IN THE LAWLESS eastern parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo, nomads and sedentary folk often clash. Cattle-rearing groups, such as the Tutsis, rub up against crop-growers over access to land. In the absence of a strong state, disputes can quickly turn to violence.
By contrast, there are not many cows in the Gombe, the wealthy core of Kinshasa, Congo’s sprawling capital. Fresh milk comes in expensive pouches imported from Europe. Yet another type of nomadism obsesses the population: that of elected officials.
Few politicians are loyal to ideas or people. Instead they head to where the best grazing is. “The Congolese politician is the most unstable human ever to exist,” says Félix Momat Kitenge, until recently a minister in charge of the national budget. “He will change with the breeze.” Others call it, in French, “transhumance politique” (political nomadism).
On January 27th several hundred members of Congo’s parliament put on their metaphorical walking boots and took a hike. They left the majority political grouping, the Front commun pour le Congo (FCC), which is affiliated with Joseph Kabila, Congo’s president until 2019. Most joined two of the largest opposition parties in supporting a new majority called the “Sacred Union” set up by Félix Tshisekedi, who has been the president for the past two years. The prime minister, Sylvestre Ilunga Ilukamba, an ally of Mr Kabila’s, resigned. So did his ministers, including Mr Momat. A new government will now be appointed that will be closer to Mr Tshisekedi. On February 5th the president of the senate, Alexis Thambwe Mwamba, another of Mr Kabila’s allies, stepped down too.
Mr Tshisekedi’s ascent to the presidency, in rigged elections at the end of 2018, was an unexpected one. For much of his adult life he had lived in Belgium. He was given a place on the ballot largely because of the reputation of his late father, Étienne, a firebrand opposition leader who died in 2017. Electoral tallies compiled by the Catholic church suggested Mr Tshiskedi came second, with less than 20% of the vote, well behind Martin Fayulu, a charismatic anti-corruption campaigner. Yet Mr Tshisekedi, to the astonishment of many Congolese, was declared the winner, seemingly as part of a last-minute deal with the former president. The quid pro quo, allegedly, was that Mr Kabila kept control of much of the state, not least through his control of a large majority in parliament.
Mr Tshisekedi has been tussling ever since with Mr Kabila, who took power after the death of his father in 2001. Yet power has steadily flowed to him as he has appointed allies to key posts in the army and courts. He appears to have routed Mr Kabila more quickly and comprehensively than almost anyone predicted. “We thought it would be closer to 50/50,” says Manya Riche, a Congolese political analyst. “This totally surpassed that.”
Exactly how Mr Tshisekedi achieved this is unclear. Supporters of Mr Kabila (or at least those who did not swap sides) mutter that bribery must have been involved. There are whispers that some MPs took payouts of $7,000-15,000 to join the new coalition. Others may simply have been unnerved enough to switch sides by Mr Tshisekedi’s shrewd threat to call new elections (even if the costs and logistical difficulties of doing so made it somewhat hollow). He has also targeted allies of Mr Kabila with an anti-corruption drive. Foreign embassies, in particular America’s, have backed him loudly. Faced with the chance of lucrative positions under Mr Tshisekedi on the one hand, and prosecution on the other, many opted to migrate to the president’s greener pastures.
What happens now? Mr Tshisekedi made big promises on coming to office, including providing free primary schooling, building infrastructure and reforming the electoral system. Almost none of that has happened. Most Congolese remain extremely poor. At the edge of a park near Congo’s parliament, a group of men playing backgammon say that the police have become a little less predatory in demanding bribes since the election. But jobs remain scarce. “The poor in Congo still suffer, while the rich continue to eat,” complains Eric Kayado, a 45-year-old petrol vendor. (“Eat”, in Congo, implies “embezzle”.)
Mr Tshisekedi has long argued that Mr Kabila’s control of parliament was a problem. “The system of Mr Kabila was to block [progress],” says Jacquemain Shabani, an official in Mr Tshisekedi’s party, the UDPS. Outside the party’s offices, a crowd of his supporters argue that their president has “chased away” Mr Kabila and will now bring them the changes they hope for. “He brought democracy,” says Darcin Mukendi. “Now he can work for the people.”
Yet a new majority may not make reform easier. The new government will not necessarily be stable, notes Ms Riche. The president’s new allies will be competing for a limited number of ministerial positions. Not every aisle-crosser will stay loyal. The economy remains weak and, for the moment, Mr Kabila retains his grip on a large part of it.
Some fear that Mr Tshisekedi may end up emulating Mr Kabila, whose final years in office were characterised by grotesque corruption and the merciless suppression of dissent. On coming to office Mr Tshisekedi released some 700 political prisoners and promised freedom of the press. Now he appears to be backtracking. On January 28th Human Rights Watch, a watchdog, accused Mr Tshisekedi’s government of having “arbitrarily arrested and detained, and prosecuted several dozen journalists, activists, and others deemed critical of the government”. In December eight activists from Lucha, a pro-democracy pressure group, were arrested for protesting against violence in Beni, a city in the east where militias massacred hundreds of civilians last year. It is too early to conclude that the new boss is the same as the old boss. But ordinary Congolese have cause to worry.