isn’t it remarkable that Jean-Pierre Bemba’s party MLC also contributes a vice-PM?
KB: Indeed, the MLC’s Secretary-General Thomas Luhaka stepped on board as vice-Prime Minister. Jean-Pierre Bemba was Kabila’s ultimate challenger in the 2006 elections and in 2008 he was arrested and jailed by the ICC in The Hague, accused of crimes against humanity in the conflict in the Central African Republic.
The fact that MLC provides one of the vice-PMs will contribute to the perception that this government is open, broad and inclusive, but we shouldn’t forget that Luhaka is not the real party leader. He essentially keeps the chair warm for Bemba who continues to manage the party from The Hague. There is a realistic possibility that the ICC will not have sufficient evidence to condemn Bemba for the crimes he is accused of, and in that case he might step into the political ring. That will be a decisive moment for the MLC, much more than Luhaka serving as vice-PM in the new government.
GG: One of the main challenges for the Congolese government will be security. Will this reshuffle have an impact on the army ?
KB: Not really. The new interior minister is the Secretary-General of the PPRD and the new Minister of Defense Ngoy Mukena comes from the same ethnic community as Kabila. He is believed to be close to John Numbi, who used to be one of Kabila’s key advisers until he was removed because of his alleged involvement in the assassination of human rights activist Floribert Chebeya in 2010. Since then, Numbi has been frustrated because he has not been rehabilitated. Congo has a difficult moment coming with sensitive elections in 2016. It is also obvious that the army will be a major force to be taken into account. But the reality in Congo’s context of post-conflict is that politicians do not have the lead on decisions regarding the army and security. These matters are directly dealt with by the presidency through parallel chains of command which bypass the government.
Ps: Three hours after this interview, it became painfully clear how fragile political parties are in Congo, and how ambiguous the internal situation of MLC is, when the three new MLC ministers, including vice-Prime Minister Thomas Luhaka, were excluded from the party by other party officials. It is not entirely clear who gave them the mandate to do this.
Gie Goris is editor-in-chief of MO*. This independent Belgian magazine and website is focused on global trends and international news. Goris has been working in global journalism for the past 25 years, with most of his journalistic work focused on culture, conflict and development. In 2011 he published a book on the conflicts in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Kashmir.
Kris Berwouts worked 25 years for different Belgian and international NGOs focused on building peace, reconciliation, security and democratic processes. He now works as an independent expert on Central Africa. He is currently writing a book on the conflicts in eastern Congo to be published in 2015 by ZED Books.