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Congo’s Opposition Faces Internal Discord

Last month, a number of opposition leaders were invited to dinner at an ambassador’s residence in Kinshasa. According to one of the people present, Etienne Tshisekedi, the veteran opposition leader, was asked by a diplomat what his party’s position would be if the president stayed in office after December 6, 2011, when his constitutional mandate expires. This has been an important question of late, as several NGOs – including the International Crisis Group and ASADHO – have pushed for the election date to be pushed back to allow for a better organization of elections. The main opposition parties have stuck to their guns, insisting that the constitution be respected.

According to the witness, Tshisekedi answered the diplomat brazenly: If Kabila’s term runs out, there will have to be a government of national unity. He implied that the opposition would have to be represented in equal measure as the current regime.

Tshisekedi has since denied having said this, but opposition has been ratcheting up the pressure on Kabila, insisting on November 28, 2011 as the election date.

Etienne Tshisekedi

This obstinacy is just one example of the poor tactics displayed by the opposition in recent months. It is true that the opposition face serious harassment and a lack of funds, and the incumbent is using his access to state media and security services to campaign. But in a country where Kabila is probably significantly less popular than in 2006, when he won 58% of the vote, the opposition will also have themselves to blame if, as is expected, Kabila is voted in for another five years in office.

Tshisekedi’s notorious stubbornness is one reason for this. President Kabila’s party changed the constitution earlier this year to get rid of the run-off election for the presidency. This reform was intended to divide the opposition, making it easier for Kabila to win re-election, even if with only 20% or 25% of the vote. In this context, Tshisekedi’s insistence that he is the unique opposition candidate has been unproductive. Almost since he returned triumphantly to Kinshasa last December, the veteran opposition leader has been proclaiming that he will run for the presidency regardless of what the other opposition candidates think. More recently, he has also proclaimed himself as the undisputed leader of the opposition. In this interview with Colette Braeckman, when asked if he is the unique opposition candidate, he answered:

But yes, of course, that is obvious. I count on being the only candidate and even now there are more than ten opposition candidates who have signed up to my candidacy through the coalition Dynamique Tshisekedi President. We are really on the right path.

Jean-Pierre Bemba

But none of the ten candidates he mentioned have much weight (nor are they all registered presidential candidates). The best known among them are Diomi Ndongala, Roger Lumbala and Frank Diongo – none of whom have much popular support. (Diomi got 0,51% of the vote in 2006 and Lumbala 0,45%).

More importantly, neither of the other main opposition parties, Vital Kamehre’s UNC or Jean-Pierre Bemba’s MLC, has endorsed Tshisekedi for president. In fact, Tshiskedi has been dismissive of Kamerhe – in a recent interview on RFI, he suggested that he wasn’t sure if Kamerhe was really a member of the opposition, saying that even in his native South Kivu Kamerhe was associated with Kabila. Kamerhe, for his part, is said to have been furious when he visited Tshiskedi at his house and was made to wait for an hour in the waiting room.

Vital Kamerhe

But the two other parties have troubles of their own. Jean-Pierre Bemba, who won 42% of the vote in 2006, is still languishing in an ICC jail cell in the The Hague. Nonetheless, he has insisted that he will be coming home and standing for elections. This seems highly unlikely given how long it takes for the ICC to reach a verdict (Lubanga’s trial is over two years old now, Bemba’s trial is only seven months old). In the meantime, his party is being riven by internal dissent. Several months ago, the acting head of the party Francois Mwamba led an internal faction that seemed to be trying to shake free Bemba’s control over the party, either to name a different candidate for elections or to make an alliance with Kabila’s party.

Mwamba was quickly ousted by Thomas Luhaka, who has now been named by the founding members of the party (backed by Bemba) as Secretary-General. Mwamba, however, has sued for justice in court, and the ruling in now scheduled for August. In the meantime, the party – which has also seen the prominent defections of Delly Sesanga (who has endorsed Tshisekedi) and José Makila (who is courting the government) – has done little in terms of preparing the grassroots for elections. D-Day for the MLC will come soon, as Bemba has to register to vote before the Kinshasa registration comes to an end in just a few weeks (the MLC is pushing for the registration centers to stay open until August). If he does not register to vote, he cannot run for the presidency.

Vital Kamerhe has probably faced the most repression of all the opposition candidates. One of the leaders of the women’s wing of the party was assassinated in South Kivu; the culprit and motive of the murder are still unknown. Several of his party leaders in Maniema and South Kivu have been detained or harassed, and when he showed up to campaign in Goma and Bukavu, the local security forces prevented him from holding his speeches as planned. Although Kamerhe has national stature and made many friends across party and ethnic lines during his tenure as president of the national assembly, he has done little popular mobilization outside of the Kivus since he first announced his candidacy. He has been most adamant in getting the opposition to unite and is reported to be ready to endorse another candidate under the right circumstances (e.g. that he would get the nod for prime minister if their coalition wins sufficient seats in parliament).

In sum, harassment is certainly a problem for the opposition. But the stubbornness of figures like Tshisekedi and Bemba and their reluctance to build a genuine opposition coalition could prove to be just as formidable. We will have to wait and see whether they are able to overcome their egos and join up. We also need to see what the political figures who do have an electoral base decide to do – figures such as Ne Muanda Nsemi (Bas Congo), Mbusa Nyamwisi (North Kivu) and Nzanga Mobutu (Equateur) have not to my knowledge made official endorsements.

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