DRC’s Tshisekedi accorded a state funeral

Étienne Tshisekedi

Étienne Tshisekedi

KINSHASA. – Supporters of Etienne Tshisekedi, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s veteran opposition leader, have gathered in the capital, Kinshasa, to express their shock at his death.

A prominent opponent of successive leaders, he was due to head a transitional council under a deal for President Joseph Kabila to step down.

The 84-year-old died in the Belgian capital, Brussels where he went last week for medical checks.

The information minister said he would be given a state funeral.

Tshisekedi returned to Kinshasa last July to a hero’s welcome after two years in Brussels for medical treatment.

His death comes at a sensitive time for DRC and follows fierce clashes last year when it was announced that President Kabila would stay in power until April 2018.

BBC Afrique’s Anne-Marie Dias Borges says Tshisekedi was a hugely popular figure in Kinshasa and nicknamed the “Sphinx of Limete”, because the mythological creature reflected his long career and many political guises. Limete is his home neighbourhood in the capital.

The veteran politician was set to lead a transitional council, part of an agreement put together in December intended to pave the way for President Kabila to leave power in 2017 and refrain from running for a third term as president.

The end of Kabila’s mandate on December 19 prompted protests in cities across the DRC. More than 40 people are thought to have died and hundreds were arrested during two days of violence.

Tshisekedi’s son, Felix, is now tipped to be named prime minister in a forthcoming power-sharing government, if the agreement holds.

“The information is confirmed. The (party) president is dead,” the spokesman for Tshisekedi’s Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) party, Augustin Kabuya, told Reuters.

Though in recent years his leadership was largely symbolic, it has been important in maintaining a degree of unity among divided opposition factions.

“Tshisekedi was a giant in Congolese politics,” said Jason Stearns, director of the Congo Research Group at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University. “His death is tragic and will have a profound impact on the political scene. There is no heir apparent, either within (his UPDS party) or the broader opposition.

“Even before his death, opposition leaders were vying for the prime ministry and cabinet jobs; there is little doubt that President Kabila will seek to capitalise on this moment to sow discord among his rivals.

“At the same time, the political elite and the broad population are still relatively united on their objectives: Kabila must step down and elections must be held as soon as possible. The question is whether they can overcome their internal division to make those goals a reality,” Stearns added.

Opposition politicians yesterday pledged to maintain the unity of the main opposition coalition.

However Hans Hoebeke, DRC analyst with the International Crisis Group, said: “We are entering murky waters. No one has the popular legitimacy to take over,” adding there was a real risk of an outbreak of violence.

Tshisekedi stood up to Mobutu Sese Seko, the dictator who ruled the country then known as Zaire for more than three decades before being overthrown by Rwanda, Uganda and other forces.

He was also the main civilian opponent of Laurent Kabila, who took power in 1997, and his son, President Joseph Kabila.

Tshisekedi served as a minister under Mobutu before founding the UDPS, the first organised opposition platform in Zaire, in 1982.

He was named prime minister four times in the 1990s as Mobutu contended with pro-democratic currents in the country, but never lasted more than a few months as he repeatedly clashed with the charismatic autocrat.

He finished runner-up to Kabila in the 2011 presidential election. International observers said the vote was marred by fraud and Tshisekedi’s supporters have referred to him ever since as the “elected president”.

“A baobab (tree) has fallen,” Albert Moleka, his chief of staff during the 2011 election, told Reuters. “The baobab protects you from the rain and the sun . . . People like that can’t be replaced.” – BBC/The Guardian/HR.

Article Source: The Herald