“Six Generations” of DRC’s Political Parties: A summary and Reflection of “Colonial Legacy”

Ahead of general elections, including the presidential one, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC or Congo hereafter) has recently celebrated its 58th anniversary of the independence gained in 1960 from the Belgian. On 30th June, what was a Belgian Colony became an independent State though one side of the coin can reveal a different story as compared to Congolese citizens’ expectations. This short reflection intends to look back and bring upfront the challenges of political parties to liberate themselves from the colonial legacy of politics. Since the independence, one would roughly count an experience 60 years and wonder why the colonial legacy may keep a shadow over the Congolese politics? The landmark of this legacy is how politics is likely intertwined with regionalism, ethnicity but also the confinement into what can be described as biologically managed political parties. Nevertheless, it has been clear that 60 years of experience have brought in positive changes intertwined by challenges to the extent that one would hope that in end young generations will learn from these challenges.

This essay departed from Muzito’s declaration on Radio France Internationale[1] regarding the general socio-political context and crises around elections. The former Prime Minister during the post-Sun City agreement ad leading member of the PALU has openly questioned the popularity of current key political parties outside of their ‘natural stronghold’. When asked about the future of Congolese general elections, Muzito had a say on what would be the next phase of alliances between ‘opposition political parties’. The single inverted commas express my own bias of admitting what to call “opposition political party’ in the specific context of DRC. When elaborating to a question regarding his views to meet and create alliance around these political parties contesting presidential elections, he thought that this would be a good entry point to ‘overtake’ the presidential candidate ruling alliance. Whilst naming some of these opposition parties: Mouvement de Libération du Congo (MLC), Union pour la Nation Congolaise (UNC), Union des Démocrates pour le Progrès Social (UDPS), Muzito stresses that there is a need to form a wide alliance from East, West and North. In order to win the December 2018 elections, Muzito suggests that: « …, parce que si vous fédérez à l’ouest avec le MLC et à l’est avec l’UNC, y compris au centre, avec l’Union pour la démocratie et le progrès social, l’UDPS, vous avez la victoire. C’est cela le sens de l’ouverture que nous faisons ». Interpretatively, Muzito refers to MLC of Jean Pierre Bemba, UNC of Vital Kamerhe and UDPS of Tshisekedi as respectively having their stronghold in North, East and Center. One would see that natural political stronghold is linked to regional/ethnic appurtenance of chairpersons. This motivated the blogger to look back and see what does this mean in 2018?

Political landscape in DRC is somewhat unique in terms of the interplay between Politics, Ethnic mobilization and Religious Beliefs. Besides drawbacks that have characterized colonization towards local population, it has been documented that political claims on the side of Congolese came late as a result of ancestors’ commitment who had to face the colonial maneuvers willing to deter their efforts. From 1880, Congolese citizens start to officially gather in a seemingly ‘political’ associations by mid-50s. The political organizations were approximately a mirror of ethnic associations. In this regards, Nzongola-Ntalaja (2002:80) has remarked that “…, the politically active évolués had to rely on elite clubs and ethnic associations to advance their interests.” The striking feature of these two types of associations (elite clubs and ethnic associations), Nzongola states that ethnic associations have created a linkage between évolués and the mass “that made it possible for the democracy movement to arise as an interclass alliance for the independence”. In the same line, the author stipulates that political mobilization during the independence period turned specifically around ethnic and regional lines (Nzongola-Ntalaja 2002:84). That is the entry point to understand the trajectory and legacy of political parties in DRC since then.

While describing the key political parties on the eve of the Congo’s independence, Young (1965:232) indicates that “no analysis of the emerging political system in the Congo can escape grappling with elusive problem of “tribalism” or “ethnicity”” and henceforth warning on the challenge of conflict loyalty between the Congolese ‘nation’ versus diverse ethnic entities. These political parties were the ones that participated in the first Congo elections by 1957-60. Besides Abako and PSA[2], Young (1965:296) stipulates that by 1959, there were around 100 political parties some of which had limited presence in the countryside. With all challenges and inexperience of embarking in political arena, Congolese would be among countries that have had such huge number of political parties in 60s. Apart from facing the challenging environment, it may be agreed that these political parties were playing a ‘bluff’ during a crucial period of liberating the country from colonizers due to their weak foundations across the countryside. These weaknesses can be accepted as one can imagine) for these were seemingly younger―unexperienced organizations―actors.

In addition, the post-independence period has been characterized by turmoil, insurgencies that led to a military coup that shook the political setting. Following the Mobutu’s coup, political parties were banned until late 80s when the Union des Démocrates pour le Progrès Social (UDPS) of Etienne Tshisekedi wa Mulumba emerged. Besides the Mouvement Populaire de la Revolution (MPR) that operated as unique in the former Zaire, there have been others political parties that managed to operate mostly outside of the Zairean territory. Moreover, it has been agreed by scholars that Catholic Church has played a predominant role in liberating the country. Alongside the Catholic Church, Nzongola-Ntalaja (2002:179) notes that Mouvement d’Action pour la Ressurection du Congo (MARC) and Front pour la Libération Nationale Congolais (FLNC) are among key political parties. With limited access to country’s political space, these political parties have hardly managed to shake Mobutu for a period of approximately two decades. However, from 1969-80, these outside based parties were primarily interested in lobbying against Mobutu across Europe and America, notes Georges Nzongola. The author criticizes furthermore the ‘laziness’ that have characterized these politicians by stating that “they kept hoping and waiting for a spontaneous mass revolt or a military coup. [The military coup] would prepare the way for their return to occupy high government positions”. In other words, Nzongola disagrees that revolution cannot be achieved when someone stands as an opportunistic. Moreover, one would interpret that doing politics is more or less tied to occupying prestigious political positions. Occupying political positions in government is one of the key challenges facing the Congolese politics as it determines in most cases political choices.

Aside from the setback of political positions, Congolese politicians have been characterized by moving across ‘political lanes’. From their hope to have things changing, these externally based political parties were reinforced by Mobutu’s former dignitaries―allies, namely Moïse Tshombe and Antoine Gizenga. These two high ranking officials have respectively occupied the office of the Prime Minister and the deputy PM next to President Mobutu. Moïse Tshombe, the former Katangese secessionist died on 30 June 1969 while he was in a prison in Algiers. On the other hand, the founder of PSA (alongside with Cléophas Kamitatu Massamba[3]) and then Parti Lumumbiste Unifié (PALU) has unlikely stepped down. In his 90s, Antoine Gizenga runs yet the role of “Patriarche” of the Lumumbistes”; and hence the chairman of the party. Besides that, the PALU is currently under the Lugi Gizenga’s daily leadership, who is his son. It may sound as odd though this stands to be the trend in different political parties. It is hard to confirm that this is part of the legacy of colonial period, but something has been inherited long ago. Besides Gizenga, most of the key political parties has had their founder’s heirs standing as potential successors or at least one of their descendants has occupied or initiated―lead a political party.

Political engagement is somewhat a ‘reserved space―domain’ which someone might have to inherit or give in inheritance. Among 60s’ ten major political parties[4] (Young, 1965:304), Kanza, Kamitatu, Gizenga, Kasavubu, Diomi, Munongo for naming the few have, at least one of their daughters/sons is politically active or leading a political party. Seen as having sui generis characteristics (Young 1965:306), 60s political parties have been challenged by colonial reluctance to establish workable political environment. Due to regional appurtenance or political positioning and regardless of challenge cited above, these political parties went through dissidence and split regularly. On a basis that can be linked to these setbacks, for instance Daniel Kanza spilt from Abako, while the relation between Gizenga and Kamitatu were said to be tense. At the same time, CEREA got divided into three wings (Kashamura, Bisukiro and Weregamire); the MNC spilt into different wings, namely Lumumba, Kalonji and Nendaka[5]. Apart from these early political actors who can be circumscribed as unlikely experienced, the fate of the second generation (80s) of political parties is likely similar. Union des Démocrates pour le Progrès Social (UDPS) of Etienne Tshisekedi wa Mulumba (RIP) is one of the loud case of parties that emerged in 80s and facing the same challenges.

Seen as the most powerful, defiant, brave and stubborn (Nzongola-Ntalaja 2002:185), Etienne Tshisekedi wa Mulumba initiated a non-violent political struggle from within. Leading the group of 13 Parliamentary members (MP) who broke the silence under Mobutu’s dictatorship, Etienne and his political party (UDPS), Tshisekedi was the hope of seeing democracy taking place during the one-party state. Withstanding his contribution, UDPS seems to have fallen into the colonial legacy as it shrinks from being countrywide spread to regionally be affiliated (see Muzito’s declaration below). The party has split into roughly 4 groups[6] that keep disputing Etienne’s legacy. One of the 4 groups is led by his son, Felix who might have inherited father’s charisma. These other groups seem to have been guided by the reluctance to let the part being run biologically while pushing harder to get political positions. In the same vein, freedom fighters from Simba rebellion have similarly been diverted towards sustaining power into family hands. The loud example of Mzee Laurent Kabila can shed light on how politics is ‘reserved space’. More strikingly, almost all 90s rebel movements from Bemba, Ruberwa, Nyamwisi…, it remains hard to expect them to step down before 30-40 years rule. These political figure have kept for approximately 20 years chairman’s positions. The blogger keeps guessing that these newly formed political parties as well as armed groups (organized politically) will imitate or have already been copying the model.

Ironically, Young (1965:302) states that “Congolese leaders are ambitious and obey an inner impulsion for the exercise of power”. Hence, by possibly being too ambitious, some have fallen into instability across ideologies and political parties. Thus, one of the characteristics of these politicians can be described as an instability choices in terms of ideology commonly called ‘political vagrancy or vagabondage politique’[7] (see Nzongola-Ntalaja 2002:181). Ambitions have led to the mushrooming of countless political parties. They originates from minor dissidence within political parties but also from rebel groups to the extent that each and every armed group (regionally and ethnically oriented) has to create their own political structures.

By mid-2006, there were almost 300 political parties registered in Congo and took part during the post-Sun City agreement elections. As the socio-political context was going (un)stable, parties increased from 278 to 480 by earlier 2011-2013. Up to now, there around 599 registered parties with more than 70 electoral political platforms (regroupements politiques)[8] that will be campaigning in few months. One would question the contribution of all these political organizations in terms of socio-economic transformation. Moreover, it sounds evident that if key parties are yet assimilated to regional and ethnic belonging of chairpersons, would the remaining 595 (see 2018 data) others be spared with this similarity? Or they are seemingly a reflection of what Young and Nzongola have described above.

Though positive changes have occurred since the independence, there is yet a lot of work to pull politics out of ethnicity and regionalism. The relevance of this perspective is linked to Jason Stearns’s observation with regard to Congolese political arena. He states that “ethnic mobilization is usually exclusive in nature and does not form an equitable or truly democratic basis for the distribution of state resources; also, given the manipulation of customary chiefs, even this vessel has been corrupted. It will take generations to rebuild institutions or social organizations that can challenge the current predatory state without resorting to ethnicity.” (Stearns 2011:216). I wish that a new generation of politicians will hardly work to reshape the minds that keep pulling all of us back to regional, culture or ethnic belonging. Otherwise, resorting to ethnicity as a way fighting a predatory state will possibly take generations while leaving countless victims.



PhD Researcher in Conflict Economics

The Institute of Social Studies/

Erasmus University Rotterdam

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Delphino12

Blog: www.easterncongotribune.com

[1]RFI (2018) “RDC : « Tous les ingrédients sont réunis pour que les élections n’aient pas lieu ». The former DRC’s Prime Minister Adolphe Muzito’s interview with RFI, published on 16th May 2018. The interview is available at http://www.rfi.fr/emission/20180516-rdc-tous-ingredients-sont-reunis-elections-aient-pas-lieu (Accessed on 30 May 2018).  

[2] Abako (Alliance des Bakongo) and PSA (Parti Solidaire Africain) were mainly based in the Western part of the Congo, in Kwilu-Kwango region. One can suspect that their presence in remote regions is due to how closer are their native regions next to Kinshasa.

[3] Cléophas Kamitatu Massamba is the father to Olivier Kamitatu Etsu, a leading Congolese political figure who fought within the MLC of Jean Pierre Bemba by 1998, Speaker of the Parliement (2003) and founder of Alliance pour le Renouveau au Congo (ARC), a political party under Moise Katumbi umbrella whom he serves as his chief of staff.

[4] The ten major political parties are: MNC/L (Lumumba and Gbenye), PSA (Kamitatu and Gizenga), CEREA (Kashamura, Bisukiro and Weregamire), Balubakat (Sendwe and Ilunga), Abako (Kasavubu, Diomi and Kanza), Puna (Bolikango), Unimo (Bomboko and Ndjoku), MNC/K (Kalonji), PNP (Bolya), Conakat (Tshombe and Munongo).

[5] As per Young (1965:301), the Kalonji and Nendaka wings are respectively seen as “progressively an[d] exclusively baluba movement while the third [Nendaka] had little audience”.

[6] The party that was known for promoting democracy got divided into UDPS Kibassa Maliba, UDPS Tshisekedi, UDPS Tshibala-Loseke, and UDPS MUBAKE…

[7] Nzongola cites Nguza who was a Tshombe’s young brother but also Cléophas Kamitatu, Bernardin Mungul-Diaka as key leading political actors likened by ‘chameleon’. Though harsh in terms of describing ones’ political positions, it expresses however how politicians are floppy in terms of keeping straight their choices.

[8] See details here of political parties: https://www.ceni.cd/partis_et_regroupements_politiques and electoral platforms here: https://www.ceni.cd/partis_et_regroupements_politiques


Nzongola-Ntalaja, G. (2002) The Congo from Leopold to Kabila: A People’s History. London and New York: Zed Books.

Stearns, J. K. (2011) Dancing in the Glory of the Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa. New York: PublicAffairs.

Young, C. (1965) Politics in the Congo: Decolonization and Independence. London: Princeton University Press.


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PhD fellow @ErasmusUnivRotterdam/ISS: Microeconomic Analysis of Conflict. Congolese, blogger advocating 4r Equitable Redistribution of Ressources & national wealth as well as & #Justice4All #DRC In the top of that, proud of being "villageois"

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