The Democratic Republic of Congo’s high court sentenced the president’s chief of staff to 20 years of hard labour for the theft of tens of millions of dollars of public money in a landmark case that has captivated the central African nation.
The hearing was broadcast on national television on Saturday and livestreamed around the world. Many Congolese watched, stunned, as Vital Kamerhe — president Felix Tshisekedi’s running mate in the 2018 presidential elections — was found guilty of embezzling at least $48m from projects planned for their first 100 days in office.
Congolese officials have been accused of looting state assets for decades but have almost never faced trial. Mr Kamerhe is the most senior politician convicted of graft in the country’s history.
“Never has a politician of this seniority been given a sentence this heavy by a Congolese judge for the theft of public funds,” said Israel Mutala, a Congolese political analyst in Kinshasa, the capital. “The management of public funds will never be the same again after this process.”
Mr Kamerhe, a former speaker of the national assembly who ran for president in 2011, was a presidential candidate in 2018 before he withdrew and backed Mr Tshisekedi in a deal that would have seen him run as the ruling party’s pick in 2023.
The conviction effectively ends that arrangement, since it leaves Mr Kamerhe no longer eligible to run for head of state again.
Mr Kamerhe denies all allegations of wrongdoing and has called the trial a political attack. Mr Tshisekedi has not commented on the case.
“I am not shocked at all, I am not even surprised, because since the start of this process I have felt the brutality with which I have been treated,” Mr Kamerhe, wearing a blue and yellow prison uniform, said after the verdict was handed down.
The months-long investigation has been mired in controversy and intrigue, which increased this week after the justice minister said the deceased original trial judge, Raphael Yanyi Ovungu, had not died of natural causes and opened a murder investigation.
Congolese politics is a dangerous game of shifting alliances. Mr Kamerhe ran former president Joseph Kabila’s election campaign in 2006 before breaking with the then ruling party in 2010. For the next decade he vacillated between different political groups. Finally he played an important role in the negotiations between Mr Kabila and Mr Tshisekedi that saw the latter take power last year after a rigged election.
Former opposition leader Mr Tshisekedi now shares power with Mr Kabila’s political coalition, which controls the parliament.
Stephanie Wolters, senior research fellow at the South African Institute of International Affairs, said it was interesting, given the “ample evidence” of corruption in the former regime, that Mr Tshisekedi had allowed a member of his own coalition to be prosecuted but not yet any member of Mr Kabila’s group. Mr Tshisekedi has sought to win domestic and international support by promising to crack down on the graft and impunity that has long hobbled Congo’s development.
“It’s an easy win for Tshisekedi to go after Kamerhe on corruption and make it his flagship corruption case and to get rid of a political rival,” Ms Wolters said.
The failure of many of the infrastructure projects undertaken as part of Mr Tshisekedi’s plans for his first 100 days in office had also meant that someone needed to held responsible, Ms Wolters added.
“Somebody had to be fed to the lions,” she said.