Before Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi assumed power, in January 2019, expectations for what, concretely, he could achieve while in office—in light of the power imbalance with Joseph Kabila’s Front commun pour le Congo (FCC)—were low. As if to accentuate this uncertainty, he faltered during his inauguration speech. Appearing to lose his breath, he was forced to sit down for several minutes. The Congolese public watched intensely, scrutinizing the moment, the president’s health, and what it all meant. Had he been poisoned? Had some other force been used against him to weaken him or end his presidency before it had even begun? Was this the physical manifestation of his weakness compared to Kabila who, for the occasion, had shaved his grey beard in favor of a younger look, as if to reinforce his own vitality? And then, Tshisekedi rose again to the lectern, this time unencumbered by the ill-fitting bulletproof vest he had been wearing. “More fear than harm,” a friend and Tshisekedi supporter told me at the time.
Tshisekedi’s inauguration reminds us of the importance, at least since the time of Mobutu, of projecting images of strength, of a strong man, as part of political leadership. In the DRC as elsewhere, leaders’ political power often lies, in part, in managing public perceptions (and therefore those of the political class) of that power. His predecessor, Kabila, was able to project an aura of power, largely through his silence. The rarity of his public appearances and speeches heightened the mystery surrounding him. He cultivated the image of the calm, contemplative, unflappable monarch, rising above the fray of petty political infighting. This silence allowed people to project their fantasies of his potency onto him. These fantasies were incorporated into political propaganda. A video made by a supporter of Kabila’s Parti du peuple pour la reconstruction et la démocratie (PPRD) circulated on social media in October 2019. Against a backdrop of Kabila walking purposefully, in slow motion set to ominous background music, we see text appear on the bottom of the screen: “Joseph Kabila, the game. More than a player. He has become the game itself.”
It is difficult, today, to remember precisely how feared Kabila and his inner circle were until recently (and it may be too soon to write them off entirely, despite their apparent hesitance to enter the opposition). But this aura of the man who was the game itselfreflects how many Congolese perceived the FCC-CACH coalition when it began. Kabila controlled parliament and most of the provinces—i.e., he had formal institutional power—but perhaps even more than that, he was Kabila, the Raïs,Yemeyi. There was simply no way that Félix Tshisekedi—who, for some, projected the image of a kind, if somewhat naïve, leader—could overcome Kabila’s overwhelming, sometimes ominous might.
And so, when the bureau of the National Assembly led by Jeanine Mabunda—a key Kabila ally—fell on December 10, 2020, it took nearly everyone by surprise. Even those who supported the petition against Mabunda were shocked, in the end, at how easy it was. How could it have been possible to topple one of the linchpins of Kabila’s hold on power so soon after president Tshisekedi had announced the end of the FCC-CACH coalition? “These things often fall like a house of cards,” the Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe remarked to me at the time.
The significance of Mabunda’s ouster, and the rumors about the number of signatories to the petition against Mabunda circulating before the vote, reinforced and even surpassed the simple changes he brought about in parliament and, later, in the government. It triggered a wave of high-profile defections within the PPRD as well as the FCC. More than that, it pulled back the curtain on the former president’s presumed invincibility. “His power was demystified and we realized that he was not as formidable as we thought,” a national deputy who joined Félix Tshisekedi’s Union sacrée de la nation (USN) told me. The vote created (or reinforced, for some) the perception that Tshisekedi was the new master of the game.
All of this recalls an insight that the French historian and philosopher Michel Foucault, in a lecture at the Collège de France in February 1976, brought to understanding Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, and in particular his notion of the “war of all against all.” This idea, Foucault argued, is not simply about the state of nature among human beings before the creation of the State. It persists even within the modern state itself. But, he warned, this is not a war with “weapons or fists,” nor “between savage forces that have been unleashed.” Instead, this is a war of appearances, designed to make believe (faire croire) in one’s strength: “There are presentations, manifestations, signs, emphatic expressions, wiles, and deceitful expressions; there are traps, intentions disguised as their opposite, and worries disguised as certainties. We are in a theater where presentations are exchanged, in a relationship of fear in which there are no time limits; we are not really involved in a war.”
Today, Tshisekedi’s power rests as much on his growing control of Congo’s political institutions as on an attempt to cultivate his own aura of invincibility. Indeed, the former depends in part on the latter. And with Tshisekedi, this aura is represented by his moniker “Fatshi (made of) concrete” (Fatshi béton). As if to reject the idea of a weak president, this nickname that links the president to the idea of hardness man refers both to the concrete poured as part of the 100 days program (a series of public infrastructure projects designed to make a mark during his first few months in office) and, even more so given recent events, to the idea of a strong president, in the image of an immovable object. Today, the nickname has taken on another dimension with the president’s recent political victories. Are those victories as solid as the nickname suggests? Will “Fatshi béton” continue to project the image of a strong man? Or are we dealing with another type of leadership, more humble, less inclined to instill fear? In the meantime, the game—the war of appearances—seemingly never ends. The real challenge, however, is not in creating and maintaining an image of strength: this is the domain of intrigue and control, not of governing. It is, instead, the breaking of the postcolonial symbolic shackles in which so many leaders in Congo and elsewhere seem doomed to repeating the same representations, ever trying to resemble Congolese author Sony Labou Tansi’s “Providential Guide.”
How could things be done differently, in order to create accountability and a climate of mutual respect between the president and the Congolese citizenry? Examples in Africa and elsewhere abound: Thomas Sankara who stopped the practice of displaying the president’s portrait in public places; Pope Francis who knelt to wash inmates’ feet; Tshisekedi himself, who assisted a minister with a disability to climb the stairs in 2019 ; and citizen movements, such as LUCHA in the DRC, which go beyond humility, instead operating without a singular leader, using a horizontal leadership structure and carrying out salongo (public trash clean ups).
“Mukalenga wa bantu, bantu wa mukalenga.” This Tshiluba adage, which can be translated as the leader (in the service) of the people, the people (in the service) of the leader, is appropriate. It implies that the leader who serves the people is a precondition for a people to support their leader. Something to think about when recreating a social contract in the DRC.
By Joshua Z. Walker, director of programs, Congo Research Group.