Death of Congo's 'Father of Democracy' Leaves Dangerous Vacuum

Tshisekedi supporters
Supporters of veteran Congolese opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) stand outside his residence as they mourn his death in the Limete Municipality of Congo's capital Kinshasa, February 2. Tshisekedi's death leaves the country's political opposition leaderless and could endanger elections due in 2017. Robert Carrubba/Reuters

For Congo’s political opposition, the timing of Etienne Tshisekedi’s death couldn’t be worse.

The vast Central African country is finely poised between progress and chaos. After the failure of President Joseph Kabila’s government to organize elections scheduled for late 2016, an opposition coalition managed to hammer out a transition deal—agreed in principle on New Year’s Eve—that would see a national vote held before the end of 2017.

But with the death of Tshisekedi—a towering former prime minister who has tormented the past three regimes in Congo—that schedule may now be a pipedream.

The opposition Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS)—which Tshisekedi founded in 1982—announced Wednesday that its leader, who was 84 years old, had died in Brussels, where he had traveled for medical treatment. No cause of death was given in the statement published by UDPS spokesman Augustin Kabuya.

His death comes at a time of great uncertainty in Congo. People held mass protests in late 2016 as it became clear that promised elections would not happen; Congo’s election commission stated in October that the earliest a vote could be held would be in April 2018. Opposition activists accused Kabila, 45, of adopting a strategy of glissement—French for slippage—i.e. perpetually delaying elections while he prepared a bid to amend the constitution so that he could run for a third term. (Kabila’s camp have denied this allegation.)

Around 50 people were killed in a protest in the capital Kinshasa in September 2016, as anti-government protesters clashed with security forces. The U.N. envoy to Congo sounded a warning that the country was at “extreme risk” of descending into large-scale violence, perhaps even civil war. The New Year’s Eve deal mandated that Kabila could not change the constitution and that a transitional government, with an opposition prime minister, be formed. Tshisekedi was selected by both sides as the man responsible for overseeing the implementation of the deal.

“We need to go back to the negotiation table,” Kabila’s chief diplomat, Barnabe Kikaya bin Karubi, tells Newsweek. “The December 31 agreement identified Etienne Tshisekedi, because of his political weight, as the only opposition leader who will be able to lead the follow-up committee during the pre-electoral period. It’s him and nobody else.”

Kikaya says that it will be up to the opposition to put forward a new candidate to oversee the deal’s implementation, who will then have to be approved by Kabila. “I don’t know how long that process will take…The longer we delay that process, that’s how the elections themselves will be pushed back,” he says.

Born in 1932 in what is now Kananga, in central Congo, Tshisekedi studied law under Belgian colonial rule and entered politics shortly after the country’s independence in 1960. He held various ministerial positions in Mobutu Sese Seko’s government, though his relationship with the authoritarian leader was marked by significant distrust.

Tshisekedi established the UDPS—the first opposition party in Congo—in an affront to Mobutu’s system of one-party rule. His steadfastness in challenging Mobutu—who took on such titles as “Father of the Nation” and “Messiah”—was one of the first examples of democracy in Congo. “Tshisekedi taught the whole nation that Mobutu was a dictator, a human being, that he could be opposed and he had to be opposed,” says Kikaya, who reveals he supported the UDPS at the start of his political career.

In the early 1990s, when Mobutu came under international pressure to relinquish his one-party rule, Tshisekedi served on three occasions as prime minister, but never for more than a matter of months. After Mobutu was overthrown by the current president’s father, Laurent-Desire Kabila, in 1997, Tshisekedi’s name was added to a list of 250 people who would not be allowed to run for the presidency.

Tshisekedi boycotted the 2006 elections at which the younger Kabila—already in power since the assassination of his father in 2001—was victorious. At the next vote in 2011, Tshisekedi was beaten by Kabila in a controversial poll but maintained that the majority of voters had backed him; the UDPS website still describes Tshisekedi as the “president elect of the Democratic Republic of Congo in the elections of November 2011.”

The UDPS leader returned to Congo in July 2016 following a two-year absence in Belgium for medical treatment. His return was greeted by hundreds of thousands of supporters, who lined the streets of Kinshasa and hailed his return as a sign of hope against Kabila.

Tshisekedi’s popularity is unmatched among politicians in Congo and will make taking on Kabila’s government much more difficult, says Freddy Matungulu, leader of the opposition Congo na Biso party and a member of the main opposition Rassemblement coalition, of which UDPS is a part.

“With him out of the picture, the opposition’s capacity to mobilize the streets is dramatically reduced,” says Matungulu, who says that his father-in-law was a partner of Tshisekedi’s in setting up the UDPS.

Felix Tshisekedi Felix Tshisekedi (C) in the UDPS headquarters after a press briefing, one day after his father died, on February 2, in Limete, Kinshasa, Congo. The UDPS proposed Felix Tshisekedi as prime minister in a transitional government in Congo, but his popularity is nothing like that of his late father. JUNIOR KANNAH/AFP/Getty

Perhaps the only other opposition politician who could rival Tshisekedi’s status is Moise Katumbi. The former governor of the mineral-rich Katanga province and owner of Congo’s most successful football club, Katumbi declared himself a presidential candidate in 2016 but fled the country after a Congolese court issued fraud charges against him, which he has described as “completely fabricated.”

A poll by the respected Congo Research Group in October 2016 found that 33 percent of respondents said they would vote for Katumbi if a poll was held before the end of 2016, ahead of Tshisekedi on 18 percent and Kabila on 7.8 percent. But according to Phil Clark, an expert on Congo at SOAS University of London, Katumbi’s popularity with the people does not translate to the political class. “Katumbi is the most obvious unity figure to potentially replace Tshisekedi, but he’s also compromised in some key aspects. One source of compromise is that he’s quite popular with the electorate but less popular with other opposition leaders and parties,” says Clark.

Within the UDPS, Tshisekedi’s son, Felix Tshisekedi, has risen to prominence. The Rassemblement coalition put Felix Tshisekedi forward as their suggestion for prime minister in the transitional government in January, but his ascent within the UDPS has sparked allegations of nepotism. “Felix doesn’t have half of the charisma or popularity of his father. Even within the party, it’s not clear that he’s very well supported,” says Clark.

Regardless of who steps forward to replace him, Tshisekedi’s death has left a gaping hole in Congolese politics and society. Hundreds of mourners gathered for an impromptu vigil outside his house Thursday. Kikaya says that even President Kabila is “sad for the family” and has ordered a state funeral to be held for his late rival.

“We all see him as the father of the democracy movement in the country,” says Freddy Matungulu, the opposition politician. “He was the cement in the talks [with the government], so it’s going to be extremely difficult to replace [him].”