Kinshasa, DR Congo
On the evening of Feb. 1, Etienne Tshisekedi died in hospital in Brussels, leaving behind a gaping hole in the façade of the Congolese opposition.
Tshisekedi’s passing has opened vacancies for the presidencies of both the Democratic Republic of Congo’s largest and oldest opposition party and the Rassemblement, a political coalition united around the ambition of removing from power Joseph Kabila, who has led the country since 2001.
It was in the latter decades of Tshisekedi’s 84-year long life that he earned a reputation as a stubborn and implacable foe to three consecutive presidents: Mobutu Sese Seko, the flamboyant dictator who ruled from 1965 to 1997; Laurent Kabila, the rebel leader who chased out his predecessor and was shot by a bodyguard four years later; and his son, the current head of state. It wasn’t always so. In the 1960s Tshisekedi was a minister in Mobutu’s government and helped the then-president turn Zaire, as the country then was, into a one-party state.
In 1980 Tshisekedi broke with Mobutu, denouncing his ‘kleptocratic and dictatorial regime’ in an open letter, and two years later co-founded the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS), the party he would dominate until his last day.
‘Every day of my life I dream of becoming president’, Tshisekedi once said. He decided to contest the 2011 polls following a lengthy European absence for undisclosed medical reasons. He then declared Kabila’s subsequent victory fraudulent—observers agree that the electoral process was littered with irregularities—before proclaiming himself the rightful president and ordering all successful UDPS parliamentary candidates to not take up their seats.
Amid rumours of health problems, Tshisekedi was flown to Brussels in August 2014 and stayed there for almost two years. He returned to the DRC in mid-2016 shortly after the formation of the Rassemblement and his final six months reminded everyone that even a weakened Tshisekedi had a star power unmatched by any other politician (with the possible exception of the currently exiled Moise Katumbi). Huge seething crowds welcomed him home to Kinshasa last July and his rare ceremonial appearances have been eagerly anticipated.
For those who stand in opposition to President Kabila—the politicians of the Rassemblement and indeed most Congolese—Tshisekedi’s death is certainly sorrowful but also extremely inopportune. The constitution limits Kabila to two terms and the president should have handed over power to his successor last Dec. 19.
Elections scheduled for Nov. 2016 have been postponed and the incumbent has opted to remain in office until polls can be held. The government has attributed the delay to a variety of logistical and financial obstacles but the regime’s adversaries detect a deliberate effort to undermine the electoral commission. Many believe the president is playing for time while he unearths a means of altering the constitution and doing away with term limits.
This widespread distrust meant that observers were simultaneously thrilled and suspicious on New Year’s Eve when Kabila’s ruling alliance signed an agreement with the Rassemblement and another opposition coalition which paves the way for elections in 2017. The signatories also undertook not to tinker with the constitution and the deal recognized Tshisekedi’s pre-eminence by appointing him to lead the committee tasked with overseeing the application of the deal.
The ailing Tshisekedi’s leadership has been largely symbolic. He may not have played an active role, either in securing the agreement or trying to ensure its implementation, but his support for the process has been important. Many Congolese seem to be fed up with Kabila and think he should have stepped down on Dec. 19. The protracted horse-trading risks appearing a self-interested stitch-up cooked up by the powerful. Tshisekedi’s status as a principled and unwavering oppositionist provided the talks with credibility and helped check popular cynicism. It will likely grow without him.