- - Sunday, January 26, 2020

KINSHASA, Congo — Thousands of Congolese recently took to the streets to protest President Felix Tshisekedi’s failure to improve public security, reform the economy or deliver on other promises.

The widespread unhappiness puts into doubt the latest effort by one of Africa’s poorest, most populous and most unstable countries to make a real difference in people’s lives after an election and democratic transfer of power one year ago. Worse, the protesters said, the country’s leaders have yet to move beyond the troubling legacy of the Kabilas, father and son, who ruled with near unchallenged power for more than two decades before the December 2018 vote.

“He should resign. We don’t need him anymore,” said Didier Nzengele, adding that Mr. Tshisekedi is moving too slowly in redistributing the country’s wealth to the people. “Tshisekedi has done nothing since he assumed power. He is confused, unfocused and being misguided by [Joseph] Kabila, who failed our people during his reign as the president.”

Mr. Nzengele’s complaints reflected the unsettled political climate in Congo. Almost a year after taking power in a vote mired by fraud allegations, Mr. Tshisekedi appears paralyzed.

Armed groups still roam the vast country, where civil and international wars raged in the 1990s and early 2000s. Almost 900,000 refugees still live outside Congo, and more than 500,000 people are displaced internally. Only shipments from abroad stave off famine.



A proposed program to build roads, bridges and other infrastructure has yet to get off the ground, and an Ebola outbreak unfolding in the area has resulted in more than 1,600 deaths in the past year.

The lack of progress highlights the weakness of Mr. Tshisekedi, a longtime opposition party leader. Analysts said his powerlessness over the Central African country since taking office in late January 2019 reflects who is really in charge.

“This shows that Joseph Kabila is still in charge of Congo,” said Edward Kisiang’ani, a political historian at Kenyatta University in Nairobi, Kenya. “Kabila stepped down but rigged the elections in favor of Tshisekedi to maintain control.”

Taking over in 2001 after the assassination of his father, Mr. Kabila ruled Congo for 18 years. The 48-year-old former leader still lives in the presidential compound and has a security detail that rivals that of the sitting president.

Kabila’s influence

Mr. Kabila’s reach is more than symbolic. His political coalition, the Common Front for Congo, controls large majorities in the legislature. Sylvestre Ilunga Ilukamba, a Kabila ally, is prime minister. Congo’s security forces and top military commanders remain firmly under Mr. Kabila’s control, too.

Mr. Kabila left the presidency last year, three years after his two-term limit technically barred him from office. Public pressure forced him to step down, but he still wields considerable power. He has left open the possibility of running in 2023, when he will be eligible for the presidency again.

Residents are openly worried about Mr. Tshisekedi’s commitment to fulfill the pledges he made after he was sworn into office. The country’s powerful Catholic bishops have urged the president to end fighting that continues in isolated areas, especially in eastern Congo.

“We want the government to urgently deploy security officers in the region and restore state institutions such as the national police, army and immigration, among others,” said Archbishop Marcel Utembi Tapa of Kisangani.

During his swearing-in ceremony, Mr. Tshisekedi addressed one of the most notorious failings of the Kabila era by promising respect for human rights. Activists say security officers continue to arrest critics of the government and note that at least one person was wounded and several arrested this month after police dispersed an opposition march in Kinshasa.

“He has banned peaceful protests and arrested critics — like Kabila,” said Mr. Nzengele. “He promised to allow citizens to picket, but he is not fulfilling his word.”

Mr. Tshisekedi has made no headway with his promises to tackle corruption in the mineral-rich country and raise the average wage from $1.25 to $11.75 a day. Allegations of disappearing funds in his Cabinet has angered residents further.

“It’s simply Kabila who is still governing this country behind the scenes,” said Daniel Tshibala, who owns an electronic shop in Kinshasa. “Why are former Kabila allies accused of corruption still working in his government? Tshisekedi is not serious about the fight against corruption. He is just lame-duck president.”

Mr. Tshisekedi’s defenders say Congo has been making slow but steady progress toward peace and stability.

In March, they say, the president released hundreds of political prisoners, a marked shift away from Mr. Kabila’s policies that jailed scores of his enemies. He has deployed military and police to the east to respond to armed groups and improved Congo’s tattered relations with neighboring countries, they say.

“The president should be given time to work. He has done a lot in one year, including enacting reforms, responding to armed groups and repairing relations with other countries,” said Edouard Lomboto, who served as Mr. Tshisekedi’s election campaigner.

Mr. Tshisekedi has reiterated his commitment on several occasions to tackle corruption, build peace and uphold the rule of law, and promote social and economic development. He acknowledges the results have not been overwhelming.

“I am aware of persistent corrupt practices and the existence of massive fraud networks,” Mr. Tshisekedi said in his first state-of-the-nation speech before parliament in December. “These networks will be dismantled. I will be unflinching in the fight against corruption.”

However, Mr. Kisiang’ani, the Kenyan historian, said it will be difficult for Mr. Tshisekedi to make any reforms in the central African nation as long as he remains in political competition with his polarizing predecessor.

“People should not expect any meaningful reforms in such government setup where Kabila’s allies still control government apparatus,” said Mr. Kisiang’ani. “Tshisekedi lacks the power to enact the wide-ranging reforms to fight insecurity, corruption and improve the lives of people.”

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