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DR Congo’s Tshisekedi: son emerges from father’s shadow

Junior D. Kannah, AFP | Felix Tshisekedi attends a memorial service for his late father, DR Congo's longtime opposition leader, in Kinshasa on February 1, 2018.

The son of DR Congo's veteran opposition leader, Felix Tshisekedi has taken the prize that long eluded his father – the presidency of sub-Saharan Africa’s largest country.


On the 2018 campaign trail, Tshisekedi was not fooling himself, nor his supporters, of the debt he owes his late father, the veteran Congolese opposition politician, Étienne Tshisekedi. "I have absolutely no intention or ambition to measure myself against what he has been, but my dream is to continue his work," he said.

But on January 10, 2019, Tshisekedi appeared to be surpassing his father’s political track record when the 55-year-old relative newcomer on the Congolese political stage was named by election officials as the provisional winner of the country’s long-delayed, chaotic and controversial December 30, 2018 presidential poll.

It was not however an uncontested win.

Runner-up Martin Fayulu, the pre-election favourite, promptly denounced the results as an “electoral coup” that does “not reflect the truth of the ballots”.

The country’s powerful Catholic Church -- a voice of credibility in the troubled sub-Saharan African nation that had dispatched 40,000 observers across the country -- also affirmed that its tallies showed Fayulu was the winner.

Fayulu and his supporters accused outgoing President Joseph Kabila of making a backroom deal with Tshisekedi when the ruling party's candidate did poorly. Fayulu was widely believed to be seen as a bigger threat to Kabila than the more conciliatory Tshisekedi.

But Fayulu lost a court challenge to the election results and with foreign support for his position waning over fears of bloody civil unrest, Tshishekedi is set to be sworn into power Thursday. He now takes over the reins of a vast, mineral-rich but troubled country that has suffered two regional wars since the 1990s and deadly clashes following the last two presidential elections.

A pre-election coalition

Tshisekedi is the head of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS), a party founded by his father Etienne, who spent decades as the country's main opposition leader but died in February 2017 aged 84.

Profile: Felix Tshisekedi

Known to his friends as "Fatshi" - short for three of his names, Felix Antoine Tshilombo –the new president had joined six other opposition leaders on the campaign trail rallying behind Fayulu to take on Kabila's handpicked successor, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary.

But the deal drew a furious response from his supporters, prompting him and fellow opposition leader Vital Kamerhe to abandon the deal and run on a joint ticket, weakening and splitting the opposition.

The pair had previously agreed that if they won, Kamerhe would become Tshisekedi's prime minister.

Pentecostal rivals

Since his father founded the UDPS in 1982, the party has served as an opposition mainstay in the former Belgian colony – first under dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, then under Kabila's father Laurent-Desire Kabila, who ruled from 1997 until his death in 2001.

A father of five, Tshisekedi goes to the same Pentecostal church as Fayulu in Kinshasa, the capital.

The legacy of DR Congo's Joseph Kabila

Although he does not enjoy the same degree of popularity as his father, he has risen steadily through the party ranks.

"Etienne was stubborn and proud," said one keen observer of the country's opposition. "Felix is more diplomatic, more conciliatory, more ready to listen to others."


In 2008, Tshisekedi became national secretary for external relations and was elected to the national assembly in 2011 as representative for Mbuji-Mayi, the country's third city.

However, he never took up his seat as he did not formally recognise his father's defeat to Kabila in a presidential election the same year.

A month after his father's death, Tshisekedi was elected as party head.

Although he holds a Belgian diploma in marketing and communication, his opponents point out that he has never held high office or had managerial experience. And some detractors have even suggested his diploma is not valid.

Kabila's legacy

Tshisekedi has promised a return to the rule of law, to fight the "gangrene" of corruption and to bring peace to the volatile east of the country, where several militias remain active more than 15 years after the end of DR Congo’s bloody civil war.

One of his first tasks in office will be to choose a prime minister, set to come from pro-Kabila lawmakers who dominate the National Assembly.

Elections to the legislature were held on December 30, 2018, in parallel with presidential and provincial polls.

The Joint Front for Congo (FCC), which supports Kabila, controls 337 seats in the 500-member assembly against 102 for Fayulu's coalition, Lamuka, and 46 for the Heading for Change (Cach) coalition backing Tshisekedi, according to a provisional UN tally.

That would make governing the country an even more challenging task, one that most of his predecessors failed to fulfill.


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