In the Congo, Waiting for an Anti-Graft Drive That Never Comes

5 MINS READSep 16, 2019 | 10:00 GMT
Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi prepares to receive German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas in the presidential palace in Kinshasa on Sept. 5, 2019.
(KAY NIETFELD/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi prepares to receive German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas in the presidential palace in Kinshasa on Sept. 5, 2019. Tshisekedi is facing an uphill battle to tackle his country's widespread corruption.

  • The makeup of the Democratic Republic of the Congo's new government underscores the Kabila system's continued stranglehold over the country's political order. 
  • The old guard of former President Joseph Kabila is likely to resist efforts by the new government to clamp down — for either current or previous misdeeds — on corruption, thereby limiting efforts to root out graft.
  • Failure to reform the system will deter foreign investors and could sour the United States on the new president.

Eight months after Felix Tshisekedi was sworn in as the Democratic Republic of the Congo's new president, the country finally has a government — but it's old in all but name. Two-thirds of the Cabinet positions (or 42 of 65 posts) in Tshisekedi's government went to members of the coalition of former President Joseph Kabila, who continues to pull the levers of power in the giant country, while just 23 posts went to the new president's Direction for Change. In last year's presidential election, Tshisekedi ran on a platform of getting tough on the country's endemic graft — much of it committed by the members of Kabila's circle — but in his time as the Democratic Republic of the Congo's leader so far, he has hardly proven thrifty. Given his entourage's profligacy, as well as his powerlessness in the face of the Kabila circle, Tshisekedi's war on corruption might never get off the ground. That, in turn, might eventually lose him the one foreign backer that could make a difference against the old regime: the United States.

The Big Picture

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is a giant country in the heart of Africa. With a population of over 81 million, borders that touch nine other states, and some of the globe's most important mineral resource deposits, the country's trajectory will have an important impact on much of the surrounding region.

Old Faces in a New Government

Though the formation of a new government may suggest progress, there are signs of trouble brewing. For starters, a majority of those in the new administration boast no prior government experience. While some in Tshisekedi's camp have branded this an attempt to "clean house," many ministers from the Direction for Change have acquired little technocratic expertise to deal with the country's massive challenges, like rampant corruption, poor infrastructure, militancy and Ebola in the east, as well as ongoing frictions with international mining companies. And underscoring the enduring resilience of the Kabila system, the former president's allies have landed some of the most lucrative portfolios, like mining and finance, as well as the ones that buttress the old regime's power, like defense.

Still, the government has signaled its intent to press ahead with one of its 2018 campaign promises — fighting corruption. On Sept. 3, Prime Minister Sylvestre Ilunga Ilukamba unveiled a new government action plan to tackle some of the country's most pressing problems, including a new initiative to fight rampant corruption, money laundering and other related financial crimes. (The Democratic Republic of the Congo is frequently listed as one of the most corrupt countries in the world.) 

Spendthrift Ways

But a vast gulf separates announcing the plan from actually succeeding. Beyond the new administration's weakness in the face of the old system, Kabila's allies might have dug up enough evidence of the new government's financial misdeeds that Tshisekedi can scarcely move forward against graft. On Aug. 28, Reuters confirmed that the country's National Intelligence Agency, an institution that has helped underpin Kabila's rule for nearly two decades, requested permission earlier in the month to audit the expenses of Tshisekedi's interim government. The audit request might have represented a shot across the bow during the protracted negotiations between Tshisekedi and the Kabila clan over the formation of the new government.

Attempts by the new administration to fulfill its 2018 campaign promise and crack down on graft would elicit countermeasures from the old regime.

The interim administration has burned through its annual budget in less than half a year, with expenditures that included sending a delegation of over 170 people to this summer's African Cup of Nations soccer tournament in Egypt. Tshisekedi's chief of staff, Vital Kamerhe, has also attracted special scorn for several monetary transfers totaling roughly $15 million. While the exact nature of the transfers is unknown, speculation has grown that Kamerhe used the money to build up his political patronage networks ahead of the next election in 2023, when Tshisekedi has reportedly promised him a shot at running. The revelations provide the Kabila system leverage over the president and his circle of allies.

Regardless of the reasons for the missing money and the presidency's spendthrift ways, any attempts by the new administration to fulfill its 2018 campaign promise and crack down on graft — a move that would almost certainly target Kabila's allies — would elicit countermeasures from the old regime. And that will decrease the already slim chances that Tshisekedi's government will pay anything more than lip service to its anti-corruption drive in the months ahead. While the Democratic Republic of the Congo offers massive business opportunities thanks to a large and growing population that demands more infrastructure, enhanced logistics and better services, the prospect of increased foreign investment in such an environment is low given the reputational risks the country poses to any would-be investor.

In the longer term, the president's difficult position might lose him the backing of one of his most important foreign allies, the United States. Washington threw its support behind Tshisekedi after his contentious election on the condition that his administration begin chipping away at the Kabila system, but it could sour on the new president if he fails to make progress on reforms — depriving Tshisekedi of a critical backer against the old guard. But if Washington is willing to be patient with Tshisekedi, it might find itself waiting a very long time.

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