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Tshisekedi’s gone and Congo faces another critical challenge

AFP | Etienne Tshisekedi was an iconic figure in Congo's power circles.

The death of veteran opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi at a critical moment in the DR Congo’s history is an irreparable loss for a country trying to navigate a constitutional crisis without descending into bloodshed.


When the rumours swirling around the Congolese capital of Kinshasa were finally confirmed Wednesday, the public outpourings of grief were immediate and intense.

Opposition leader Tshisekedi – or “Tshitshi”, to his many supporters – died in Belgium, where he had been undergoing medical treatment for a week. A towering figure in the Congo’s bloody postcolonial history, Tshisekedi was President Joseph Kabila’s most formidable political foe and one of the few opposition figures with the stature, experience and support base to navigate a peaceful end to his country’s latest crisis.

After 16 years in power, Kabila is refusing to step down and Tshisekedi – an 84-year-old former prime minister who represented a rare mix of political insider as well as an outsider in Kinshasa’s corrupt power circles – was arguably the only man who could hold a fractured opposition together.

But his death at a critical moment in Congo’s history represented a deep loss for a nation that has never experienced a peaceful power transition. As hundreds of grief-stricken mourners gathered outside his house in Kinshasa’s Limete district, there was a palpable anxiety about the future of a country blessed with rich natural resources but cursed with poor governance and violent strife.

"Our leader is dead. We have no other leader like Tshitshi, who can fight without the need for guns. How could he die in Belgium?" an activist in Tshisekedi's Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) party told the AFP.

Near a makeshift shrine outside Tshisekedi’s home, where wailing women lit candles for the departed soul, Jean Bonkadi, a 46-year-old construction worker, painted a dismal picture of the country’s future.

"I don't see anyone who can take up the mantle, who can really take his place," Bonkadi told Reuters.

All eyes on Tshisekedi’s son

An iconic figure, Tshisekedi was the head of an opposition coalition trying to negotiate a peaceful end to a political crisis triggered by Kabila’s refusal to quit power in December.

The octogenarian opposition politician was widely expected to take the top post in a transitional council charged with implementing a December 31, 2016, deal that would see elections held before the end of 2017. Under the terms of the New Year’s Eve deal – mediated by the country’s powerful Catholic Church – Kabila would refrain from running for an unconstitutional third term.

“There are many question marks about the political situation, and even more now that Tshisekedi died,” said FRANCE 24’s Thomas Nicolon, reporting from Kinshasa. “He was supposed to be the head of the national transition council and to make sure that the agreement that was signed on December 31 was going to be followed in the next few months. Now the question is who is going to be the head of that council and is Tshisekedi’s son, Felix, going to be prime minister as many think.”

The New Year’s Eve deal calls for a power-sharing government led by an interim prime minister from the opposition bloc named Rassemblement – or Rally – within which, the UDPS represents a major political force.

But with the grand “old man” gone, the party that he founded in 1982 faces a leadership crisis amid rumblings of discontent in the past few months over Felix Tshisekedi’s rapid rise up party ranks.

A phlegmatic figure who was also known as "the Sphinx" for his impenetrable demeanour and terse, grave pronouncements, Tshisekedi failed to put in place the structures for a leadership succession within his party, according to his critics.

Ominous rumblings from neighbouring Uganda

Barely a day after his death, there were ominous rumblings about its impact in some African power circles.

Ugandan Foreign Minister Henry Oryem Okello hinted that the instability almost certain to follow Tshisekedi's death could lead to a reexamining of the hard-fought December deal.

"There might be a need to examine the whole time agreement," Okello told Reuters on Thursday. "[Tshisekedi's death] might cause some ripples and a shaking of the system, hence the need for Kabila to continue holding the country together until such time as things stabilise."

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has been in power since 1986 and is currently serving his fifth term in office following a constitutional amendment lifting presidential term limits.

Kabila’s attempts to amend the Congolese constitution, which has a three-term presidential limit, have been repeatedly blocked by the opposition over the past few years.

But he hails from a region that has a poor record on keeping incumbents from seeking unconstitutional term extensions. Unlike the West African region, which recently saw Gambian strongman Yahya Jammeh forced out of power following a military intervention by the regional ECOWAS bloc, the Great Lakes area – which includes DR Congo, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi – remains a victim of the African “president for life” malaise.

Uganda and Rwanda helped Kabila’s father, Laurent Kabila, come to power in 1997 and the two neighbouring countries have considerable economic interests in the resource-rich but poorly administered DR Congo.

‘We are determined to keep going’

Tshisekedi's exit from the political stage at a critical time in Congolese history presents a new challenge for the opposition. But a day after his death, Congolese opposition figures vowed to keep up the fight.

In a phone interview with FRANCE 24, François Muamba, head of the Alliance for Development and the Republic (ACR), which is a member of Rassemblement, said opposition members were meeting Thursday to discuss the future of the coalition. "We are going to try to find the formula that will enable us to move forward and conclude the agreement,” said Muamba.

Noting that the Rassemblement was “convulsed with pain” over Tshisekedi’s demise, Muamba nevertheless expressed optimism for his country’s political future. “Beyond pain and suffering, we will continue on the path leading to a strong state, towards a democracy that will solve the problems of the Congolese. We are determined to keep going until we reach the end of the road.”

History has however shown that the road to political stability in DR Congo has been, for the most, an illusory path. With the loss of Tshisekedi, the embattled Congolese opposition faces another rough road to democratic stability, one that risks ending yet again in bloodshed. 

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