Vital Kamerhe: DR Congo power broker

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Vital Kamerhe rose to the inner circle of power after DR Congo emerged from civil war

Vital Kamerhe rose to the inner circle of power after DR Congo emerged from civil war (AFP Photo/Fabrice COFFRINI)

Kinshasa (AFP) - Vital Kamerhe, who was sentenced to 20 years hard labour on Saturday after an unprecedented trial for corruption, emerged from the bloodshed and turbulence of the 1990s to become one of DR Congo's most powerful men.

For 14 years, the smooth-talking Kamerhe swam effortlessly in the dangerous political waters of sub-Saharan Africa's biggest country, becoming the close adviser to two presidents.

But this role was not in the shadows, as the stereotype of confidant requires.

Jovial and self-assured, Kamerhe was also a public face, as speaker of parliament and head of an influential party -- and last year hit the celebrity pages in a society wedding that was much criticised for its lavishness.

But his fall from grace was dramatic.

As recently as last November, he was able to speak with warmth and confidence of his relationship with President Felix Tshisekedi, who months earlier succeeded his former boss, Joseph Kabila, DR Congo's ruler for 18 years.

"I have the head of state's total support. I never contradict him and the same goes for him with me," Kamerhe said.

"Our wives have become friends. I think of his children as if they were my children, and he does the same with mine. All this is the glue of our alliance."

Just six months later, the 61-year-old was arrested and charged alongside Lebanese businessman Jammal Samih, 79, with embezzling more than $50 million in funds earmarked for a housing project.

Their trial swiftly became the emblem of Tshisekedi's proclaimed crackdown on the DRC's endemic corruption.

The proceedings were televised live in a court set up in Kinshasa's central penitentiary, and the defendants were dressed in prison garb.

In an extraordinary twist, the first presiding judge, Raphael Yanyi, died after just two sessions -- and an initial police announcement that he had died of a heart attack was overturned by an autopsy that determined he had been murdered.

On Saturday, the court delivered its judgement, ruling that Kamerhe was guilty of diverting public funds. His sentence included other penalties such as disqualification from holding public office for 10 years.

- Suave orator -

Kamerhe emerged from the generation of Congolese marked by the final years of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, ousted in 1997; by the assassination of his successor, Laurent-Desire Kabila; and two wars that ran from 1998 to 2003.

Able to move seamlessly between the country's four national languages and French, Kamerhe's skills helped him secure the job of campaign manager in the successful 2006 election bid of Kabila's youthful son, Joseph Kabila, and join in the launch of his party, the PPRD.

Kabila rewarded him with the appointment of speaker of parliament.

There he was appreciated for his skills at "rounding up endless debate and steering matters to a decision," says Belgian writer David Van Reybrouck.

In 2009, Kamerhe was forced to step down after opposing the entry of Rwandan troops into eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, in a joint operation with DRC forces against Rwandan rebels.

He followed the classic path of political disgrace in the DRC -- he recast himself as an opposition leader, created his own party, the Union for the Congolese Nation (UNC), and ran unsuccessfully for the presidency in 2011.

Critics said they saw little opposition from Kamerhe but plenty of behind-the-scenes contacts with Kabila.

Presidential elections loomed in 2018 and Kabila declared he would step down, paving the way for the DRC's first-ever peaceful transition of power.

In a spectacular about-turn, Kamerhe and Tshisekedi bolted from an alliance of opposition leaders that supported Martin Fayulu and cut their own deal.

Under it, Kamerhe backed Tshisekedi on the understanding that he would be named prime minister and get his chance at the presidency in the following elections, in 2023.

After taking office in January 2019, Tshisekedi appointed Kamerhe to be his chief of staff and gave the UNC several portfolios in a sprawling coalition cabinet headed by a Kabila loyalist.

UNC MPs have lashed out at the "arbitrary arrest" and "humiliation" suffered by their leader while on social media, Kamerhe's supporters say the trial is a plot to remove him from the 2023 race.