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Felix Tshisekedi’s Newly-Independent Agenda for the DRC: Modernizer or Strongman 2.0?

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is now under new management. In April, President Felix Tshisekedi ousted the last remaining elements of his government who were loyal to former leader Joseph Kabila in the culmination of a long campaign to take full control of the country. It was a secret power-sharing deal with Kabila that initially brought Tshisekedi to power, naming him the winner of the rigged 2018 elections over Martin Fayulu, who was widely-acknowledged as the true victor of the popular vote. Now, more than two years into his tenure, Tshisekedi has thrown off the vestiges of the Kabila “puppet master” and is poised to pursue his own political agenda.  

Tshisekedi seems poised to make regional integration a cornerstone of his independent administration, throwing off the country’s moniker as “Africa’s problem child” to build closer political and economic ties with other states in the region. Not only have such efforts gained traction on the continent in recent years, but Tshisekedi is also keen to distance himself from the foreign policy of his predecessor, emphasizing his own multilateral ambitions in contrast to Kabila’s “brinksmanship” approach to diplomacy. But while Tshisekedi has touted regional cooperation as a key priority, his wholesale campaign to discredit political opponents suggests that he has not fully set aside the authoritarian tactics favored by Kabila.

Tshisekedi’s ties to “the Congo strongman” have hurt him from the start of his administration. He initially campaigned against endemic political issues, with promises to curb rampant corruption, raising average wages, and resolve instability in eastern DRC. This reform-minded agenda was explicitly presented as a foil to Kabila, who has been widely-condemned in the country as a leader willing to ignore crises to secure his own political power. But the power-sharing deal that brought him into office unexpectedly put Tshisekedi in the position of working with Kabila, not against him. The perceived power struggle between the two men sparked national outrage the new president spent his first two years in office on political squabbling rather than fulfilling his campaign commitments. Now, fully in control of his government and with an eye towards the 2023 reelection cycle, Tshisekedi is in desperate need of an image overhaul.

The bureaucratic cycles of regional institutions seem perfectly aligned to give Tshisekedi the multilateral legitimacy he so desperately needs. In February, the DRC took over the rotating chairship of the African Union (AU), giving Tshisekedi a full year at the helm of the continent’s largest institution. The country is also poised to ascend to the East African Community (EAC) after years of delay, with regional partners optimistic about the prospects of building ties with Tshisekedi independent of Kabila’s influence.

Tshisekedi has wasted no time in outlining ambitious plans for the DRC’s forthcoming institutional engagement. His agenda for the AU chairship prioritizes regional integration, enhancing economic ties and calling on African partners to help curb insecurity in the eastern DRC. He has also committed to investing in AU-U.S. relations, seeking to rebuild ties after previous AU leaders distanced themselves from the Trump Administration amid his travel ban on many African countries.

Commentary on the DRC’s likely ascension to the EAC has tended to focus on the economic advantages of the move, which is anticipated to jumpstart Tshisekedi’s development agenda and bring renewed revenue flows to African businesses struggling with the economic fallout of Covid-19. Growing trade relations with the East African bloc may also deepen political integration in the region, limiting China’s influence in the DRC; Beijing currently supplies nearly a third of the country’s total imports. Particularly with other regional leaders speaking out against China’s so-called “debt-trap diplomacy,” Tshisekedi’s adoption of African trading partners in lieu of Beijing will certainly come as a welcome signal of cooperation. Shared institutional interests through the EAC may also present a forum for unifying economic bonds or deeper security cooperation to address rebel activity in the DRC’s Ituri and Kivu provinces.

Tshisekedi’s campaign to build ties with other African powers has been extensively covered in recent weeks, with reporting of the “new” DRC emerging under his leadership. Just a few months into his independent rule, Tshisekedi is already reaping the benefits of his modernizing agenda that presents him as an engaged, issue-focused leader – a reputation he hopes will cement his stake in the DRC’s 2023 elections. But as a leader that himself came to power through a backroom deal, Tshisekedi knows better than most that popularity alone is not a guarantee of security.

Mere weeks after ousting pro-Kabila elements from his government, Tshisekedi took the unprecedented step of declaring a “state of siege” in eastern DRC, effectively imposing martial law on the Kivu and Ituri provinces that have faced rebel violence and insecurity for decades. While particular attention to these regions is certainly warranted, commentators agree that Tshisekedi’s move was a political message more than anything else. According to Africanist Phil Clark, the real message is that “whenever the opposition rules the provincial government, you get mass violence, you get this mass insecurity.”

The reform-minded leader with ambitions for regional integration is only one side of Tshisekedi. Beyond the modernizing face is a fundamentally insecure president who fears being supplanted by a wildcard candidate, just as he cut a deal to edge out Fayulu in 2018. The reliance on Kabila-esque tactics to suppress opposition voices in Eastern DRC represents the other side of the “new” DRC. Janus is now in charge.

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Kathryn Urban

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