Clan infighting, lack of leadership... Now in charge, the government’s former opposition party has struggled to make the transition. Will earning a second presidential mandate in a year's time be a real asset?
On 21 November, night had already fallen on Kinshasa for several hours when Victor Wakwenda pushed open the door of one of the cells in pavilion 8 at Makala prison. The old man is tired. A few hours earlier, he was arrested, interrogated and brought to the detention centre.
With years of political struggle under his belt, he can no longer count the number of tense protest movements in which he has participated, but this is the first time he has been thrown into prison like this. “Lord Jesus, what have I done to deserve this?” he repeats incessantly.
This notable 79-year-old recites Bible verses to himself almost compulsively – it makes him feel better about the situation he has found himself in. The prosecutor had explained that he stands accused of trying to overthrow the government. “Me? But Lord Jesus…”
Pavilion 8 is known as the prison’s VIP ward, but even so, the facility remains unsafe and overcrowded. It’s far too hot and the incessant noise makes one’s head spin. Wakwenda has just finished filling out prison paperwork and is looking for a mattress to rest on.
Then he notices a man he knows well. Round-faced and bald, Jean-Marc Kabund-a-Kabund is now a prison regular. At the back of the room, he is playing checkers. He and Wakwenda don’t exchange a word, not even a glance.
Only a year ago, the pair were allies and leaders of Félix Tshisekedi’s party, the Union pour la Démocratie et le Progrès Social (UDPS). Kabund was the interim president while Wakwenda headed the party’s Convention démocratique du parti (CDP), a kind of internal parliament. Each of them was a UDPS figurehead, a veteran party activist for decades.
But there is no longer any question of them speaking to each other. In late January 2022, Wakwenda was the hand that signed Kabund’s dismissal and exclusion, marking the spectacular fall of this man who was so influential with the Congolese president that he earned the nickname the “vice-president”.
Powerful, perhaps too much so, he had become annoying and awkward. After switching to the opposition, he was charged with contempt of government and parliament and offending the head of state. He has been in Makala for five months.
Now it is Wakwenda’s turn to fall. In November, he took a gamble, announcing the dismissal of the party’s secretary general, Augustin Kabuya. “The statutes of the UDPS stipulate that it should be led by a triumvirate, consisting of Kabuya, Jacquemain Shabani [president of the permanent electoral commission, CEP, and senior adviser to the head of state] and myself.
“But Kabuya has behaved as though he alone is in charge. He is leading on his own, although he has neither the right, nor the skills, nor the [necessary] qualities. We have therefore decided to dismiss him,” said Wakwenda at the time, denouncing the secretary general’s opaque management style.
Wakwenda’s own sanction was not long in coming. A few days later, Kabuya in turn predicted the dismissal of the CDP president, who would soon encounter his own problems with the law. “[Does Wakwenda] have a mental health problem or what?” Kabuya was quoted saying before a group of party activists, claiming a few days later that his own dismissal was “a huge joke […] which was an attempt to destabilise the party”.
In the UDPS, the infighting can indeed drive one mad. While neither man has recognised the legitimacy of the other’s decision and it is still difficult to understand the consequences of their declarations, these clashes reveal the clan struggles at work within Félix Tshisekedi’s party.
“All of this is a war for the control of the party,” says an old friend of Félix’s father Etienne Tshisekedi [a founding member and former UDPS leader].
They thought that once one of us was in power, everything would change for them, but that’s not how it works
After having come of age as the main opposition party, the UDPS, which is just 40 years old, has struggled to become a ruling party. The party that built itself around values like democracy and pluralism has a tendency to cling to its passions and contradictions and does not always know how to channel the energy of its “fighters” and bring them to the age of reason.
In late November, some of them were still violently demonstrating [at party headquarters] on 10th Street in Limete to express their discontent. “They thought that once one of us was in power, everything would change for them, but that’s not how it works,” says one party cadre.
Influential ‘Maman Marthe’
“The UDPS was founded in 1982 by 13 parliamentarians who decided not to choose a leader among themselves. The aim was to disperse responsibilities to prevent Mobutu from isolating and attacking one of them,” explains a former party member, who has now moved to the opposition.
He added: “This had its advantages, but it also created weakness and a struggle for real leadership and power. They never really went away. One UDPS leader who asked for anonymity said: “What’s going on between Kabuya and Wakwenda is a face-off between the family clan led by ‘Maman Marthe’ against the others.”
Often in the shadows, Marthe Kasalu Tshisekedi is rarely heard from, but she has immense influence. The president’s mother has become so formidable that some believe that she has made the Rue Pétunias, the site of her Limete residence, the real UDPS headquarters.
“As soon as Etienne Tshisekedi fell ill, she became more important and tried to impose her son as the head of the party. When the Sphinx died, she took power,” says Albert Moleka, Etienne Tshisekedi’s former chief of staff, who has since broken ties with the family. “Augustin Kabuya has long been her close associate,” he says.
“Kabuya is an obedient puppet,” says a member of the entourage of Kabund-a-Kabund, who was long considered his right-hand man. “I helped him obtain his position within the UDPS, and he is a devoted activist. But he is an executor, not a leader,” said Wakwenda, who, like many in the party, worries that no leader has really appeared since Etienne Tshisekedi’s death.
The challenge of the upcoming presidential election
Although contested, Augustin Kabuya is today the presidential party’s strongman. He has the confidence of Maman Marthe, “claims to have the ear of the president and is in charge of UDPS finances,” according to one senior party official.
He is the one in charge of leading the party going into the next presidential election and ensuring Félix Tshisekedi’s re-election.
Kabuya is an obedient puppet.
“Over the last six months, many things have been done to ensure the UDPS moves in the right direction and that cohesion is restored. We are aware of our weaknesses and we are in the process of strengthening them, we know what our challenges are and we are doing everything possible to meet them,” says Jacquemain Shabani, who refutes the existence of clans. “The UDPS is doing well, even if it can still do better”.
Strong mobilisation of activists, experience…the party’s leadership remains humble but confident. “As things stand, Félix is the favourite in next December’s presidential election. But this election remains a challenge, and we know it,” Shabani says.
If the main opponents exit the scene in disarray and Tshisekedi manages to keep a hold on his alliance with Vital Kamerhe and Jean-Pierre Bemba, the UDPS would like to believe it will manage to deliver a second mandate to “Béton” [“Concrete”, Tshisekedi’s nickname].
The equation looks much more complex for the legislative elections, which will take place at the same time. Delivered to the presidency following an alliance with Joseph Kabila, Félix Tshisekedi does not have a majority in parliament.
The UDPS has only 32 deputies out of the 500 who sit in the National Assembly and has no choice but to rely on its allies to pass its legislation – Joseph Kabila’s le Front commun pour le Congo (FCC) for two years, and then the member parties of the “Union Sacrée” since 2021.
“We do not want the second term to be like the first. Our objective is to be the party with the most deputies in the future assembly,” says the UDPS’ Shabani. According to several sources, the party has set itself the goal of tripling its 2018 result, i.e. to obtain a hundred seats for the next five years.
Many forget that even though the UDPS has had its leader in power since 2018, he does not have power in parliament.
“The UDPS is in a process of advanced decomposition,” says one of its detractors. “Since the death of Etienne Tshisekedi in 2017, it has only disintegrated and is weaker and weaker. There was a wave of departures at that time, with Bruno Tshibala [then prime minister] and then Samy Badibanga [then first vice-president of the Senate]. And today, many are only there for the money. We are resilient, but the reality is that the party has broken up,” Wakwenda says.
UDPS leadership rejects these statements and says that, unlike most Congolese parties, the party has survived the death of its leader. “You will judge us after the elections”, says a party cadre, who indicated the next objective. “Many forget that even though the UDPS has had its leader in power since 2018, he does not have power [in parliament]. The objective is clear: this power must now be consolidated”.