The corruption case against Vital Kamerhe, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) President Félix Tshisekedi’s chief of staff, has been unfolding with all the ingredients of a thriller. It includes millions of disappearing dollars, the fall from grace of a powerful politician, the murder of a judge, death threats and strong-arming by the United States.
And it’s become a great spectacle in the country, especially as the proceedings are live on national television. Never before has a figure so high in government and so close to the president been charged for corruption in a country notorious for indulging kleptocracy. And so the case has prompted intense speculation.
Kamerhe was arrested on 8 April along with two accomplices, including Lebanese businessman Samih Jammal. They’re accused of embezzling over US$50 million intended to fund a US$500 million project to provide housing and other services to mark Tshisekedi’s first 100 days in office. Kamerhe was thrown into Makala Prison where the harsh conditions have apparently badly harmed his health and the risk of catching COVID-19 is high.
The first judge in his case, Raphaël Yanyi, died on 27 May, supposedly of a heart attack. However forensic pathologists concluded that the cause of death was not natural and that he had ‘probably been poisoned.’ The whodunit rumours about who killed the judge have added a sensational flavour to the more sober political speculation about why Tshisekedi ordered or allowed the arrest of his supposed ally in the first place.
Kamerhe and his Union for the Congolese Nation political party had formed the Cap pour le Changement (CACH) coalition with Tshisekedi’s Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) for the 2018 elections. Tshisekedi was then officially – though almost certainly not factually – elected president.
So the unlikeliness of the president now going after Kamerhe prompted, among many others, the theory that Tshisekedi acted under pressure from the Trump administration to clean out government graft. That pressure was certainly there. In February Peter Pham, then still US Special Envoy for the Great Lakes, visited Kinshasa and told Tshisekedi bluntly that the US was disappointed in his efforts to fight corruption.
And it was shortly after Tshisekedi visited Washington DC in March to meet Pham and other officials that Kamerhe was arrested. Several military officers that Pham had called out were also removed. But were other factors at play? And does Kamerhe’s prosecution reflect a temporary nod to Washington or mark a long overdue turning point in DRC’s dismal history of grand corruption?
Fred Bauma, Senior Researcher at the Congo Research Group which recently published a report revealing large-scale corruption on all sides, doesn’t discount US pressure as a factor. But he says many Congolese believe Kamerhe is corrupt, so the president was also under public pressure to see him prosecuted. Fighting corruption was one of Tshisekedi’s key election promises.
Bauma explains how Kamerhe centralised government in the presidency, cutting out line-function ministers meant to be in charge of the various portfolios. It was clear that in doing so Kamerhe was circumventing many of the official checks and controls, thus reinforcing suspicion that he was siphoning off public money. ‘He had become a public liability to Tshisekedi,’ he says.
But an even larger motive for Tshisekedi to turn against his erstwhile ally was probably that he perceived him as a growing political threat and a likely rival in the next elections. For Thierry Vircoulon of the French Institute of International Affairs, it’s just another case of a leader going after his political adversary under the guise of fighting corruption.
Bauma recalls that the CACH coalition decided before the 2018 poll that Kamerhe should be its candidate in the next elections in 2023. Although Tshisekedi’s commitment to that scenario has seemingly faded, Kamerhe still saw himself very much as his boss’s equal.
He had become too powerful for the comfort of not only Tshisekedi but other officials and party leaders, including former president Joseph Kabila. Kabila remains powerful in the DRC and would also have been happy to see the back of Kamerhe – perhaps because of his own ambition to win the next election.
Many believe that after the last elections, Kabila’s quid pro quo for anointing Tshisekedi as his successor – rather than his own party’s candidate (who failed dismally at the polls) – was that he, rather than Kamerhe, should be the supported candidate next time around.
In any case Kabila calls many of the shots, as his Common Front for Congo (FCC) party controls Parliament and his allies are in powerful positions in many state institutions. And analysts believe that part of the deal with Kabila was that Tshisekedi wouldn’t ‘dig up the past’ – i.e. would leave Kabila and his lieutenants untouched.
This explains why Tshisekedi might think twice before going after Albert Yuma Mulimbi, the powerful head of the state mining company Gécamines, as the next big fish in his anti-corruption campaign. There’s been speculation that the US is demanding Mulimbi’s head too.
Bauma acknowledges that Mulimbi is also dogged by strong suspicions of corruption. But he believes that because he is so close to Kabila, Tshisekedi would prosecute him at some peril to his position. If Tshisekedi accumulates more power, relative to Kabila, that may change. Bauma believes he is slowly doing that but it’s too soon to challenge his predecessor now.
Other analysts believe to the contrary, that Tshisekedi may have to move closer to Kabila as his CACH coalition could implode under the impact of Kamerhe’s prosecution – especially if he’s found guilty and jailed.
However they also note that there are strong anti-FCC sentiments within Tshisekedi’s party which would resist such a move. Especially as they believe the FCC orchestrated the recent eviction of Jean-Marc Kabund, the interim UDPS president, from his position as National Assembly first vice president.
This analyst notes too that moving closer to Kabila would diminish Tshisekedi’s power – and that of his party. It would also reverse the initial trajectory of Tshisekedi’s presidency, strongly backed by the US, which was to weaken Kabila and make the slogan ‘DRC’s first democratic transfer of power’ less rhetorical and more real.
But there’s only so much the US or any other external power can do. The domestic reality is that Tshisekedi is politically weak and may feel he has to clutch at whatever straws are within his reach.
So the country’s political future looks even hazier than usual. If Tshisekedi does clean out corruption it will be a heroic achievement. But while the drama plays out on the political stage, the long-suffering Congolese people confront a new Ebola outbreak, COVID-19, chronic violence in the east and a faltering neglected economy.
Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant