The United States is turning over a new leaf with a troubled African giant. New Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi visited Washington last week in a sign that his hosts are willing to reset relations after a controversial election. The move makes sense: For Washington, Tshisekedi's election marks a potential turning point in the history of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, an important country that has abundant mineral resources, as well as profound security and economic challenges. But despite enthusiastic talk of bolstering ties between Washington and the new administration, the elephant in the room remains former President Joseph Kabila, who could yet scuttle Tshisekedi's plans for a new Congo.
After two years of delays, the Democratic Republic of the Congo finally held elections on Dec. 30. To the surprise of many, opposition candidate Felix Tshisekedi was declared the winner in a disputed election. But as former President Joseph Kabila ostensibly recedes into the shadows, the biggest question centers on whether Tshisekedi can bring greater stability and prosperity to one of the world's most unstable countries.
Following a sit-down between U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Tshisekedi, the State Department declared its support for the Congolese president's "change agenda," citing the Tshisekedi administration's ambitious, albeit vague, pledges to tackle graft more aggressively, improve security and strengthen the Congolese government's commitment to human rights. While clearly conditioned on reform, the U.S. declaration of support was notable in and of itself, as Washington had previously slapped sanctions on senior officials of Congo's electoral commission, the body that oversaw the country's contested elections at the end of 2018. In the sanctions document, the United States accused the polling officials of corruption and "failing to ensure the vote reflected the will of the Congolese people." Washington, consequently, has found itself in an ambivalent position: On the one hand, it emphasized that it believes Congo's election was flawed — or even rigged — yet it also indicated its willingness to work closely with the new administration in Kinshasa, the capital, in the hopes of bolstering security and economic ties.
For Tshisekedi, the pledge of American support is most welcome. Since assuming office three months ago, the president has found himself boxed in at almost every turn by Kabila's clique, which holds a majority in the National Assembly and the Senate, rules the vast majority of the provinces, controls the security services and possesses a large degree of wealth. Accordingly, Washington's support will be instrumental if Tshisekedi is to carve out greater room to maneuver in such a stifling environment.
In such a situation, two immediate questions arise. First, how far can the new president actually go in his agenda of change? There are likely clear red lines in the relationship between Tshisekedi and Kabila, especially in the mining industry, where Kabila and his allies have massive stakes, but the rest of their relationship might be more fluid. In fact, Kabila's Common Front for Congo (FCC) rebuked Tshisekedi after the latter told Washington he would work to "dismantle the dictatorial system that was in place" — underscoring that the working arrangement between the incumbent and his predecessor might only be skin deep.
Second, how much weight will Washington bear to tip the scales in favor of Tshisekedi? Washington wishes to see reforms in Congo, but it's unclear whether the United States will benefit enough from regulatory changes to justify wide-ranging help. In fact, the recent sanctioning of election officials could signal that U.S. officials are willing to target some Kabila-linked figures, but it is unclear if there are other tools that Washington is willing to use to forcibly accelerate the dismantling of the Kabila system.
But if Washington is hitching its wagon to Tshisekedi in the hopes that he will overhaul Congo's political and economic system by dismantling the "dictatorial system" and streamlining the regulatory environment (specifically in the mining sector), then it might be in for a letdown. Though Tshisekedi secured the release of hundreds of political prisoners — something American officials excitedly touted as evidence of Congo's new direction — the move was within the new leader's presidential prerogatives, which are very limited. For example, while reports surfaced that Tshisekedi rejected Kabila's choice of Albert Yuma as prime minister (reportedly because of Yuma's corruption as head of Gecamines, the state-owned mining company), he is still obliged to pick a candidate from the parliamentary majority, which is held by the FCC and, therefore, Kabila. And in worse news for Tshisekedi, Kabila's coalition will be able to name the Senate's next president, who will be next in line for the presidency should Tshisekedi suddenly fall. This leverage, combined with Kabila's dominance of the political spectrum, means Tshisekedi will need to operate within the authority of his narrow powers if he is to achieve any of his goals.
Amid these curbs on Tshisekedi's power, there could be even more signs of trouble down the road, complicating his ability to govern and Washington's ability to get a return on its backing for the new leader. Reports suggest that people in many parts of the country believe the Dec. 30 election was rigged to perpetuate the Kabila system, regardless of the new face at the top of the pyramid. Apart from Kabila and his cabal, Tshisekedi could thus face major resistance from ordinary citizens who refuse to accept his presidency.
If Washington is hitching its wagon to Tshisekedi in the hopes he will overhaul Congo's political and economic system, then it might be in for a letdown.
In time, Tshisekedi may also face growing discontent from within the ranks of his Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) party. While some influential party members have seemingly acceded to Tshisekedi's surprise election victory, they could launch an internal backlash if reforms and other signs of an opening fail to materialize in the months or years ahead. For example, Tshisekedi’s recent decision to appoint Roger Kibelisa, the former head of the notorious National Intelligence Agency (ANR), as a security adviser irked many opposition figures, who say they suffered directly at the hands of Kibelisa and the ANR. (Kibelisa, incidentally, is one of 14 Congolese officials subject to European Union sanctions). If Tshisekedi appointed Kibelisa out of a realization that he needs more Kabila insiders working for him — in the hopes of one day neutralizing the coterie down the line — then his plans will clash with UDPS members and others who abhor the idea of embracing elements of the country's repressive old guard.
A foretaste of this potential backlash occurred in mid-March following allegations of widespread bribery during senatorial elections, in which Kabila's allies grabbed a huge majority in the upper house of parliament. The results left Tshisekedi's party weak, even in its traditional base of Kinshasa, roiling UDPS members and provoking them to protest. Facing anger within the ranks, Tshisekedi moved to block senators from taking their seats, citing allegations of widespread bribery. But within days, Tshisekedi relented, as an investigation ostensibly exonerated the accused, thereby underscoring the president's willingness to cave to the status quo around him. Tshisekedi, too, has displayed his pliant nature in the case of the mining sector, where he has continued on from Kabila in backing increased taxes on foreign mining companies.
As Tshisekedi walks the tightrope in his attempt to stay in line with the onerous expectations of his predecessor and appease his base and Washington, the potential that he will fail is high. But regardless of which side turns on Tshisekedi first, the new president faces a difficult political road ahead as the old system fights for survival at a time when new reforms have yet to take root.