Tensions triggered by the potential appointment of a new electoral chief lay bare fragility of coalition government.
On the surface, the recent protests that have swept across the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) surround the potential appointment of Ronsard Malonda as the president of the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI).
But at the root, there is a fierce struggle for political power that dates back more than a decade.
Malonda, the current secretary-general of CENI, was a senior figure involved in running the country's previous elections in 2006, 2011 and 2018. Critics have accused him of playing a historic role in rigging results in favour of former President Joseph Kabila, who came to power after his father was assassinated in 2001 and stood down last year.
Supporters of the DRC's President Felix Tshisekedi claim that Malonda's appointment is part of a plan by Kabila, who continues to wield enormous power through his parliamentary majority, control of the army and several cabinet ministries, to interfere with the country's next elections in 2023.
"We have to see this in the context of Kabila trying to manoeuvre in the background through the parliamentary majority that he currently enjoys," said Phil Clark, professor of international politics at London's School of Oriental and African Studies. "The big picture is the continued fight between Tshisekedi and Kabila, with an eye on 2023. To choose Malonda is to put a Kabila ally absolutely front and centre."
The choice of Malonda to head CENI was approved last week by the Kabila-dominated National Assembly, but has yet to be signed off by Tshisekedi, who took office in January last year in the country's first peaceful political transition. But the son of the late Etienne Tshisekedi - Kabila's old enemy and a popular opposition stalwart - was elected amid accusations of serious electoral fraud with the help of Kabila, who in turn won a parliamentary majority.
The CENI dispute marks a new peak in tensions for the coalition government, an uneasy alliance between Tshisekedi, Kabila and several smaller parties formed after the December 2018 election, which has shown increasing signs of discord in recent months. The breadth of opposition to it - including supporters of Tshisekedi, the opposition Lamuka coalition, the Lay Coordination Committee of the Congolese Catholic Church, and other civil society groups - reveals how serious those fractures have become.
"We've seen over the past year and a half that there have been tensions in the ruling coalition," said Nelleke van de Walle, deputy project director of Central Africa for the International Crisis Group. "Tshisekedi has been forced to cooperate with Kabila's Common Front for Congo (FCC) coalition and they have been in a standoff ever since."
In the first year of his presidency, Tshisekedi struggled to push through policies due to pushback from the FCC, according to van de Walle, including the complicated appointment of the prime minister, which took four months to agree, and frustrated attempts to make changes at the state mining company, Gecamines.
But Tshisekedi's State of the Union address in December 2019, in which he promised "2020 will be the year of action", signalled a more combative tone.
"That was the moment when Tshisekedi first began to distance himself from Kabila," said van de Walle.
In January 2020, Tshisekedi told an audience at the UK-Africa Investment Summit in London that he would be willing to "dissolve" the National Assembly and have new elections, drawing strong criticism from the FCC.
Political tensions were further stoked when in February, General Delphin Kahimbi, head of army intelligence who was charged for involvement in a plot to destabilise Tshisekedi, was found dead. Then last month, Vital Kamerhe, Tshisekedi's chief of staff who also ran Kabila's election campaign in 2006, was charged with embezzling more than $50m in public funds, a decision that sent shockwaves through the country.
In recent weeks, the fragile coalition was rocked by counter-movements from Kabila's allies, including judicial reforms aimed at redefining the powers of judges. This led to demonstrations in the capital, Kinshasa, over what was seen as an effort to muzzle the judiciary, prompting the resignation last week of Justice Minister Celestin Tunda, a senior figure in Kabila's FCC.
"The goal of these protests is to have the proposals withdrawn," said Stewart Muhindo, an activist for the pro-democracy movement Lucha. "Both of the proposed changes to the judiciary and the electoral commission are attacks on democratic freedom. Congolese politics must be changed to reflect the will of the people, because currently it does not."
These events culminated in the protests that saw thousands take to the streets against Malonda's selection last Thursday, staged by Tshisekedi's own party, the Union for Democracy and Progress (UDPS), and sparked violence that led to the death of two protesters and a policeman in Kinshasa, according to the United Nations Joint Human Rights Office. Three people were also killed in Lubumbashi in the southeast of the country, while police dispersed campaigners in Goma and several smaller towns.
A separate rally on Monday was led by the main alliance of opposition parties, Lamuka, who last week called Malonda an "agent" of Kabila's FCC, and demanded an audit of CENI.
"These protests put Tshisekedi in a stronger position to refuse to sign off on Molanda's appointment and to demand the National Assembly approve another candidate," said Jordan Anderson, a political risk analyst at IHS Markit. "Forcing the National Assembly to change course on the CENI presidency would be a significant demonstration by Tshisekedi of growing power and independence from Kabila."
In addition, the support of the Catholic Church, which has called for weekly Sunday protests in response to Malonda's nomination, could raise the prospect of the protests' success and prove significant for both their turnout and longevity.
"The Catholic Church is the single largest denomination in DRC, and its leadership carries near-unmatched moral weight in society," added Anderson. "It demonstrated in early 2018 [after Kabila refused to step down following the end of his electoral term] that it was capable of consistently mobilising large turnout."
However, despite the impressive turnout figures, experts have tempered any suggestion that the protests are likely to succeed, and that Tshisekedi could make a decisive split from Kabila.
"In the face of state power those protest movements have often melted away," said Clark.
"Even in the context of the last election, when the Catholic Church was getting people on the streets to protest the delays ... ultimately Kabila and the security forces still got their way," he added.
"That's the real test at the moment of this protest movement, and the Catholic Church's role within it - have they learned from the arguably failed past protests of recent years to bring about actual change?"
Published by Al Jazeera on July 16, 2020
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