DR Congo: Who is Étienne Tshisekedi, the Man Tasked With Toppling Kabila?

Étienne Tshisekedi
Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) politician Étienne Tshisekedi attends an opposition party congress in Brussels, June 8. Tshisekedi looks like the main opposition candidate in elections scheduled for November in DRC. THIERRY ROGE/AFP/Getty Images

An ex-prime minister and former ally of notorious dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, veteran politician Étienne Tshisekedi, is preparing once more to pick up the opposition baton in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

The 83-year-old leader of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS), Tshisekedi appears again to have been nominated as the de facto opposition leader ahead of elections scheduled for November, but which could be jeopardized by delays and by the incumbent Joseph Kabila's attempts to cling to power.

Tshisekedi has emerged as Kabila's main opponent following a meeting of Congolese opposition parties in the Belgian capital Brussels earlier in June. The meeting included the G7 coalition, which recently pronounced businessman Moise Katumbi, the former governor of DRC's mineral-rich Katanga province, as its candidate for the presidency. Following Katumbi's announcement in May that he was running for the presidency, it seemed that he would pose the biggest threat to Kabila. But Vidiye Tshimanga, vice president of one of the opposition groups involved in the Brussels nominations, said that the veteran Tshisekedi would lead the new coalition named Rassemblement, or "Rally," Voice of America reported.

Hailing from what is now Kananga in central DRC, Tshisekedi served as a minister in the government of Mobutu, who is believed to have looted billions of dollars from DRC's state coffers and brutally crushed opposition. Tshisekedi later went into opposition after Mobutu canceled elections, founding the UDPS in 1982. When Mobutu was forced to open up his government in the early 1990s, Tshisekedi twice served as the dictator's prime minister. But these terms were both cut short due to disputes with Mobutu.

Tshisekedi continued his opposition after Laurent-Désiré Kabila—the father of current president Kabila—ousted Mobutu in a coup in 1997. His name was on a list drawn up by a constitutional committee in 1998 of 250 people who would not be allowed to run for president. Following the assassination of Laurent Kabila in 2001, his son Joseph ruled for five years without opposition and during a deadly conflict in DRC until an election was eventually held in 2006, under the auspices of the United Nations. Tshisekedi and his party boycotted the election, claiming it was rigged in advance, and Kabila was duly elected.

DRC demonstration in Belgium
Congolese people in Belgium demonstrate with DRC flags and posters of opposition leader Étienne Tshisekedi following the re-election of Joseph Kabila in the country's 2011 elections, Antwerp, December 23, 2011. Tshisekedi rejected the election result and declared himself the president, which led to him being placed under house arrest. GEORGES GOBET/AFP/Getty Images

Come 2011, Tshisekedi was back with a bang. Ahead of the vote on November 28 that year, Tshisekedi pre-emptively declared himself the president of DRC, saying that the majority of the population had turned against Kabila. After the country's electoral commission announced that Kabila had won the election—in a decision questioned by international observers—Tshisekedi rejected the result and declared he would inaugurate himself as president anyway. His planned ceremony at a stadium in the capital Kinshasa was shut down by security forces and the opposition leader was placed under house arrest.

Tshisekedi recently appeared in a New Year's video message, looking frail and stumbling over his words. The politician had been taken to Brussels in August 2014 for medical treatment, but he remained defiant in his message, saying: "I will soon be among you so we can unite our efforts to win." While Kabila has still not declared whether he will seek to amend the constitution so that he can seek a third term, and no date has been set for the 2016 election, Tshisekedi appears to be up for another political fight if it does go ahead.