How to get ahead in DR Congo politics: A flatterer’s guide
Share. Don’t be ambitious. Get close to the president’s friends. And don’t forget to flatter.
Back in April 2007, the prime minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was assembling a new cabinet. Among other positions, he needed to find a Minister of Trade. After some deliberation, he settled on André Kasongo Ilunga, a member of the Union Nationale des Fédéralistes du Congo (UNAFEC), one of the smaller parties that made up the ruling coalition.
There was only one hitch: Ilunga didn’t exist. UNAFEC’s leader had made him up and added him to his list of ministerial nominees in the belief that it would enhance his own chances of being appointed. His plan backfired when the prime minister opted to pick a man he knew nothing about and had (obviously) never met.
Odd as it may sound, this bizarre incident is indicative of the DRC’s political space and its opacity, even for key players within it. With presidential elections on 23 December, voters are currently on tenterhooks to see how things will unfold. But at the same time, the Congo’s many politicians – spread across myriad political parties – are also watching and waiting in expectation of the results. Many of them are working out how to best position themselves to get the best possible ministerial appointments in the new government.
Based on our research on access to political positions in the DRC, here are some strategies they may want to employ.
1) Generate money, and share it with the president
As in most countries, ministers are appointed according to political and strategic calculations. What is different about the Congo is the degree to which power is centralised in the presidency of Joseph Kabila. This means that being in the president’s confidence is absolutely crucial.
How to go about this in practice, however, can be a mystery, even for those who are supposedly already within the president’s confidence It became clear throughout our research how some ministers, especially those of less strategic sectors, have never even met with the president personally, nor have his contact details. As a result, many ministers have little insights into what the president wants or likes. They have little notion of what he expects of them, leading them to undergo a process of trial and error in trying to please him.
One way to do this is to share financial gains with him. There are many examples of this. It seems possible, for instance, that this was a tactic employed by Evariste Boshab when he was the president’s chief-of-staff early on into his tenure. In this time, Boshab allegedly pocketed 10% of a $32 million payment made to the country’s electricity parastatal. He resigned shortly after these revelations, but was not prosecuted. In fact, he was soon returned to key positions such as speaker of the national assembly, secretary-general of President Kabila’s party, and deputy prime minister of interior and security.
Similar strategies appear to be at play elsewhere, particularly in the ministry of mining. According to a Congo Research Group report, President Kabila and his family own over a hundred mining permits. This is despite the fact that the country’s mining code limits the number of permits per person. This seems to suggest that one way to stay close to the president is to help generate money and allow it to be shared with the president and his family.
2) Don’t present any kind of threat
Another way to stay on Kabila’s good side is to avoid presenting any kind of threat to his power or interests. This has been particularly important in the last couple of tense years in the Congo as an environment of paranoia has settled in.
An example of this is the current Minister of Planning. At some point, he was rumoured to want to run for president. In order to counter this perception, he hastily wrote a memo to Kabila, going to great lengths to emphasise his unshakable loyalty and to insist he has no presidential ambitions.
3) Flatter the president
When it’s never clear what the president wants – thanks to his lack of communication or articulated vision – a third strategy is to simply flatter him.
For instance, Vital Kamerhe, a former minister who is now the running-mate on an opposition ticket in the election, once published a book titled Pourquoi j’ai choisi Joseph Kabila. In it, he praised Kabila’s actions and vision. Boshab similarly wrote a book to curry favour. In his publication, he argued for a constitutional amendment that would allow Kabila to remain in power.
There are also other ways to show loyalty. Some have formed political movements with the sole purpose of defending the president’s agenda, such as Kabila Désir. Meanwhile, others have organised pro-Kabila demonstrations, including on the president’s birthday. It is unclear whether the president supports these actions or even demands them.
4) Befriend Kabila’s close advisers
Sometimes the most effective way to stay in favour is not just to please the president, but the key playmakers around him. Kabila has a number of close advisers that play a significant part in his decisions. An emblematic example of a powerful shadow adviser with no formal position was Augustin Katumba Mwanke. Before he died in 2012, he had the power to make and unmake people. It is safe to say that a large majority of ministers that were nominated needed his stamp of approval.
There have been many others with similar roles in Kabila’s inner ciricl since. Jean Mbuyu, the president’s security adviser, has been described by some as the “real king maker” in the Congolese government today. Maitre Norbet Nkulu, Kabila’s informal legal adviser and judge in the constitutional court, is believed to provide the necessary stamp of approval for several projects and contracts. Meanwhile, chief-of-staff Nehemie Mwilanya is similarly involved in the appointment of ministers, heads of parastatals and other key positions.
Although unelected, many of these figures wield great power in the Congo’s political landscape. When it is difficult to see the president directly, shadow advisers are often courted by potential ministers and are continuously courted while in power.
The opacity of the DRC’s political inner workings leads to great uncertainty and fluidity. In the words of one cabinet minister, “an office cleaner at a ministry has more job security than the minister”. Among other things, this means that ministers try to accumulate as much as they can when in the job, while attempting to extend their stay for as long as possible.
One effect of this environment is that alliances changed quickly as political actors try to stay in power. Regime allies switch to the opposition when they lose the president’s confidence, while opposition figures join (or re-join) the ruling majority when the chance for a ministerial position arises.
This culture also encourages conflict between elites. Earlier this year, for example, Interior Minister Mova Sakanyi allegedly leaked an audio recording of his colleagues negotiating privately in an attempt to discredit them and present himself as Kabila’s most faithful lieutenant.
How this all changes after 23 December elections remains to be seen. As we explained in our previous article for African Arguments, President Kabila has agreed to step down, but will remain hugely powerful. His handpicked successor, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, has no real base, finances or profile of his own and will be almost wholly dependent on his political godfather. If Shadary wins, it seems plausible that very little will change in the Congo’s high-level political culture and what it takes to become and stay a minister.
Research for this project was financed by the Knowledge Management Fund.