From free schools to peace in the east, Félix Tshisekedi has failed to deliver
Louis BAHATI, a teacher at a primary school in Goma, a city in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, has not been paid for more than two years. Struggling to feed his family and on strike for a second time, he took up a job painting a neighbour’s house. When a passing pupil spotted him, he was humiliated. “My class mocked me,” he says. “The student told them that he had seen their teacher, covered in dirt, doing this painting work.”
Although Mr Bahati has been a teacher at a state school for six years, he has not yet been added to the government payroll. This meant that when President Félix Tshisekedi (pictured) announced that primary education would be free from September 2019—which was one of his main election promises—Mr Bahati stopped receiving any pay. Like thousands of other teachers who were not on the books, he relied on fees from parents. After the president’s announcement, they stopped paying.
The snag with the president’s pledge was that his government does not have enough money to pay teachers’ wages. Even some of those who were on the payroll had their salaries chopped in half, to $140 a month in most cities and $90 in villages. When teachers went on strike for two weeks in October, schoolchildren stormed parliament chanting, “We want to study,” and “If we do not study we will end up on the streets taking drugs.”
To make matters worse, scores of fake teachers working at non-existent schools have somehow made their way onto the payroll, according to a report by the Inspectorate General of Finance. It revealed that some $31m earmarked for education had been embezzled. This prompted the World Bank to suspend its first payment of the $800m it had committed in support of Mr Tshisekedi’s free-schooling programme. The government has since told teachers that they will be paid in January, which encouraged some to go back into their classrooms. But many, including Mr Bahati, do not believe the government and are still on strike.
The fiasco highlights a wider problem: Mr Tshisekedi’s tendency to promise the moon. As well as his pledge of free primary schooling, he also campaigned on a vow to bring peace to the east of the country and to stamp out corruption. The electorate seems to have placed little faith in these undertakings. In presidential elections in 2018 he came a distant second, with about 19% of the vote, according to an independent tally by the Catholic church. It said the poll had been won by Martin Fayulu, a charismatic anti-corruption campaigner. Mr Tshisekedi nonetheless claimed victory and came to power, seemingly after a back-room deal with the outgoing president, Joseph Kabila, whereby he is alleged to have promised to leave the unpopular Mr Kabila in control of much of the state.
Since then, however, Mr Tshisekedi has cunningly managed to distance himself from his predecessor, form a new coalition and consolidate his grip on power. He has even managed to fire some of Mr Kabila’s closest allies, including the chairman of Gécamines, the national mining company and piggy-bank to Mr Kabila’s friends. Its former chairman, Albert Yuma Mulimbi, has been accused of diverting more than $8bn in revenue from copper and cobalt mining. Even so, the president can hardly claim to have stamped out graft. Since he came to office Congo has slipped by nine places to 170th out of 180 in a ranking compiled by Transparency International, an anti-corruption watchdog.
The president has also made little progress in honouring his pledge to restore security and defeat the armed groups that have terrorised eastern Congo for 25 years. More than 5.5m people who have been forced from their homes are still unable to return. Many live in miserable camps that are sometimes attacked by rebels. In November a militia stormed one in Ituri province, killing 44 people. Soon after that an armed group kidnapped two aid workers near Goma. In a bid to restore order Mr Tshisekedi imposed martial law on two of the bloodiest eastern provinces in May, though to little effect. In November he allowed troops from neighbouring Uganda to cross the border to attack one of the more dangerous groups, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a militia that has links to Islamic State, after it detonated bombs in Kampala, Uganda’s capital. But this has not made locals feel any safer. Many fret that the Ugandan troops will outstay their welcome and plunder the region’s minerals, as they did during Congo’s second civil war, which raged from 1998 to 2003.
To be fair, Congo is not an easy place to run. “Tshisekedi has the hardest job in Africa,” says Piers Zvegintzov, a security adviser based in the capital, Kinshasa. It entails “managing an impossible coalition of adversaries while desperately trying to build a real power base, drive through reforms and not get assassinated.” Trying to win a fair contest in the next presidential election in 2023 must now be added to that list. Some worry that because Mr Tshise kedi has failed to honour any of his campaign pledges, he may simply try to rig the vote. “There are two ways to stay in power,” says a ruling-coalition MP who asked not to be named. “One is to become popular by doing the work you promised—another is to be strategic.” By “strategic” he means cheating, adding that “Tshisekedi has gone for the latter.”
Lawmakers have appointed one of his allies, Denis Kadima, as the head of the electoral commission. The constitutional court, which would have the final say if the vote were contested, is being stacked with Mr Tshisekedi’s loyalists. The Catholic and Protestant churches, which are among the few respected institutions in Congo, have criticised Mr Kadima’s appointment. So have opposition parties, which say it will erode trust in the election. “We will intensify our protests until they depoliticise the electoral commission,” says Mr Fayulu. But the protesting has not gone well. When a sit-in was organised outside the electoral commission in November, truckloads of heavily armed police blocked the road leading to it. At another rally there were clashes between protesters and Mr Tshisekedi’s supporters, some of whom the president has allegedly shipped in from his home region, the Kasai provinces.
As for those living under Mr Tshise kedi’s rule? “Life is unmanageable, we are even struggling to eat,” says Mr Bahati. “I do not see any change with this regime.” It is unfortunate, then, that the regime seems set on staying. ■
This article appeared in the Middle East & Africa section of the print edition under the headline “All the president’s promises”